I was doing a locum job in Saskatoon when some of the people at the hospital directed me to a book written by the first Canadian to walk in space, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield. While generally entertaining, I found the most compelling chapter in the book was about performance. How do you excel in a new position, and how might you extend this to a job search or interview? If you have a scale from -1, which is being a drain on the system or a bad interviewee, to a 0, where you contribute your fair share to the system or do a competent job, to a +1, which is being a superstar and beloved by all, Hadfield’s advice is to Aim For Zero. I couldn’t agree more.
I will never forget becoming a new third-year resident and having the new first-year residents start at the hospital. One of the new medicine residents had a case going in radiology under anesthesia. One of my mentors, a full Professor of anesthesia, British not-to-be-messed-with attitude, and all around terrific academic, went to radiology to check on the case. The new medicine resident told my mentor in a very sharp, dismissing tone, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” Everyone got very quiet. My mentor barely acknowledged the resident, checked out everything, and then went about her business. She wasn’t angry, just shocked, as was I. What the hell was the resident thinking? Looking back, the resident was aiming to be a +1, able to handle any situation, trusted and respected by all. Instead, her actions marked her as a clear -1.
In writing a letter of intent, you want to follow the general guidelines we have mapped out before, but you don’t want to try TOO hard. You may come across in a way you don’t intend. In an interview, you want to be prepared, competent, knowledgeable, and personable. But you don’t want to strive to be amazing. I had one candidate interview for a faculty position who had done an amazing amount of research. He had committed my recent publications to memory and asked me about all of them. He knew people in the organization and what their roles and duties were, and he brought them up. It was impressive, but also just a little bit off-putting. Other candidates have been prepared- knowing one or two interesting publications of mine which have come up organically during conversations- and that was fine. The obsessive focus this candidate had was not fine.
Could you lose out to the actual +1 candidate? It’s possible. Charismatic, competent people who are amazing at writing and interviews do exist. But in my experience, they are few and far between. And, are you really going to beat out the top 5% for a position if you are genuinely in the top 15%? I think it is more likely you will end up hitting -1 if you try to aim to be a +1. Maintain your dignity and trust that the right thing will work out for you. We will cover all the elements needed to become a +1 in a series of posts on How to be Successful.
You need to prepare. You need to practice. You need to research and talk to others about your application and process. But don’t aim to be that amazing blow-them-out-of-the-water candidate, because you’re more likely to miss. Aim for zero- quietly competent.