Why I Need More Horrific Job Interviews

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A young businessman is looking at some document in front of him with a very apathetic expression.
18 Jul 2012

As told to Susan Schwartz.

If you’ve never actually had your head handed to you before, guess what?

It’s not too much fun.

I am a full-time actuary, and I’d been posting my resume on the job sites for a while, just in case something interesting came along. A few weeks ago, I received an email about a position managing a team of actuarial students in an area that seemed similar enough to my current role. I emailed back and got a phone call within 10 minutes. One thing led to another, and then I found myself sitting the manager’s office for the interview.

It was going well, I thought. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years? The usual.

Then he took out a sheet of paper. “I’m just going to ask you a few math questions.” And he wrote this:

P(x) =  x²
P’(x) = ?

I stared at the equations. “Uhh….it’s been a long time,” I said.

“Yes, that’s what a lot of people say. But,” he cheerfully noted, “if you like math, it shouldn’t make a difference, right?”

It had been a very long time. Five years ago, I could have done those problems in my sleep, but some things you just clear out of your brain to make room for other things.

He tried to help me along. “Why don’t you take the log of both sides?” he offered.

“I was just about to do that,” I muttered. I really was.

Unfortunately, as the questions continued, the helpfulness of his comments deteriorated sharply.  “Why would you draw that as a straight line?” “You’ve heard of the Chain Rule, haven’t you?” “You are a math major, right?” “So…what exactly do you do at your job?” (More than once this question was asked.)

Needless to say, the interview was unsuccessful. In fact, I’m pretty sure that as soon as I left he burst out laughing, stopping only after it hurt too much to continue, then shook his head, wiped his streaming eyes, and tried to resume his work…but couldn’t because every time he tried to think all he could see was me struggling for ten minutes on one question, and then leaning over the paper and drawing a single straight line, which at that point I could have drawn in crayon without any additional negative impact on my chances.

I am not sure if the test he gave me was actually essential to the job I was interviewing for or just a way for him to assess how I would deal with a curveball thrown my way. It didn’t really matter. I walked in with a sense of confidence about being successful in a competitive field, with the assumption that I was up to the task. I didn’t think I’d be given any test I couldn’t handle. I work in a high-level job in my field, and didn’t consider that I should think about the things I had put aside as part of my “less important” past. I walked out feeling as though the air had been punched out of me and I was black and blue on the inside.

But as I thought more about this humbling experience, I think I learned an important lesson.

After 120 years, we are all going to be tested. We will all get a blank sheet of paper with the following questions listed:

How is the world better because of you?
List the tefillot, prayers, that you davened with complete kavanah (intention).
How many times have you learned Shas (six orders of the Mishna)?
Please account for your actions at the following times:

  • Admonishing your children for their behavior
  • Asking your spouse for a difficult favor
  • Talking with your co-worker about non-work-related subjects

This test is coming sooner or later, and it helps to be reminded of that every so often. In that respect, I’m glad I had this experience. Because when we do take the test up there, we don’t want to hear: “So…what exactly did you do down there?”

Susan Schwartz is a wife, mother and grandmother. Her work has appeared in a variety of Jewish periodicals and websites. She lives in Chicago, where she is President of the Davka Corporation.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.