Dear Adam Smith: First Job Interview
Can Adam Smith's advice about language and sympathy help set the novice interviewee at ease?
Dear Mr. Smith,
I just graduated from college, and I am so excited about my first job interview. I’m also a little nervous, too, since the firm seems more formal than my college was. I’d like to make the right impression. Do you have any advice?
Dear Mr. Graduate,
Congratulations on earning your degree and securing your first job interview. What an exciting time! Applying for a new position is always challenging, but I am happy to share the wisdom I’ve gained from decades of experience as a philosopher and as a tutor of other young gentlemen.
First, during the interview, focus on the topic at hand. If your employer asks about your experience writing for a general audience, do not toy with your tie or launch into a summary of your thesis on quantum mechanics. Just look at her and answer directly. I remember one time, when I was meeting with Mr. Charles Townshend about the position of tutor to his son, I became so excited about my theories that I fell into a noisome tannery pit and had to be hauled out. Although he gave me the position, it was in spite of my distraction.
Second, take some time to understand the culture of your employer. Although we no longer imitate the language of the court, the advice I gave students in my Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters still stands: proper, clear, precise language matters. For instance, if your interviewer asks for a follow-up interview the very next day, graciously accept in a lucid, grammatically correct sentence. Do not reply, “STFU! BRB.” You will only text yourself out of the job.
Third, present yourself confidently. Avoid arrogance or pride, which is off-putting. I remember one famous gentleman of my time, Dr. Johnson, who habitually dismissed anyone he considered inferior, haranguing poor actresses and insulting visiting philosophers. It was unpleasant (and he remained relatively poor, despite his admirers). On the other hand, do not present yourself as less than you really are. Your potential employer will not respect a man who does not respect himself.
In short, as I explain in The Theory of Moral Sentiments,
"That degree of self-estimation, therefore, which contributes most to the happiness and contentment of the person himself, seems likewise most agreeable to the impartial spectator. The man who esteems himself as he ought, and no more than he ought, seldom fails to obtain from other people all the esteem that he himself thinks due." (VI.iii.50)
Sometimes practicing this self-command is as important as knowing how to do the job.
Best wishes to you in your job search.
Yours in fellow-feeling,
Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, and Janet Bufton. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.