Oozing enthusiasm at job interviews: find it, not fake it.

man forcing a smile

I used to remind candidates to “demonstrate enthusiasm” when they go for an interview.


Of course, it’s not wrong per se.

Etymology – the branch of linguistics concerned with the origins and meanings of words – fascinates me. Increasingly, I find that the mere act of looking up the roots of words we use in everyday life can reorder our thinking, and with that, refine our problem-solving approaches. But enough of the nerd talk.

So consider this – the root word for enthusiasm is “theos” – Greek for god, which later on became “enthous” meaning possessed by a god, inspired” before it morphed into the present-day form “enthusiasm.”

By this very definition, enthusiasm implies an intense feeling, posture or energy that emanates from our very core, as opposed to a more “surface-y” sort of emotion like cheerfulness or grumpiness.

In other words, if we’re enthusiastic about something, we shouldn’t need to be reminded to demonstrate it. A child doesn’t need to work himself up to be enthusiastic when he’s being taken to his favorite toy store. We don’t need to work up enthusiasm when we’re reuniting with a long-lost friend.

Me reminding clients to “demonstrate enthusiasm” is akin to a personal trainer telling his clients to “be healthy” – he’s dictating an output when really he needed to be prescribing the input – a customised fitness routine, meal plans, monitoring tools (still not sold on fancy fitness trackers though.)

In my case, the inputs are intentional career planning tools, research techniques/resources and smart networking tactics, so that my clients can land interviews they would NATURALLY be enthusiastic about.

So why does enthusiasm matter in the context of job interviews?

In a brilliant interview on Freakonomics, founding executive editor of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly was sharing a list of 68 pieces of life advice he compiled (corresponding with his 68th birthday), one of which was “Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.”

He went on to say, “I noticed in looking at the kind of people that I wanted to hang around that often it was because of people’s enthusiasm and not so much because they were geniuses. And I also noticed that I probably thought they were smarter than they were because of that enthusiasm.”

To that, the interviewer Stephen Dubner asked, “And what does enthusiasm produce that’s useful?”

Kelly’s reply:

“It produces – well, improvisation. In improv, there’s this fantastic bit of advice that you always want to say not “no,” but you want to say “and.” You want to add into what someone had built before you and add to it rather than kind of undermine it. And enthusiasm is kind of – I have never thought about this – but it’s almost a kind of empathy in a certain way.”

When we put ourselves in situations we’re enthusiastic about, we don’t need scripts. We don’t need to fake it to make it. Because it’s already in us. Our enthusiasm will anchor us, help us empathize with the challenges of our prospective employers, and give us the words to turn a curveball question into a winning pitch.

Job-hunting is inherently demoralizing. All the more we owe it to ourselves to find that “toy store” where work becomes play. And guess what? Now’s the best time to go on that search. COVID-19 has upended so many sectors and companies. The most established institutions are flailing. There are no safe choices anymore. Unless it’s illegal or outrightly unethical, almost anything is fair play in the job market now. So might as well follow your True North.

All this is really to say: Don’t demonstrate enthusiasm. Find it.

Make margin in your life to pursue that which is meaningful to you without leaving your day job, and the rest will come naturally, although not necessarily easily or without risk. In the words of Adele, “Be brave and fearless to know that even if you do make a wrong decision, you’re making it for a good reason.” And what other reason can be better than the pursuit of meaning?

If you’re looking for someone to bounce ideas off of or just to chat about managing career risks without losing the shirt off your back, drop me a message. I kinda have a bit of personal experience in that department.

This article was first posted on LinkedIn on 8 June 2020.