Optimism and Anxiety

The sound of my beating heart fills my ears. It drowns out everything else, and I feel as though the noise is echoing around the room, bouncing off the walls to assail the people who are there with me. Three of those people stare at me, waiting for me to speak; the other three are stood with me, patient for their turn. I’m the first of the group to speak, although I’m nervous beyond belief.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in such a situation and it won’t be the last either. I know that, despite how well I feel the day has gone so far for me personally. If I can improve a little each time then the pressure and the personal struggle will be worth it. Every moment of pain, every second I spent gripped by fear.

So I ignore the panic rising up within me, squashing it down as much as I can manage. It isn’t easy, but I never run away: I enjoy the challenge despite how impossible it seems when I’m caught in the terror of the moment. I clear my throat in the hope that this will help me to keep my voice steady when I speak. It betrays me so often in these circumstances that I can imagine myself stuttering senselessly already.

I move my weight from one foot to the other and back again, unable to stop myself. It’s unprofessional and sloppy, but it calms me down enough to bring me back to the present so that I can focus on what I need to say. The whole world holds a breath, too many eyes focusing on me at once – and then I begin to speak.

The four of us haven’t had a long time to prepare for this presentation, but that’s what graduate interviews are like and I’ve attended enough of them to know by now. I stumble at little at the beginning until I get into what I’m supposed to say in my part of the presentation, the words come out without any breaths between them and I end the section rather abruptly. The last few words of my speech are left hanging in the air, uncertain and speculative. I want to scold myself for not performing as strong as I wanted; luckily, the pressure of such a formal environment bears down upon me, forcing me to maintain my poker face.

It’s that pressure that’s got me so wound up, like a coiled spring. I relax the hand that had become clenched during my speech, withdrawing my nails from the palm of my hand. The silence goes on for too long.

When I turn to the next candidate and they finally begin speaking, the fear begins to slowly drain away. Despite all of the errors that I have managed to pick up on within myself so far, this is far better than the last interview I went to. As the attention moves further down the line, I begin to feel increasingly pleased with myself. I anticipated many faults, but getting through the assessment day – and this part of it in particular – as well as I have done is a great achievement.

Just like the presentation, I stumble through the follow up questions directed at the group, feeling foolish when someone else provides a better, clearer answer than mine. One specific answer I give is embarrassing and I wonder what the other candidates must think of me as I backtrack, tripping over my own words. That seals the deal, and from that point onwards I know that no amount of excellence throughout the rest of the day will get me the job now.

I make a mental note of what the others say, how they stand and where they look when they’re speaking. It amazes me how they can keep the gaze of the interviewers at all times. I commit their words to memory in preparation for my next interview, hoping that they will help me to improve my performance.

It’s over pretty soon after the presentation, with a formal goodbye from the interviewers. Some of the other candidates discuss how they feel the day has gone, but I keep on the outside of conversations because there’s a throbbing sensation in my head that’s half disappointment, half relief. I’ve never liked talking to strangers anyway.

One of the other candidates mentions to me that he was nervous during the presentation and I wonder if he knows the extent of the fear that I went through. I wonder if he understands how the pressure of that situation left me without sense or answers. I step aside to carry out almost useless breathing exercises that are designed to rid myself of my remaining anxiety, and perhaps ten minutes later I’m stable enough to leave and make my way home.

A little over a week later, I hear from the company. It’s a generic email informing me that I didn’t display the qualities they were looking for in a graduate employee, but the rejection is far from unexpected. Family and friends make a fuss out of the fact that I failed and I wish I had kept quiet about the interview; they offer my sympathy, but I’m not upset and I don’t need it. In fact, I’m filled with confidence, which I know they can’t understand.

It was a significant improvement on the last interview I attended. I managed to keep myself together during the presentation, and even if my answers were poor quality I could at least provide something when put on the spot. That demonstrated that no matter how I felt at the time, the fear was not completely in control. The next time that I have an interview, I know I’m going to do even better – and as long as each interview is a personal improvement, it doesn’t matter how I look compared to the other candidates. It doesn’t matter how long it takes me to get a graduate job, because I won’t be torn apart by my anxiety.

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