In an episode of “The Office,” Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott is so eager to answer the job interview question “What is your greatest weakness?” that he uses the question “What are your greatest strengths?” as a cue for his canned response.
“Why don’t I tell you what my greatest weaknesses are?” he tells his prospective boss. “I work too hard, I care too much, and sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”
The question and the corny response are so cliché at this point that they’re used as fodder in sitcoms. But when personal finance author and speaker Ramit Sethi asked one of his students the same question in one of his CreativeLive online classes, which we heard in the latest episode of “The Tim Ferriss Show” podcast, the student awkwardly paused and said how tough the question was before launching into an explanation of how he’s a perfectionist who often does too much work and misses deadlines.
Sethi stopped him and pointed out that the guy had just said, “I work too hard,” but in a more complex way.
“When I’m asking about your weakness, what I really want to know is first of all, whether you’re knowledgeable enough to acknowledge that you have a weakness,” Sethi said. “Everybody has weaknesses. Top performers, the best people I know, they are so candid about their weaknesses.” What the interviewer is looking for is “that you are self-aware enough to be working on them to improve it.”
Make sure you prepare for this question, then. “If you bulls— your way through an interview, they will know,” Sethi said. “An interviewer is way more skilled than you. He sees more interviewees than you can imagine, in a day. So do not try to lie.”
Sethi gave a hypothetical response: His greatest weakness is that he has a tendency to over-communicate with his colleagues, a habit he noticed when a senior manager at his old job would cut him off and tell him to spend more time working toward a solution than discussing a plan. He initially found his boss terse but then realised that he did need to work on his communication skills. He paid attention to how some of his more experienced colleagues wrote their emails and worked with each other, and he even took a Dale Carnegie Institute class on the subject. It’s something he’s continuing to improve on.
The answer was fictional, but it contained the elements Sethi recommended:
- Recognise your biggest weakness
- Acknowledge how you recognised it
- Explain what steps you made to correct for it
Sethi also said that you should not be self-deprecating, but rather confident in your self-assessment. You’re not using the question as a way to pivot towards your strengths, but showing that you’re unafraid of recognising what you still lack but are driven enough to compensate for it.
And finally, explain yourself through a concise story. “People cannot stop listening to an engaging story,” Sethi said.
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