The funny thing about wanting something badly

Tooling Up, mirror

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Every day, I talk to someone who wants something badly: a postdoc looking for his first industry research role or an applications scientist who feels that her destiny is to become one of the company’s highly paid regional sales managers. This extends up the career ladder, where vice president-level candidates for CEO jobs I recruit for deliver presentations at what I’d call a fever pitch.

Sometimes we want something very, very badly. The problem is that, often, it shows.

Fulfilling your desires is all about you, but what matters more is what you can do for others—for the company, for science, for a cause you care about.

“If I desire it, I will achieve it” is a common mantra of positive thinkers. After all, the first stage of making something happen in life—and in the microcosm of your career—is to understand exactly what it is you want. But success is not achieved just by desire; it has to be coupled with a plan and with another factor that can impact your success: detachment. Detachment is tough when you feel your future is riding on whether or not you land the job offer.

In this month’s Tooling Up, I’ll share with you experiences I’ve had with both desire and detachment. As useful as it can be to want something badly, that same intense emotion can get in the way of achieving the thing you want.

Emotional involvement: A little goes a long way

You’ve identified a goal. You’ve planned out how to get there. Your plan consists of a series of steps you have the ability to complete. You know that other people have made the same transition, in much the same way. That’s great—but you still need desire, because achieving your goal will require hard work and a long-term commitment. Very few can achieve something difficult without desire.

Desire, though, is like gasoline; it can burn too hot. It’s also like a lubricant; it can grease the gears, but if you have too much, things get slippery and hard to hold on to. It also doesn’t show very well, or not always.

Those who have been on the other side of the interviewing desk can tell you how being overly committed to your success can negatively affect your chances of getting a job. Having too much obvious emotion riding on the results often doesn’t come across well. Here are some examples of mistakes job seekers make when they are fueled by too much desire.

  • Cover letters that include statements with far too much “me” and not enough about the employer and the fit. “I’m looking to move into a first-rate biotechnology organization where I can take on increasing responsibility in my area of interest.” The employer doesn’t give a hoot about your professional goals; they care about whether and how you help them and whether you’ll fit in with the team and the corporate culture.
  • Networking attempts that are forced and uncomfortable—not, as they should be, pleasant discussions on topics of mutual interest. You don’t ever want to sound desperate; it means you’re not in control. Instead, the company will hire someone who is in control.
  • In the interview, the person with too much desire is likely to take few chances and be too nervous to answer naturally. They’ll answer questions with prepared responses. Their eye contact may be over-intense or nonexistent; either way it makes the interviewer uncomfortable.

There’s a sixth sense that interviewers—and most other people for that matter—have for people who have too much at stake. I know they are going to be crushed when they leave my office, and I hate to feel that way. I would much rather have an interesting conversation with an interested party and then go on with my day, knowing that we’ll both be OK. That’s the kind of person I, and my clients, want to work with.

Detach from the outcome

Emotional detachment from my goals has always been a struggle for me, and I’m decades into my career. It’s hard to step back and care less about the results—or act like you do. But this is what I have to do, time and again. It’s what you, too, have to do if you share this characteristic. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care or that you should pretend not to care. I’m proposing, rather, that you focus less on whether or not you win in the end. You still have to be sharp; that’s why you prepare well. But once you’ve prepared, you need to calm down. And you can. You know why? Because it really doesn’t matter that much.

If you’re able to maintain a sense of perspective (something desire can get in the way of) you’ll realize that other things—family, friends, science—matter more. And if you work hard and stay true to your values, other opportunities will come along.

Whenever I get excited about something—a new company with a hot technology or an opportunity to talk to a major employer about a big job we can fill—I catch myself drooling, figuratively. I want it bad. That’s just how you must feel when you know you’re so close to your dream job—or even just a pretty good one.

Still, you need to calm down and back away. What matters is not fulfilling your desires but what you can do for others—for the company, for science, for a cause you care about. When you recognize that, that sixth sense that interviewers have starts to work for you instead of against you. You start to seem real and useful. You start to seem like a person your interviewer wouldn’t mind spending many hours around, week after week, working on projects that you both care about.

Hiring managers frequently pass over “perfect” candidates for less obvious candidates they like more. It’s usually someone who, while clearly passionate about what they do, has found a way to channel desire into a different direction. They’re not needy.

Let other people’s needs drive you forward

I’m not suggesting that you give up your professional goals and go work in a soup kitchen. Even if you’re determined to make the world a better place, your science is probably a far better way of accomplishing that.

Many job seekers have found that they do better when their desire is focused not on self-fulfillment but on what they can accomplish working with others within an organization. Allow your driving force to shift to the person in front of you. Do it because it’s the right thing to do—but it has practical advantages, too. If you succeed at this, you will differentiate yourself from all those self-interested job seekers, and there are a lot of those out there—far too many.

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