Mental Contrasting

Nearly there….

The second interview had gone really well.  Technically  the role was well within his range of expertise and rapport between himself, HR and the recruiting manager seemed friendly and warm. Perhaps most importantly having been out of work for a number of months the role was the one that he had  felt most  excited by  and the company was one he would be eager to join.

Result……. well nearly.

The telephone call came just 24 hours after the interview.  When  his mobile rang he recognised the number calling, his heart started to beat uncontrollably .  Surely his  time of anxious inactivity was about to come to an end.

46973500 - optimism and pessimism. road sign

He couldn’t remember the conversation it was full of polite banalities  except for the ‘ sorry but you came a close second’.   Deflating, demoralising and depressing.

How do you pick yourself up after what isn’t  an unusual outcome in a very competitive job market? It is  desirable and perhaps natural to feel positive and excited about an opportunity but it’s a  heartbreaking event when you discover you are to be disappointed.

‘Stockdale Paradox’

In his book ‘ Good to Great’ Jim Collins highlighted a phenomenon that he   termed the ‘ Stockdale  Paradox’ which takes its name from a two sided coping  strategy adopted by U.S.  Navy Vice Admiral,  James Stockdale who survived eight terrible years as a Vietnamese  prisoner of war. Stockdale noticed that it wasn’t just the pessimists who lacked the psychological strength to endure; it was the blind optimists too, because of the continuing disappointment they experienced when their positive assertion failed to materialise.

Stockdale described it like this ‘ You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end –  which you can never afford to lose –  with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be’.

Mental Contrasting

Mental contrasting is a technique that compares your ideal outcome with the reality of day to day life. Psychologists have confirmed that this type of  realistic idealism make it much more likely we will achieve our ultimate objectives. More so than the constantly positive approach we are often encouraged to adopt.

Two questions that you can ask yourself to enable mental contrasting are:

  1. Whats most likely to get in the way of you succeeding in meeting your goals for today?
  2. Whats your ‘when-then’ contingency plan to prevent that obstacle from getting in the way?

Adopting this approach will enable a candidate to approach an interview with a positive and optimistic approach but live with the reality of disappointment and how to react.


Who am I? A chap living in Nottingham, United Kingdom who perhaps has a much higher level of enthusiasm than ability leading to an interest in many things but mastery of none. A father of three no longer dependent children, or so they tell me, and husband to a one-time nurse who now works with me (or rather I work for). I attempt to take photographs and occasionally fluke half decent shots though thank goodness I no longer have to buy film. I endeavour to practice karate but with advancing years spend more time instructing them participating but actively participate in the more gentle tai chi. Professionally I have spent the last twenty years in recruitment – not always the most highly regarded ‘industry’. For my part I take great pleasure in helping companies to find the right people and a lot of satisfaction out of seeing them thrive and succeed. More recently I have spent a lot of time helping people who have, or fear they may, lose their jobs. For many putting a CV together is so difficult and then finding opportuniteis can be a major challenge. Interviews can be a different problem altogether but with a little help most people can perform a lot better than they otherwise would.

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