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Ace That Interview: How to Turn Your Worst Personal Trait into Your Strongest Asset

Anxious and angry? You’re hired. Though often perceived as weaknesses, a little bit of each can do your work good.
by Caitlin Schiller | Mar 17 2016

You’ve already discussed your relevant experience, described a time when you negotiated a happy medium with a difficult coworker, and perhaps completed a practical test or two. And then your interviewer drops it.

“What’s your worst personal trait?”

Whatever way you slice it, it’s rough to be both true and likeable when someone who holds your employment in the palm of her hand asks to see your darker self. Do you talk about your tendency to arrive late but mitigate it by citing your willingness to work deep into the night? Do you mention your tendency to eat garlicky lunches at your desk and hope for a laugh? Or do you trot out the old “I’m a perfectionist,” hobby horse”’t do that last one. Not unless you mean it, anyway.

Scads of us have been coached since our school days to answer “perfectionism,” when we’re prompted for a negative trait – so much so that it’s a) begun to bore interviewers, and b) become little more than jargony code for high standards and a solid work ethic. It isn’t a bad answer, it’s simply overused. And it’s overused because it’s safe.

But how do you answer the worst trait question if the safe interview-approved reply doesn’t ring true? Getting real about your flashes of anger or, say, anxious tendencies feels dicey. Can being anxious our quick to anger possibly make you a desirable hire”, yes.

We looked at Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety and Todd Kashdan’s The Upside of Your Dark Side to reveal that anxiety and anger can actually be forces for good – and give you a new way to answer that pesky interview question.

Alternative to perfectionism #1: “I can be a little anxious.”

The capability to be anxious is coded into everyone’s genes – the Glo1 and RSG2 genes, to be exact – but we don’t all experience it the same way. Anxiety starts in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex where worry about future events is triggered and splashes creatively outward from there. For some, an anxious response could include heart palpitations, rapid breathing, sweats, dizziness, and all sorts of gastrointestinal unpleasantries. Luckier individuals note only the cognitive effects of anxiety: worry, and being haunted by a pervasive sense of being vulnerable to harm.

And then there are the massively unlucky people like writer Scott Stossel.

In My Age of Anxiety, Stossel recounts his late-1990s stay with the Kennedy family on Cape Cod, where he was researching a book. Stossel had been anxious that his (very anxious) stomach would act up, and lo and behold – it did, propelling him to the front hall bathroom. What ensues is a horror of plumbing fails and guerrilla mopping using the only cloth available for the job: his pants. At the end of the episode, Stossel dashes up the stairs wearing nothing but a soiled towel around his waist and collides with JFK Jr., which, naturally, was completely mortifying to the anxious Stossel. He’d perpetuated his worst anxious nightmare by – you got it – being anxious.

Although it is clearly not easy to live with, in its less severe forms, anxiety is not necessarily a deficit or a disadvantage. Some would argue that anxiety is actually the motor of civilization, creativity, and inventive genius. Many people noted for their success and influence, Gandhi, Charles Darwin and Barbra Streisand to name just a few, have struggled with anxiety. 40 million more Americans join them.

And here’s the thing: science has shown us that those 40 million are winners.

Anxiety as adaptation 

Anxiety is actually an evolutionary adaptation. According to the “survival of the fittest” theory, we are programmed to be anxiousabout dangerous things, and rightly so. Someone who is clever enough to fear a big, poisonous snake or a high cliff is more likely to survive than someone who is not. On a jungle safari, stick with the anxious guy. 

Of course, today we needn’t fear the teeth of saber tooth tigers, and usually when we’re near giant cliffs, it’s because we’ve chosen to be there – with all the necessary gear, too. Of course, for sufferers like Scott Stossel, anxiety can be debilitating, but regulated anxiety can be a true boon.

Make “I can be a little anxious” your professional advantage

1. Re-explain anxiety as a helpful turbo-boost

Your body’s response to something that frightens you  – the sudden prickle of sweat, a rapid heartbeat, feeling rooted to the floor tighter than a barnacle on a sunken Spanish galleon – is physiologically identical to what happens when you see a person you’re attracted to. Oops.

Elegant as our human wiring may be, it clearly has its shortcomings, but you can use this bug to your advantage. When you’re lying in bed the night before a big interview, questioning whether you’ve studied up enough on the company and whether or not you even have what it takes to land the job, stop seeing the jitters, the racing mind, and the hyper-alertness as a bad thing. Instead, you can tap into science and try to talk sense with your nervous brain. The anxiety symptoms you’re experiencing were actually evolved to help you perform: anxious people even hear better and can see longer distances in better focus. You can begin the process of calming your nerves and putting your sharpened senses and hyper alertness to work for, not against you, by reminding yourself that the symptoms of anxiety are also symptoms of your body readying itself for a mission-critical foray. Turbo boost on!

2. Call it intuition

Because they’re more attuned to subtle cues – changes in companions’ moods, adjustments to a room, even facial expressions and speech patterns – anxious people are above-average intuitives. For example, when an anxious person meets a new client who might be hesitating about closing a deal, they’re the first to feel it and be sensitive to the client’s concerns. An anxious person knows more quickly when something is wrong and can help her team adjust tactics and soothe worries more expediently than someone less attuned to the world around them.

Over all, being “the anxious type” can be a positive quality because it can help you focus in on a critical task and make you extra deft at reading the world around you. Take that, perfectionism.

Alternative to “perfectionism” #2: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” And that’s a good thing.

On your drive to work some jerk swoops into your lane, forcing you to slam on the breaks. You might hurl a selection of withering epithets at the other person’s car (possibly accompanied by flailing hands and righteous huffing) and seethe the rest of the way to the office. There’s the external drama, but what’s happening on the inside when you get angry? Quite a lot. Your rational, prefrontal lobes close for business; heart rate, arterial tension, and testosterone production increases; cortisol takes a dive, and the left hemisphere of your brain becomes more active.

Both the internal and external responses can sound pretty extreme to a culture that pathologizes anger in favor of cheerful equanimity. But anger, just like anxiety, has an evolutionary purpose to serve. For millions of years it’s been helping dull our fear response and get us moving toward whatever’s irked us in order to crush it. Happily, anger can help you crush things in a more positive sense, too.

Anger as a tool

In The Upside of Your Dark Side, author Todd Kashdan notes that angry people are often thought to be more powerful than their sunnier counterparts. In one experiment Kashdan cites, participants were tasked with selling mobile phones for the highest price they could. And the highest price depended on how angry the buyer looked. The sellers let their wares go for less when the buyer looked peeved.

Another positive thing that anger can boost – at least if you’re a person who likes to feel in control – is creativity. Kashdan’s book cites a Dutch study in which participants were instructed to come up with as many possible uses for a brick as they could. However, before beginning their task, some of the participants were given very angry feedback on another assignment. The results of the experiment showed that this angry feedback enhanced the creativity of those participants who preferred to feel in control. Concretely, they found more uses for the brick than those who had previously been given neutral feedback. What’s more, their ideas were much more original – ideas such as carrying the brick around in a backpack as a way to exercise.

Make “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” into an asset

1. Bring your anger to the negotiation table

Next time you have to negotiate job responsibilities or a raise, rather than remain impassive at the bargaining table, assuming a darker demeanor can signal to your negotiation partner that you won’t settle. When your counterpart makes an offer that isn’t quite up to snuff, skip swallowing down your flash of irritation. Letting someone know you are not amused can be as simple as an eyebrow raise and skipping the ingratiating smile.

2. Let it fuel you

You can also make anger work for you at work by rethinking how you take negative feedback. Say you work at a strategy agency and your team is critiquing your work. They come up with a good point or two, but most of what they have to say is aggressive and points out nothing but problems. Instead of scurrying back to your desk in shame (the most useless of negative traits, according to Kashdan) take the anger and use it as fuel. By taking a step back and viewing the physiological response angry feedback ignites in you – alertness, rapid breath, racing thoughts – as a force for good, you can use that anger to inspire your new solutions.

Anger, when regulated, can make you more creatively formidable and a more impressive force at the negotiation table. Very useful, indeed.

Anxiety and anger have an important place in human evolution, and in their proper doses, they make us better. If you understand what they’re actually good for and why they can be helpful, you’re not only better able to use them to your advantage, but also better able to communicate to the people around you how they can make you stronger.

Hopefully you’ve got a bit of fresh perspective on why an occasional flash of rage or being the anxious type isn’t the end of the world and can be a secret strength. And we hope it also gives you newer, truer, more authentic ways to answer everyone’s least favorite interview question. At its heart, that question isn’t about getting you to reveal something terrible about yourself at all, but rather a tool for cluing your interviewer in on how well you know yourself and how capable you are of turning a disadvantage into an opportunity to shine – whether or not you’re a perfectionist.

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