I am sitting in the waiting room of a media company, in an office tower that rises from the forests of New Jersey. It is a little dated with a color palette from the late ‘90s all earth tones and neutrals. There is a light oak reception desk at one end, a conference room with smoked windows at the other, and sitting areas strategically placed around the room. Against a far wall a flat screen has the local news channel playing with subtitles.
I have exchanged pleasantries with the receptionist, and she has assured me that the person I am here to interview with has been notified of my arrival and “will be with you shortly.”
I have prepared heavily for this meeting as the job I am interviewing for is one I desire, and I have found that preparing for interviews or any meeting usually surprises and often delights those you are interviewing with. It always surprises me when people tell me they don’t prepare as intensely as I do.
Thanks to OneNote I have all my notes with me so as I wait for my interview to begin, I review them. He has an interesting background. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute (the last military school to go co-ed and a beacon of the old south) he spent 6 years at one of the most notoriously cutthroat media companies in the world and got promoted 3 times. 11 years ago he joined this company where he has been promoted 3 times finally landing in the CRO spot. I notice from my review that there is a gap from VMI until he joins the work force and I wonder whether or not that means he has spent time in active duty. I also make a mental note that this guy is likely to be very disciplined (military), aggressive (you don’t get promoted the way he did without being on the bounce.) and smart (you don’t become CRO of a company this size without having some mental horsepower.)
My focus is broken by his assistant introducing herself and offering herself as a guide to his office. She is genial and apologizes for the delay in our appointment and explains that he had been called into a last-minute meeting with COO. I give her my best interview smile and tell her an interviewees standard lie. “I completely understand. These things happen.” It is accompanied by a large smile that I hope she views as genuine.
We walk through a set of glass doors and set out through a maze of cubicles where we are greeted by the CRO. He introduces himself and we shake hands. It is a good shake with just enough grip strength to make a good impression but not to overpower. Perhaps it is a guy thing but his handshakes is the first indication to me that I am going to like this guy. He guides me to his office which is quite large with a dark wood desk and computer station at one end and a conference table at the other. There are floor to ceiling windows which overlook the surrounding forest and in the distance the beautiful New York City skyline.
He gestures to the conference table and we sit down opposite each other. I take a good look at him. He is my age, trim as befitting ex-military, with brown hair going over to silver. He is wearing a tie with a sweater that reminds one a bit of Mr Rogers which is partially responsible for how I answer his first question: “How are you doing today.”
I replied, “It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
As soon as it is out of my mouth, I mentally slap myself in the forehead thinking myself a complete idiot for giving this response. This despite the fact that it has been my standard response to that question for at least the last half dozen years.
The CRO provides me with a rueful smile, clearly knowing the reference, and asks me why I responded that way.
“OY’ I thought, this is not the direction I had hoped our conversation would take. But I have no choice. I explain to him that I had adopted that response to the question he asked years ago. Partly because it made a popular culture reference that most people understand but because of the greater meaning behind the response. That is, that no matter what is going on around you, it is a beautiful day if you make the personal decision to make it a beautiful day. I conclude this semi indulgent soliquiy by saying I give this response for the same reason I end my voicemail messages, incoming and outcoming, with “Make it a great day.” I told him “While we have no control over what the world gives us, we have a choice over how we deal with it. It is a choice. Our choice and probably the only thing we have control over in our lives.”
I knew to some this sounded a little sanctimonious. Even preachy. But my policy on interviews, good or bad, is to be as true to yourself as possible and if that did not match up with the person you were speaking with then it was probably for the better.
The CRO leaned back in his chair and cocked his head to the left and stared at me for second. “Oh god” I thought “He thinks I am a nut job.” Then he smiled and said “You know, that is what I say to my kids every morning.” And proceeded to go on a tear about how he was trying to teach his kids about attitude and how it was a personal decision and that getting caught up in a quagmire of bad thoughts and emotions was a choice not an obligation.
I was just thinking that our conversation about the job I was interviewing for had gone off the rails when he asked a question that confirmed for me it truly had. He said, “How did you develop this…this…philosophy.”
This made me pause. How honest should I be with this guy? But I have always been an in for a penny in for a pound sort of guy so I told him the truth. I said my father was probably my greatest influence and he was a hard core optimist despite having survived a childhood in Nazi Austria and managing to escape with his parents after the war had begun. How poverty, deprivation, prejudice and other obstacles never seem to diminish him. That he remained an optimist to his last breath. So genetically I was predisposed to optimism. But, over time, and through a lot of reading, I had concluded something that my father must have found naturally. That the only thing in life we can control is our attitude.
To my relief, as I shared with him my thoughts, he smiled and nodded his head. When I was finished, he asked “Have you ever read a book called ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, I think the authors name is Frank or Frankel or something like that. I don’t know you can look it up. But I think you would like it a lot. It was written by a Viennese psychologist who survived Auschwitz.”
From there, the conversation took a more usual path talking about sales philosophy and what I would do to help them generate more revenue from digital sources. And, in the end he let me know that he would be recommending me for the job. I left floating on that thought.
Sales 101 is following up to any meeting. Making sure the person/s you spoke with does not forget who you are. I knew that for this meeting my follow up would have to mention” Man’s Search for Meaning” and if I was going to do that it probably would be a good idea to know what I was talking about. So I downloaded the book to my Kindle and banished myself to my favorite chair to read.
Reading is perhaps my third favorite activity but my intention when I sat down with my iPad was not to read the entire book. I thought that I would read a few chapters and get a sense of the book and from there be able to send the CRO a follow up that had enough mention of the book that he would think that I read it.
Three hours later I had finished the book.
In his treatise, Frankel describes his experiences in Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, from 1942 to 1945. The memoir and meditation on finding meaning in the midst of suffering argues that man cannot avoid suffering but can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. His description of his time in the camps was especially poignant as many of my relatives had been sent to and did not survive Auschwitz. As the son of Viennese born psychologist, a former psychology student and as someone who has engaged in therapy over the years his description of logotherapy I found both emotional and intellectually satisfying.
But what really stood out to me was the last chapter The Case for A Tragic Optimism. He describes this as the act of remaining optimistic despite the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death. That life is potentially meaningful under any conditions when we turn suffering into a human achievement; can derive the opportunity to change ourselves for the better from any guilt we feel and use life’s transitoriness as a springboard to responsible action.
When I think about the book and what I gained from it all these months later I wonder if there was some type of divine providence that put the book in my hands before the Covid epidemic because if there ever was a time and need for Tragic Optimism, it is now.
Needless to say my follow up to CRO was outstanding. It got me the job. He said, I had a good attitude.