The Unfathomable Horror of Interviewing on Zero Sleep

Jobs in Japan Feb 28, 2019

In all my life, I had never pulled an all-nighter without purposefully doing so.

Even in what I had believed to have been the most adverse of sleeping conditions, I had always managed to get a minimum of three or four hours.
Unfortunately, reminding myself of that fact did little more than fan the flames of panic beginning to rise within me.

I was in complete and utter disbelief. I started grasping for lifelines in the only way that I knew, by texting all of my friends and dramatically expressing just how dire the situation was to them.

I don't know exactly what that was intended to accomplish, despite knowing that a salvo of sympathetic responses would be unlikely to suddenly
rock me to sleep, I kept up the texting for a while. Maybe it was a decent distraction, maybe I just wanted someone to talk to in that moment.
Though as it got later, it became clear that I was going to have to remedy this situation on my own.

A few hours prior, I was walking on sunshine.

I had arrived at the hotel one full day in advance, and for the first half of my stay, everything was going perfectly according to schedule.

My suit was prepped and laid out, my shoes were shined, and I was humming along to a Lo Fi sampling of Wes Montgomery's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."
I had arrived. Wherever the mythical place people refer to when they discuss "making it" is, I was certain that I was there.

I had aced the preliminary interview with such grace, such tact, that I had been invited all the way from New York City to Washington DC for this final round. Or at least, this is what I began telling myself as a preventative measure.

In reality, I knew that deep down, in the back of my mind, lurked the fear of totally blowing this. For that reason, I felt it necessary to start hyping myself up as much as possible, lest I give the coiled viper that was my anxiety a chance to strike.

7:00 PM - The first seeds of doubt are sown.

As this was a teaching position, I was expected to demonstrate my teaching abilities by means of a mock lesson. It was to be supplemented by a visual aid, which I had prepared myself.

I had completed the prototype in advance, and planned to jazz it up with some stamps and stickers as I reviewed it the night prior. I was given fairly strict style guidelines, but still felt that sprinkling a little extra flair to it would not be inappropriate.

my-hood teaching materials

It was while gazing at the adorable diagram of my fictional neighborhood, that I came to a terrible realization.

The sample presentation I was given to follow had a grid of 3 x 3, mine was 3 x 4...

While I understood how likely it was that I was just being paranoid, I couldn't help but consider the possibility that I was walking into a trap.
What if this was a test at following simple instructions? If I chose to ignore that, I could have been sealing my fate right then and there.

9:45 PM - I betray a personal superstition.

It occurs to me that the reason I've become so fixated on the hotel alarm clock, is because I've forgotten my wristwatch.
My heart drops as I'm reminded of the words of a certain British World War II commando.

“In my opinion, sir, any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.”

-Captain "Mad Jack" Churchill

I had been a longtime subscriber to the belief that many hiring managers and HR departments practiced something known as "watch discrimination." As a result, there was no way I could ever go into battle without a symbol of my punctuality displayed proudly on my wrist.

Seeing as the gift shop was closed, I now had 15 minutes to make it to the local pharmacy in hopes that there would be a suitable watch for me to purchase. The relief upon making it there in time to find a small display of decent looking cheap watches was quickly washed away by my next discovery.

They all had bright brown bands. My shoes, belt, and suit were all very much black.

As much as it pained me, like a thousand nails on a chalkboard, it would have to do.

10:15 PM - A renewed sense of determination arises.

With the watch situation addressed, I returned to my poster board. Despite every fiber of my being screaming for me to start the whole thing over, I was able to resist. I met my anxiety somewhere in the middle, simply by covering up the top three squares with some decorative tape.

I felt the ground start to return to it's place beneath my feet, and for a moment it seemed as though I was beginning to retake control of the situation. I had done what I could to address my fears, the rest was out of my hands. It was time now to begin rehearsing my presentation.

12:30 AM - Bedtime, or so I thought.

I had done all that I could do. There was no use in worrying any longer. Whatever was going to happen tomorrow was up to someone else. Be it fate, some deity, or an HR professional, it was time to let them do their thing.

I laid down and put on my happy song one last time for the night. Little did I know however, that I would not be going to sleep anytime soon.

I had experienced moderate sleeplessness before, but never an inability to sleep for even a single minute. As I tossed and turned, I refused to accept the possibility of that actually happening to me, here on the eve of the biggest interview of my life.

5:00 AM - Descent into madness.

It wasn't long before I had crossed the four-hour threshold.

When I was in the army as a teenager, we were often told that four hours of sleep was the minimum a soldier could get and still be expected to function at near 100%.

Beyond that, cognitive abilities would begin to decline.

I had tried listening to guided meditations on YouTube, I had tried going for a walk around the hotel, I had even tried counting. When I made it to 2,000 - it became clear that I was now in a situation. A situation that is perhaps best explained by this sleep deprivation study.

After 17-19 hours without sleep, corresponding to 2230 and 0100, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.1%).

-Williamson, A M and A M Feyer, Occupational and environmental medicine vol. 57,10 (2000): 649-55.

By the time I finished putting on my suit I had been up for 26 hours. I was now walking into one of the most defining moments of my life, and as far as science was concerned -

I was not suitable to operate machinery.

9:00 AM - The Crucible begins.

If my calculations are correct, I would have been operating at about 60% of my normal cognitive ability as I sat down in the conference room with the other candidates.

My plan was the same as it would have been if I was at 100%. All smiles, speak when spoken to, stay confident. The only real adjustment was that I was now drinking an excessive amount of water, as my research had led me to believe that hydration would be the key to mitigating as much of the sleep deprivation damage as possible. This backfired to an extent, considering I quickly found myself anticipating a bathroom break that wouldn't be arriving anytime soon.

I had 3 tasks to complete;

  • Participate in a group information session and seminar.

  • Perform a live demonstration of my mock lesson.

  • Complete a one on one interview with the hiring manager.

Although I felt a bit like I was walking on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit, the seminar concluded without incident. Now the real test of fortitude was about to begin.

12:30 PM - Lights, Camera, Action.

If it wasn't pressure enough that I was about to humble myself before a room full of strangers, it's worth mentioning that the whole thing was to be recorded. Directly in front of me stood the hiring manager with a camcorder, giving me the countdown. Whatever I was about to do would soon be screened in a Tokyo conference room for the corporate office to make their final decision regarding me. There was no backing out now, and I wasn't about to go down without a fight.

Channeling a combination of my high school Japanese teacher, Steve from Blue's Clues, and Tim Cook of the Irasshai series, I became the version of myself that I believed to be the ultimate ALT candidate. It was showtime.

The countdown ended, and I was given the signal to begin.

Over the next five minutes, I would introduce myself in Japanese, read from a script, sing a children's song, and then walk the "class" through the interactive lesson I had prepared.

Lo and behold, just as quickly as it began, it had ended. I heard the beep of the camera turning off, and as I looked around the room, I saw the nods of approval slowly start to come from each of the other candidates. I had pulled it off.

2:15 PM - A brief intermission.

I returned to my hotel room to splash cold water on my face and check up on my appearance. As I suspected, I did look a bit crazed, but I was still presentable. I had 45 minutes until the final one on one interview, and I contemplated spending this time on a power nap.

However, I decided that sleeping through the interview was not a risk I was willing to take, and instead just paced around the room - intermittently peeking out the window like a madman.

Peeking out the window of my hotel room

I had already used up my second, third, fourth, and fifth winds. I was running on fumes, but the knowledge that I had made it this far was encouragement enough. The finish line was now in sight, all I had to do was maintain my pace, and step across it.

3:15 PM - The clouds begin to part.

About halfway through the interview the hiring manager's words began to take on more affirmative connotations. Suddenly it felt as though we were no longer discussing a hypothetical situation. "If" was being replaced with "when." At the conclusion of our conversation, I was told that overall, I did very well.

We stood up, shook hands, and bid each other farewell.

I couldn't believe it was over. I had spent the first part of the morning contemplating just going home. My original assessment of the situation was that I would be better off just cancelling the interview, than going ahead and making a fool of myself in that condition. Now that it was over, I was glad that I had decided to tough it out.

I didn't know it at the time - but my sleep deprived performance had just secured me the position. I was going to Japan.

4:00 PM - Recovery.

I was in no condition to drive, nor did I really want to go home just yet. I figured the best course of action was just to stay one more night. It took all of maybe two minutes to fall asleep when I finally got back into bed, but strangely enough, I woke up about four hours later.

I guess four really was the magic number, because while I'm sure I was still a bit limited in brain power, I felt exponentially better. The range of emotions I had spanned in the preceding 24 hours had put my mind and body through a marathon of a workout, yet I felt a sense of accomplishment for having endured it.

I had no idea if I was going to get the job or not, but there was one thing that I was sure of. I couldn't have done a better a job even if I had got a full night's sleep. Maybe the delirium had relaxed me, made me more confident. Maybe if I was feeling mentally sharper I would have gotten in my own way. I can't say for sure, but I was convinced that I had interviewed to the best of my ability.

That was what I needed to know. Once I finally arrived at that conclusion, I fell asleep for real that time.

I drove home the next morning with two things in mind; to send a thank you email to the interviewer, and to keep an emergency pack of NyQuil in the car in case I ever find myself in that situation ever again.

Joseph Trubenstein

Software developer, English teacher, and aspiring Enka singer

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