I once received an interesting piece of advice from a mentor as I prepared for a job interview. He suggested I say I’m a fast learner if asked about my strengths. It’s a standard answer, but the only problem is that it wasn’t a true answer for me.
“Just tell them you are and then figure it out,” was his response.
Listen, I get the logic of fake it till you make it. Sometimes I feel like that sentiment is the story of my life. However, after some more thought, I determined that “fast learner” was more along the lines of a bald-faced lie, rather than simply putting a good face on it.
So, when I was in the interview, and the hiring manager asked me about my weaknesses, I replied, “I’m a slow learner.” He was immediately taken aback and gave me a quizzical look. I had the impression that he had expected a humble brag, such as “I’m a perfectionist” or “I work too much.” Well, I didn’t come to play, so I doubled down. “I’m a really slow learner,” I reiterated to him, “but I’ll work twice as hard as everyone else on the team to become the best.”
I got the job. Two years later, he ranked me as the top performer on the team during my annual review.
Looking back, I believe this boils down to something we rarely see in the workplace and something that I also struggle to maintain: authenticity. To better understand this concept, we can break it down into two primary components and then delve into its application.
Own your weakness(es)
Ideally, this would mean seeing and improving on weaknesses, but that isn’t always the case in real life. Back to the original point, I am a voracious learner. I love to engage and broaden my horizons. However, none of that changes the fact that I am, and apparently always will be, a slow learner. I know my weakness. I own it. I troubleshoot it. If I can’t fix the problem that I am a slow learner, then I accept the challenge of working twice as hard.
One issue I struggled to come to terms with is engaging in heated email exchanges. In the past, if I received a sharply worded email, I’d quickly fire off a response, typically causing the situation to escalate. The intensity of the interaction would also cause me to stew for hours, making me less productive. However, I’ve now worked out a system to help me deal with stressful issues much more effectively. My company’s administrator is a people person who has a penchant for quickly diffusing most any situation. When a hot topic comes up, I draft a response and shoot it her way to smooth out the edges before I send it. By recognizing my shortcomings, we have developed a solution that worked in the short-term for our business. What’s even better is that I receive ongoing lessons on the art of diplomacy, and my emails now are starting to require fewer edits.
Acknowledge your strengths
This one is trickier than it seems. Acknowledging strengths does not equate to self-depreciation, humblebrags, or claiming abilities that we don’t have. This honest inventory helps us recognize what we can genuinely contribute. If you say you are an awful writer and that’s not true, you are potentially robbing your business of a skill set. It’s not humble to say you are bad when you are good. It’s just wrong and not beneficial.
On the other hand, if your assessment is a bit grandiose, you could sign yourself up for projects you can’t complete. At the very least, that would entail some humble pie, if not more significant consequences. Also, as humblebrags are off-putting, it’s just best to avoid those entirely.
Apply it uniquely
Going back to the original example, this hiring manager most likely sat through countless interviews asking the same question and getting similar answers. By coming up with a unique way to express myself, I actively demonstrated a skill set: an ability to assess, analyze and troubleshoot a situation. Yes, there are moments in a job when we need to parrot the correct answers. However, employees also need to be problem solvers. This unique answer was an authentic representation of myself, and acted as a testament of the work I would provide in the future, if given the opportunity.
Because whether it’s the diner around the corner that claims to have the world’s best coffee, or a business named “All-Star Contractors” with no credentials, we see this lack of authenticity everywhere. Lofty promises followed by disappointing results are too often business as usual. Which is why it is so refreshing to talk to someone who knows what they’re about and who they are, for better and for worse. It’s up to us to be the exception, to be exceptional by embracing who we genuinely are.
Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.