Allan McKay's Tips: Gaining the Right Mindset for a Job Interview

Ever since launching my podcast a few weeks ago, I've also been putting together a series of articles to supplement my podcast tips and interviews. I will be publishing these articles occasionally on Digital-Tutors blog in order to share my advice with as many aspiring artists as possible. So, please look for them and/or check out my podcast for other career advice topics for the CG/VFX industry. In this article I'm going to cover how to approach an interview so that you can significantly increase your chances of landing the job you want or need. We'll discuss how to overcome your anxiety and fear before stepping into a job interview, how to present yourself in the best possible way, and how to create healthy stress-free mindsets that will boost your confidence and help you feel relaxed. I’m sure a lot of you are probably thinking this might not apply to you because your career is strong and/or your position consistent. However, the CG/VFX job market is still a pretty uncertain place to be and it's always a good idea to keep in practice when it comes to interviewing. We always think we can get better at our craft, so why not apply that same attitude to our job interviewing skills. There’s never a cap on how much you can improve, and the ones who do believe they’re at their limits are really just flipping the switch on their need to learn and improve themselves. Even though some of these tips will be specific to VFX work, the vast majority can be applied to almost any job in any industry. Whether it's learning to make a solid first impression or hack your job interview, all are very crucial to anyone's success! Most importantly, however, it's important to no defeat yourself by having the wrong frame of mind. Psyching yourself into feeling confident takes some practice, but is a very effective way to improve your confidence and lower you anxiety. You can check out the entire podcast #4 on iTunes. Please feel free to leave me some feedback.

Photo by B Rosen, CC BY-SA 2.0


Interview Anxiety

So many of us get completely petrified at the idea of attending a job interview so much so they can’t sleep the night before, which doesn’t help your thinking or stress levels. Anxiety can compound the problem causing you to totally mess up the interview and give a wrong impression.

I’ve gone through some of the same experiences of being absolutely petrified at meetings, boardrooms and job interviews at different points of my life too. This is normal and we’ve all had it. You’re definitely not alone. But I think successful people are the ones that identify their weaknesses and work on improving them. So if interviews aren’t your strong point, I recommend you acknowledge the fact and work hard to improve on them.

A big part of feeling anxious before and during an interview involves putting the interviewer in a position of authority. This is a reasonable thing to do because the person across the desk is the one that will be analyzing you and ultimately deciding whether you get the job or not. More so, they are the ones asking the questions. Our feeling of being evaluated and scrutinized is a big cause for our anxiety.

Since we often assume the interviewer to be the “authority,” this automatically puts us in a more subservient position. As the interviewee, we feel like we need to validate every action we’ve made over their career and ‘sell’ ourselves. We need to prove our worth, which means we are giving the interviewer a lot of power. Although this seems to make absolute sense, in reality we can decide whether or not to give complete power over to interviewer.

Now, an experienced and successful interviewer will know that an interview is, in fact, very much a two way conversation. I’ve had plenty of interviews where I’m the one driving the conversation and putting them in a position of validating their job to me. It isn’t a power play, and should never be. It’s just trying to not to give over all of your power to the point where it creates anxiety.

guy with tie

Like any kind of relationship, in an interview there typically is one person with the upper hand, only if for a moment. Make sure you assume you’re beginning on a level playing field with the interviewer. It can help boost your confidence if you remind yourself that you are offering the employer just as much or more as they’re offering you. However, don’t be cocky! That will surely backfire. Just find confidence in the fact that the employer is in need of your services. Otherwise, why would you be interviewing for the position they need, right? Remind yourself that you are responsible for your own discomfort. That is, you are in control.

Reminding yourself that you’re in control will help reduce anxiety and boost confidence. This is called ‘reframing’ because you’re reframing the situation in your head to restructure the power dynamic within an interview. Reframing will help you get your confidence back and ease your anxiety. Try setting aside some time before the interview for practicing your answers with yourself or with someone. You can also practice alone using thought experiments where you imagine yourself at the interview being asked the questions and providing the great answers.

I have a friend who’s worked on some of the biggest movies dating all the way back to Titanic and 5th Element at Digital Domain. He’s always been someone in high demand by studios; however, he also had a tendency to become anxious and freeze up during interviews. In order to get better at interviewing, he would intentionally apply for jobs just to get the experience. He would typically go to all the job fairs at SIGGRAPH and sign up for interviews. He would line all up like 8 or more a day and just go do them for practice. I really admired this because it let my friend get more comfortable doing interviews and eventually his fear of them.

Confident people with years and years of experience realize a job interview is really just a chat. You are merely going in to talk over the logistics of a job and see if you’re a right fit for each other. Having that mindset helps even the playing field and boost confidence.

In addition to have a mindset that looks to make the interviewer your equal, there are other ways to reorient your perspective to increase you confidence and decrease anxiety. Getting in the right mindset is one important way.


Mindset #1: Interviewing a “Friendly” Employer

One thing I often do when meeting new people is imagine they’re already my friend. This helps me reframe the situation into one that familiar and confortable. After practicing it many time, I’ve managed to get over one discomfort after another and avoided freezing up by telling myself that it’s no big deal, that this is just my friend. Now I apply the same strategy to job interviews. I go in acting like they’re a friend of mine. I’ve known them my whole life. I’m respectful – as I would to any of my friends – and I talk to them as an equal. I tell them what I’ve been up to and mention how things are busy and be high energy. I also ask them about their projects and how things are going. You treat them like a person and an equal rather than the principal after you’ve been sent to the office. This can also work if you imagine them as a sibling.

If you can do this in an interview, it’s likely to create a more “friendly” and congenial atmosphere. However, you only want to take this thought experiment so far. Don’t become disrespectful or act like a jackass like you would your friends. Don’t bring up going out for a beer after the interview. That’s for after you get the job! This may sound crazy, but you’re really treating them like your equal, however you want to justify it. Remove the hierarchy that you’ve built and replace it with familiarity that you’ve established with your best friends. If you leave with a great friendship vibe going between the you and the interviewer, how could they not hire you?!


Mindset #2: “There’s a Bigger Fire”

Another good mindset I tend to use in high-intensity situations where there’s a lot on the line at the moment is to think about a “bigger fire” that needs to be put out. I tell myself that there’s an even bigger problem I need to do right after this one! If I’m certain that my interview is going to be brutal, I try to think about or image something far worse I need to do. I say to my self, “This interview really isn’t a big deal because afterwards I have to go off to mars to fight space aliens and I may never return. After comparing the two, you’re probably not going to be as nervous about the outcome of the job interview you have here on Earth.

I unintentionally used this diversion strategy when first time came to the states. Prior to my visit, I was told by a friend that LA customs are really bad and that they would even yell at you and interrogate you. (I was young and had no idea what to realistically expect). Understandably, I was anxious about the idea of this horrible process. However, this wasn’t all. I was also told that there would be a second check point at customs, which was the one I should “really worry about” because they asked you 5,000 questions and were even more strict.

So when I arrived, I went through the first checkpoint and they did in fact ask a lot of questions and weren’t the nicest people on earth, but I answered their questions and felt relatively calm because my mind was still fixed on the worse situation at the second customs checkpoint. However, I soon found out there was no second check point at all, just the gate. The lesson I learned was that preparing myself to be intimidated at the second checkpoint gave me little need to be anxious about the first one. If you can tell yourself there’s something bigger to stress about, your worries will go there and not to the current situation.


Mindset #3: “This Place Looks Familiar”

There are plenty of tricks to calm your nerves. Typically people are most uncomfortable when they walk into a room for the first time, so familiarity is important. A friend of mine who writes for Rolling Stone magazine uses familiarity to help de-stress his interviews with famous people. Usually, he will bring in a rockstar for an interview, and talk for about 15 minutes while “recording” the interview. Then he’ll take the person out for a quick bite and then come back and resume the interview. He usually ends up ditching the original 15 minutes as an ice breaker and then starting the real interview.

People are typically more comfortable coming back to familiar surroundings, rather than a new room and new situation. It’s a good strategy to arrive early to an interview so that you gain some familiarity with the surrounds (i.e. office, building, bathrooms, etc.). Another strategy is to go to the interview, get seated, and then excusing yourself to go to the bathroom. Then briefly leave the room, shake it off and get loose before returning.  Maybe rap in the mirror to your favorite Jay-Z track, straighten your hair a little, and go back in the room. That very brief disconnect is something useful will reset your brain and help you feel more comfortable.


Mindset #4: “What’s the Worst that Could Happen?”

Before the interview, tell yourself that you’re still going to be alive. Nothing physically bad is going to happen to you. They may say no. If they do then at least you know you gave it your best and that it’s not the end of the world. This doesn’t mean to go in with a defeated attitude, but just to realize that you are talking to a person who maybe just as uncomfortable during the interview as you are.


Mindset #5 “Relax, You Got This!”

Here’s this last mindset and it applies more to VFX than to other jobs. Most of the time when they’re bringing you in for an interview, it means you really alrady have the job. As the folks at Riot (League of Legends) said to me on the phone not long ago “This isn’t really an interview. You pretty much already have the job. This is just a formality to make sure you aren’t bat-shit-crazy.” Even if you’ve already got the job, you’re typically still brought in for an interview to go over the project specifics, to negotiate a start date, to answer any questions, and to put a face to a name. But if any alarm bells do go off (and I’ve seen this happen many times) then they might reneg on the offer. But you practically have to stroll in in a straight-jacket for that to happen. Remembering that the interview probably means you’ve already got the job can certainly help you relax. So act as if you have the job already! It’s just a formality and you’re only coming in to talk with some friends and get excited!!

Some Final Thoughts:

To help yourself remember what to say during the interview, you can write up all of the key things you need to remember on little palm cards to read while you’re in the lobby or on the train heading to your interview. Having a little ‘refresher’ before you go in is also a good idea. Notes will help if you are put on the spot and need to sell your skills and experience. Putting them on your phone also works well. As many books on stress and anxiety will tell you, getting exercise, hydration, and a good night’s sleep before the interview are all key to staying sharp. I also like to listen to confident speakers sometimes because you can learn to adopt their same mindset. Whether it’s Tony Robbins or your favorite podcaster, listening to others can be a great way to absorb some of their charisma.