“Where do you see yourself five years from now?” The interviewer carefully aligns his Schaeffer pen with the top of the leather binder on the desk in front of him and leans back expectantly, lacing his fingers loosely together as he waits for my reply. This is the interview question I have always hated above all others. It implies that a competent person must have a carefully thought out long-term plan; therefore to prove my competency I must now present my nonexistent five-year plan for evaluation.
I only had to walk a short distance from my car to his office, but my feet are already in excruciating pain. If comfortable yet professional shoes exist which are appropriate for women engineers with size 12 feet, I have not discovered them. I resist a desperate urge to kick them off, and shift my position slightly in a motion that I hope communicates contemplativeness while disguising an attempt to shrug my left bra strap back onto its assigned shoulder. The crotch of my pantyhose creeps defiantly toward my knees, and my nose suddenly develops a threatening tickle. Leaving my wayward underwear to its own devices for a moment, I try to ignore the pain in my toes and heels and the urge to scratch my nose, and refocus my attention on the interviewer so that I can regurgitate the fictitious answer I have dutifully memorized.
I’ve never been the planning sort, and never saw that it interfered at all with my ability to be competent. I get done what needs doing, but beyond that I prefer to go where life takes me. It saves the inevitable frustration of having invested time and energy into carefully making plans only to have them thwarted by circumstance. It also protects me against the boring tedium that would result if things actually did go according to any agenda I might have thought up, instead of propelling me into adventures I could never have been imaginative enough to incorporate into an itinerary of my own making. As a result of this shortcoming, I have become really great at handling crises. In my life, every event is an unforeseen event. No need for panic; the unexpected is my normal daily routine. Adapt, adjust, and move on – it’s no big deal.
As wise as I like to think all of that sounds, if I’m honest I have to admit that it’s not so much the result of any great wisdom on my part as it is an effort to rationalize away the impact of the mental defect that renders me completely incapable of planning my future. The truth is that I am simply unable to do it in any but the broadest sense. I have no idea what I’ll be doing this afternoon, let alone the day after tomorrow or next weekend. Half a decade from now? Entirely out of the question.
Of course neither the interviewer nor his company really has any sincere interest in my personal desires or ambitions. Interviewing is a game. Good players get jobs, bad players get more practice. An interview is a scripted verbal sparring match accompanied by a carefully choreographed dance. Look him in the eye, arms and legs uncrossed, shoulders up, back straight. Present an attitude which is relaxed but professional, smile confidently, don’t fiddle with fingers, jiggle legs, tug hair, or chew lips. Costuming, for both of us, adheres to strict guidelines as well. Suits of charcoal grey or navy blue over white shirts, dark ties with a touch of red to show daring, but within acceptable limits, of course. Black leather shoes, conservative haircut, minimal jewelry, leather briefcase or portfolio, executive pen. We could be clones, he and I, except that my suit has a skirt instead of pants. Unlike me, he is not distracted by pantyhose whose crotch refuses to stay an appropriate distance above his knees. The only thing he had to shave this morning was his face, and his shoes can’t help but be more comfortable than mine. (I’ve long thought that the reason women’s success in the business world has lagged behind men’s actually has a lot more to do with flawed costuming than with gender attitudes. Pantyhose and pumps, I suspect, have been responsible for the downfall of countless competent businesswomen who could have been wildly successful had they only worn slacks, and shoes made for walking in rather than looking at. How can anyone concentrate on success when she is constantly distracted by wardrobe malfunctions and naggingly uncomfortable items of clothing?)
We recite our lines, he and I, from scripts published in a thousand interviewing texts and management books. My challenge is to convincingly recite an appropriate response from among my assigned lines for each question he selects from his; it’s a pop quiz, multiple choice, pass or fail. Some correct answers are more correct than others, and correctness is subjective, as it is based on the corporate personality and attitudes of the company involved rather than on any measurable standard. An answer that is correct for one organization may be woefully incorrect for another, and this adds another level of complexity to the game. Whether the answers given are factual or not is largely irrelevant. It’s the choice that is important; how you respond takes precedence over who you are. Extra credit may be awarded for original or non-standard responses, but the odds are not favorable. Originality is an extremely risky strategy. Departure from standard scripts leads one into treacherous territory where the slightest misstep could mean instant failure. A surprising majority of corporate entities do NOT consider originality an asset.
The five-year question, therefore, has nothing to do with what I might actually want to be doing in five years, assuming I am even capable of knowing this far in advance. The real point is to find out whether I have ambitions, and how compatible they are with the objectives of this particular organization. I must choose goals for myself that, while sounding convincingly ambitious and self-serving, are nonetheless sure to align with the best interests of the company.
Psychologist Rollo May once said, “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” He must have known about engineering interviews. This is how the game works: I attempt to convince the interviewer that I am smart enough to have deduced who I think he thinks I should be, and greedy enough to give dishonest answers to try to convince him I am that person, whether I am or not, so I will get the job. It’s a delicate balance, however, since if I am too greedy, I will be prone to put my own desires ahead of those of the company, making me less useful to them. Paradoxically, this means that a certain amount of integrity is also required, and this can be measured by observing how convincingly I give my dishonest answers. Ideally, I will be very convincing, because I will have actually managed to persuade myself that the answers I am giving are true in order to escape the guilt I would feel, as a person of integrity, at having lied.
This shows them that I am greedy enough to allow myself to be sucked dry, wrung out, and used up, in return for a paycheck that would allow for a comfortable living, were I to actually have time for a life; but with too much integrity to give any less than my all. Ideally, they want to get at least five years out of me before I either succumb to stress and burnout, or come to my senses and realize that there is more to life than work. The five-year question is an excellent means of measuring my potential in this regard.
I don’t remember how I answered the question in that particular interview, but I didn’t get the job. I like to entertain myself by imagining how it might have gone had I known where I would actually end up five or ten years down the road. Reality has followed a course that no one, however wildly irrational they might have been, could possibly have predicted. I think it would be great fun to go back and offer up what has really happened, straight faced and sincere, as my actual five-year plan.
This, of course, would guarantee that I wouldn’t get the job. Which is just the way I’d want it.