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🗿 Stoicism and the Software Interview

Interviewing is hard, and software engineers have it especially bad. In what other profession is your fate determined by how well you solve random brainteasers on camera?

Last week I had ten interviews with eight different companies, plus two automatically timed and scored tests and two take-home coding projects on top of that. It was not easy, but I did have some new tools that helped a lot, and I would like to share some of those in this article.

These are tools that I acquired while learning about Stoicism, an ancient Greek school of philosophy, which, among other things, provides guidance on how to react to stressful, frightening, or depressing situations.

The Reserve Clause

Taking a reserve clause essentially means putting in the effort and then accepting the outcome. Here's an example:

I will study as hard as I can and then, fate permitting, I will receive a job offer.

The fate permitting clause is the reserve clause. What you are doing here is taking responsibility for your efforts while leaving the responsibility for the outcome in the hands of fate.

Framing the goal in this way, you succeed as long as you put in the effort. Even if you do not get the job!

There are a million reasons why you might not get the job even if you put in the effort. They might by chance ask questions you had not prepared for, or maybe they liked you fine but there was another candidate who knocked their socks off, or maybe they thought you were amazing but someone accidentally entered 0 points instead of 10.

We control little beyond our efforts, and fortune is fickle. If we limit our concept of success to the things we do control, we can be more focused in our efforts and more equanimous when set back by forces beyond us.

Maybe They Did You a Favor

Try to be grateful for rejection. Maybe by rejecting you, they are doing you a great favor! Your "dream job" could have turned into a nightmare, and your "backup plan" could turn out to be the greatest job you will ever have. We just cannot know.

(The most fun I have ever had at a job was working as a cashier in a convenience store. I will spare you the details, but it was a million times more fun than I could have expected! The pay could have been a little better though...)

By rejecting you, they are helping to write a chapter of your story. They are giving you direction. That is something to be grateful for.

The Locality of Anxiety

Anxiety is often described as "butterflies in your stomach", and indeed when you feel anxious, you will notice some interesting things if you focus on where you feel anxious.

It is a physical sensation, often in your chest, your stomach, maybe even your legs. It is not mental. It may not even be in your head!

We seem to be hardwired to launch into catastrophic thinking when we feel such sensations, but we actually have a lot of control over the extent of that. If you recognize anxiety as a benign physical feeling, it can help you prevent it from commandeering your emotional state.

Avoid Suffering Before it is Necessary

To suffer before it is necessary is to suffer more than is necessary - Seneca

In addition to observing where anxiety happens, be mindful about when it happens.

You might find that you are freaking out hours before you even step onto the stage! That is hours of suffering and it is completely unnecessary.

Recognizing that the thing you are so afraid of is not even happening right now can help calm your nerves.

The View From Above

This is a really simple and practical technique that Stoics use to decatastrophize a situation and make it not-so-bad.

The idea is just to imagine looking down on yourself from above. Imagine you can see your entire block, or maybe your city, or maybe your country, and everyone in it. None of them care about what happens in your interview. It is just not that important.

A lot of the time, this might sound like a depressing activity. But anxiety is caused to some extent by an inflated sense of self-importance! Re-framing the situation in a way that trivializes it, and yourself, can help to temper your emotions towards it.

You can do this activity in an instant, or you can spend more time on it. Here is a meditation plan you could follow.

What Happens Next?

What are you going to do after the interview?

Go for a run? Make a sandwich? Play a game?

Remember that there is an after. You are going to pick up the phone, spend an hour on it, and then it is over. No matter what happens in an interview, it will end, and after it does, it will feel like it took a mere instant.

Just remember that you still have the rest of your day ahead of you. The world is not ending.


I bet some of this sounded excessively mystical to some readers, but the proof is in the pudding. Try it out! Using these techniques and perspectives during the interview process helped me to maintain my composure before, during, and after interviews, and to be more satisfied even with negative outcomes.

For anyone going through the interview process now, good luck! It may not be easy, but you will get through it.

Top comments (1)

vunguyendev profile image
Vu Nguyen

Thank you, good post