How "Jeopardy" skills translate to the job hunt


Earlier this year, I scored the interview of a lifetime. This opportunity, while golden, was nevertheless an intimidating prospect. I would face intense questioning, requiring hair-trigger responses; the competition would be incredibly stiff; and prying, judging eyes would watch me at all times. As for the interviewer, he was a living legend, the best in the business. You’ve probably heard of him: Alex Trebek.

My appearance in July on the internationally televised quiz show “Jeopardy!” was a thrill and an adventure. And as I processed the experience afterward, I realized it also offered lessons on interviews in the real-world workplace.

Preparation matters. I had two and a half weeks to prepare after getting the call, and I spent the time replicating showtime conditions as best I could — standing in front of the television while I watched the shows, holding a ballpoint pen to mimic the “Jeopardy!” buzzer and finding a stance that was comfortable. When it came time to get in front of the camera, I found myself slipping back into my practiced routine without having to think about it much, freeing my mind to concentrate on the task at hand.

Preparation isn’t everything, though. As I got ready for my taping day, I crammed as much information as possible into my brain. Since I didn’t know what topics might come up, I tried to cover the basics: presidents, world capitals, major literary figures, a smattering of pop culture, general science knowledge, etc. It was a good idea, but it didn’t help: Only one tidbit I’d studied actually came up during my show — and I answered that one wrong.

Yes, you belong there. Impostor syndrome is real. It’s easy to feel like you’re inadequate, to doubt your abilities and think that everyone else is better-qualified than you. When these worries strike, it helps to be kind to yourself and remember that you were asked to be there — you belong just as much as anyone else. On the day my show was recorded, I shared the green room with a dozen contestants (a full week’s shows are taped at a time), all of whom I knew were very, very smart. Reminding myself that I had received the same phone call that they did helped me feel grounded and confident.

Be ready to think on your feet. Knowledge alone isn’t enough. The outcome may depend also on how fast you can put two and two together — and you never know when your interviewer might throw you a curveball. During my show’s second round, one category asked us to come up with new, not-in-the-dictionary words that combined the names of U.S. states with other random information. It sounds weird, and it was — but my correct answers significantly boosted my score. (And in case you’re wondering, a strict plant eater from a Pacific coast state might be called an “herbivoregon.”)

It’s OK not to win. Despite my efforts, I came in third, in last place. This was a disappointment, to be sure, and it was — and still is — intensely frustrating to know I won’t have another crack at the game. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with my performance, and I’m relieved that for the most part I didn’t give cringeworthy answers. But on “Jeopardy!” as in the world of job interviews, there’s generally only one winner, which doesn’t leave room for those who may do a great job but come up just a bit short. If that happens to you, like it happened to me, hold your head high and keep an eye out for the next great opportunity.

Amy Swanson King: [email protected]; on Twitter: @AmyRhody. Amy Swanson King is a Seattle-based writer, editor and teacher who has worked everywhere from Microsoft to middle schools.

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