It might be the huge hole in your skill set, some pathetic test result, that bluff about being able to read Chinese that is about to be called or those Facebook bar(f) photos of you and the goldfish you swallowed on a booze-fueled, half-comprehended dare.
The cautionary proverb on the Chinese fortune cookie message that you did not swallow flashes across your mind’s eye: “He who excuses himself accuses himself.”
So, apologetically blurting out the truth before it is discovered is not in the cards—too risky, in bringing attention to something that either might otherwise escape notice or, if not noticed, not matter…until or unless you mention it.
If such a preemptive confessional tactic is inadvisable, what are your options and which recourse is likely to be best?
Flaw-Management Packages and Sales Pitches
Here are some of your options for managing, packaging and selling your flaws:
- Repackager: Viewed as generically and abstractly as possible, most flaw-management strategies amount to repackaging—rebranding, if you will—the flaw as something other than what it is. Even simple preemptive admission of it , e.g., as is, unadorned with any potentially endearing or ingratiating apology, is a form of repackaging to the extent that it injects positive offsets, such as evidence of courage and honesty.
The purest form of “as-is” (as opposed to re-) packaging is perhaps the inclusion of the flaw in the resume, without comment, extenuation, etc., as a (hopefully unnoticed) simple fact.
Best odds of success: with interviewers who are easily distracted and have short attention spans.
- Freudian: This approach involves familiarizing yourself with the dozen or so psychological defense mechanisms identified by psychoanalysts and to use the best one(s) to defend yourself.
As I recall them, from my college reading of Charles Brenner’s An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis, they include repression, denial, rationalization, isolation of thoughts and feelings, displacement, reaction formation (displaying an emotion that is the opposite of what you “really” feel), projection, substitution, identification and sublimation, to name most of the familiar ones.
(Details don’t matter here, except as cited in examples below. Otherwise, get yourself a copy of the updated version of Brenner’s classic.)
One example is a good start—”sublimation”: channeling a personal flaw in the form of forbidden desires or impulses into a socially acceptable, perhaps prized format and outlet, e.g., channel a tendency to criminal physical violence into pro-boxing multi-million-dollar paydays and glory.
If that goldfish photo lands you a well-paid spot in a beer commercial, you will have sublimated what is otherwise probably an interview killer into a sweet job deal with the brewery.
Best odds of success: with an interviewer who has a copy of anything by Freud on his bookshelf, preferably unread.
- Minimizer: The minimizer strategy is the approach that repackages the flaw as insignificant—either in terms of its original consequences or those that will ensue as a consequence of admitting it during the interview. “The goldfish was already dead” illustrates this.
Best odds of success: with an interviewer who has his own flaws to rationalize.
Apologist: This is the “mea culpa”, self-indicting undiluted apology, best implemented with some form of self-punishment as part of a broad “do unto yourself before done unto by others” flaw-management strategy. Example: “The next day, I felt so bad that I donated $100 to PETA, to help finance fish-farm investigations.”
Best odds of success: with an HR pro who thinks he’s an expert in employee guilt management.
- Reductionist: In specific applications, a version of the minimizer strategy, this involves reducing the flaw to something else, preferably something more trivial, innocuous, etc. Example: “It was only a fish.” Or, “A goldfish is nothing more than a slithering micro-machine.”
Best odds of success: With an interviewer who has a copy of anything by Freud on his bookshelf, preferably read and believed.
- Rationalizer: As a defense mechanism, rationalization can take various forms, including other tactics among those discussed throughout this analysis, e.g., the reductionist dismissal of the Facebook goldfish as insignificant. What is common to all forms of rationalization, however, is the attempt to justify the seemingly unjustifiable.
In simplest terms, this amounts to making excuses for your flaws. Variations on rationalization include redescription of the flaw as inconsequential, citing overriding good reasons for it and citing compensatory considerations that justify it.
Best odds of success: with an interviewer impressed by creative thinking.
- Transcendentalist: The transcendentalist doesn’t attempt to justify or deny the flaw; instead, it is presented as a marker of some transcendent excellence, e.g., obviously nutty behavior as a sign of genius. “That episode with the goldfish—well, it was, I think, mostly a manifestation of my inclination to think outside the box, the tank and the bottle.” This may otherwise be expressed as “A cracked egg sees the light.”
Best odds of success: with an interviewer who, because he believes he is a genius, understands it.
- Confrontationalist: The confrontationalist is the “in your face” confrontational type, who will wear flaws like dueling saber scars, i.e., a badge of honor, or at least distinctive accomplishment.
Alternatively, the confrontationalist may be so brazen as to be utterly indifferent to how you perceive his or her flaws, and present them on a “take-it-or-leave-it”, “love me-love my flaws” basis. “Make what you will of the goldfish episode; just don’t forget to read my resume.”
Best odds of success: with an interviewer who is either a masochist, who is easily intimidated or who wants to shake things up.
- Casualist: It may be tempting to handle a flaw nonchalantly—without any defensiveness, attempted justification, apology, regret, defiance, deflection or any other discernible “posture”.
Imagine having spent the whole interview with unzippered pants and without having realized it until a buddy you meet for a beer afterwards mentions it to you.”Aay..stuff happens.” Ditto for that swallowed goldfish and the next one.
Best odds of success: with an interviewer who believes that, as a casualist, you won`t complain about much of anything once hired.
- Absurdist: As recruiter.com’s Matthew Kosinski recently noted, in L’Etranger (The Stranger), Albert Camus has his character who is on trial for an apparently random murder declare that he shot his victim for no compelling reason—in fact, because the sun was in his eyes while he was walking along the beach. (That’s absurd as a response to, much less a rationale for, what, for victim and victimizer alike, amounts to a fatal flaw.)
Then there’s the 2nd-century B.C. church apologist Tertullian who famously said, “Credo quia absurdum“—”I believe because it is absurd”, as an apparent response to challenges to his religious faith.
An absurdist packaging of the goldfish episode, presented in the spirit of Camus and Tertullian, might go something like this: “It was a Zen exercise in non-exercise of judgment.”
Best odds of success: with an interviewer wearing sandals, but no socks.
- Stallonist: This is the flaw-management tactic encapsulated in Sylvester Stallone’s iconic“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” mantra.
What is so different about it is its wonderful ambiguity, as between moral and causal imperatives, the idea being that from the causal perspective a man is forced to do what is right from the moral perspective—that duty dictates inclination, indeed forces compliance with it.
However, it is possible that all that Stallone meant was what Yogi Berra, another legendary Italian-American, would have meant: “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”—where “gotta” is used in the same sense twice, as “X” is in “X is X”, thereby reducing the mantra to a logical truism.
Still, on any interpretation the Stallonist proposition can work in justifying a job-related (or any) flaw: “A man’s gotta swallow goldfish that a man’s gotta swallow.”
The really creative and cunning thing about this Stallonist tactic is that it allows playing both sides of the metaphysical street: On the one hand, it’s an explanation of not just what happened, but also of what necessarily happened—causal compulsion of the “can’t be helped” kind; on the other hand, the flaw is due to moral compulsion of the “shouldn’t be helped” sort.
Odds of success: There’s a high probability of a win-win scenario…
…unless, of course, the interviewer won’t swallow that excuse or goldfish.