Interviewing for jobs demands a skillset entirely independent of the job itself, discovers Helen Razer, as she reflects on that one time her 'passions' didn't suffice.
Helen Razer

22 Feb 2017 - 1:29 PM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2017 - 3:14 PM

Job interviews are a legal form of torture. This is the case in the “knowledge work” sector, at least. You face a squad of three, maybe five, assassins, all of whom fire non-fatal shots at you before they decide if you should die, or live on their company’s miserable wage.

The questions that they ask have the appearance of kindness—“Tell us about that one time you totally resolved a problem like a hero!”, “Tell us about your very best quality!”— but deathly cruel intent. They’re not really trying to discover what makes you an individual. They’re trying to determine how much of your individuality you’ll surrender during work hours.

We all know this somehow, right? When they say, “Tell us about your worst quality!”, we know that we’re supposed to say, “Sometimes I just work too hard and I have to be reminded to make time for myself!” I have said this. This is a lie. The truth would have been, “I can stay in bed eating short-chain carbohydrates and binge-viewing South Park for days at a time, because, sometimes, work rips the will to live right out of me.”

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So, you meet these falsely sympathetic questions with a falsely enthusiastic reply. They know you’re lying. You know that they’re lying. Or, at best, you’re both mystifying the truth everyone refuses to utter which is: “This work, like most work, will extract profit from your body and joy from your life, and we need to be sure that you won’t make a point of this and disturb the other workers.”

This is the true nature of most work. You agree to work hard and long enough that the company can keep the profit you provide. In the factories of the Global South, everybody knows this, because the terrible conditions make it hard to miss. In the offices of the West, we have learned to ignore the fear. We say, per the long tradition of white European hypocrisy, that we are team players. We are working long hours because it’s our “choice”.

And this is the skill of the job interviewer: learning if you are prepared to pretend that you “chose” this awful life.

Like many people, I have given up looking for a job. I can hope to earn about 50 grand a year in an office, which is just enough to survive and go to the dentist. More than a decade ago, I joined what is cheerily referred to as the “gig economy”. Sometimes, it pays as much as a regular job and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t give me sick days or Super or the capacity to take out a home loan. But there’s one thing a gig always gives us: the absence of a manager breathing down our necks and asking us to look like we “chose” to spend a minimum of 40 hours every week working for a wage that never keeps up with the rises in rent.

I was interviewing for a content producer role when I saw that the world of work had changed. This guy asked me, “What are your passions?” I answered, “paying the bills no more than a fortnight late”.

I can tell you the exact moment I made the “choice” to no longer pretend I was making a “choice”. I remember, for some reason, that the first Fast and Furious movie had just opened. I remember that the NASDAQ index had just crashed, and that my “choice” of work in the internet sector was beginning to seem like a bad one.

I was interviewing for a content producer role when I saw that the world of work had changed. This guy asked me, “What are your passions?” I answered, “paying the bills no more than a fortnight late”.

I didn’t get the job. What I did get was a sensitivity to the word “passion”, which I now began to hear used everywhere. On cooking reality shows, in Facebook threads and, of course, in conversations about Western work, the word “passion” was used like a restraint.

“I am passionate about the work that I do!” said a woman on the board of a company that makes weapons. “I am passionate about books!” said the friend of a Facebook friend.  “I am passionate about food!” said a contestant on MasterChef.

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Passion is now the default way to describe both our personal interests and our lack of choice as workers. We can’t even say we are “serious” any more and expect to be taken seriously. Even people working for better conditions for all the workers of the world, especially those in the Global South, say that they are “passionate”.  Why not just be serious about it, or, better yet, really angry?

I am angry that our passion, which should be a rare and personal thing, has come to be owned by the impersonal and everyday worlds of work and reality TV. I am passionate that passion remains my own, and is no longer used for profit. 

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