Making Peace With Numbers: How I Overcame My Fears


Let’s face it: we all have fears. Some are more specific – clowns or spiders – while others tend to be much more widespread.

High on the latter list, often, is public speaking. Some people are more afraid of appearing in front of a crowd than they are of death itself.

People who know me would likely describe me as an extrovert. I’m comfortable in many different kinds of situations, although in truth, large crowds are declining among my preferences as I age. Perhaps that’s related to a different kind of fear, and certainly a topic for another time.

In truth, though, I think I may be more of an introvert. Those experiences – from teaching to job interviews – drain me. I need time to recharge, or better, to sleep afterwards.

There are many good reasons to fear job interviews, some of them related to public speaking or other phobias. One of the most stressful aspects is the uncertainty of the whole process. There are a lot variables: “What are they really looking for? Is this a real competition, or is there a preferred candidate? How can I be sure to show that my skills are the right match for this position?”

I’m someone who can have a degree of difficulty in reading between the lines. Over the years, I’ve developed some hacks to improve my chances in these situations.

Earlier in my career, there was one question that terrified me beyond all others: “What are your greatest weaknesses?”

There was a time when the conventional wisdom was that, faced with such a question, one should say something clever, such as, “Well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”

Today, most of us – managers and staff alike – would roll our eyes at such nonsensical responses. Among other problems, I’m not sure I want to hire you if you’re a perfectionist. That sounds like you’d be a lot of work to manage.

When our elder daughter was about to finish high school, we discovered – through careful, if belated testing – that she had a rather serious learning disability. With the help of some thoughtful officials and the right interventions, she was able to request and receive the accommodations she needed to help ensure her success.

Perhaps from watching her experience, I came to a new understanding about one of my own limitations: I am no good with numbers.

This was certainly not news to me, nor to my parents. I’d struggled with math in high school, finally giving up on it after failing tenth grade courses for the second time.

Here’s how I’ve now turned this to my advantage: When asked the dreaded question now, I start my answer with, “I suck at math.”

It’s a risky move. More than once, I’ve watched a hiring manager become gobsmacked. “You know you’ll be responsible for managing a budget if you get this job, right?”

There’s a method to my madness, I assure them, while begging their indulgence for a few more moments.

I go on to explain that I’ve spent a good chunk of my career working in very numbers-based environments, mostly as a communicator. What I’ve discovered about myself – and what I explain to those hiring managers – is that I’ve made peace with numbers over the years. I’ve learned to ask the right questions of the people whose confidence level is much higher than mine, knowing that if they can explain those numbers to someone as clueless as I am, then I can communicate that information effectively to other people.

I believe that this answer shows my willingness to be truly reflective about my own strengths and weaknesses, and that I know what it takes to fill in my gaps.

We all have them. When a manager asks about them, it’s not really a trick question at all. It’s an opportunity for me to show that I have a degree of self-awareness and integrity, that I am willing to show some vulnerability and to be honest about who I am.

I know I will never be an engineer or an accountant. It’s in my own best self-interest – and to the benefit of those around me – that I acknowledge as much.

Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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