“That was a terrible candidate! He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know!”

This was the reaction from my boss a few years ago, moments after he had interviewed someone for a graduate role in our sales business.

I hadn’t heard this expression before, and wasn’t really sure what it meant, or why it was such a disaster for the candidate. This was someone whom I had already interviewed just earlier that day and believed to be quite solid!

My boss enlightened me. His frustration with the poor candidate was that he didn’t appreciate the limit of his knowledge. During the interview he made the fatal mistake of attempting to talk knowledgeably, when he was in fact hopelessly out of his depth.


Instead of recognising the situation and swimming back to shore, he was lured further out of his depth by my boss’ relentless questioning, and he drowned (metaphorically of course). His career aspirations at our firm sank with him, and that is no metaphor.

The fact is, as an interviewer, there are fewer things more irritating than a candidate who thinks they are smarter than they really are.

I’ve sat in an interview where an aspiring young candidate mistakenly believed that, because she did a course on options pricing during her degree, she was well positioned to discuss the finer points of various option payoff profiles and strategies with me (she wasn’t). Or a candidate who did a grandiose-sounding dissertation on optimal portfolio theory and thought he knew about asset management (he didn’t).

Perhaps I’ve been a mean interviewer in my time, but in reality I think effective interviewers should explore the limits of potential new employees. One of my friends, a senior investment banker at a large Swiss bank, told me that he deliberately aims to take candidates out of their comfort zone during an interview, just to see how they react.


The point is, in real workplace situations, problems come along all the time. Some you can solve on your own, some test your limits and require you to ask others for help. This is the value of working in a team, you have backup there to help.

But if you persevere on solving this problem on your own, even when you are hopelessly lost and out of your comfort zone, the problem will only get bigger. Imagine you are working on some complex code which isn’t working, and screw it up even more, or trying to handle a client complaint but make things twice as bad. Suddenly you are wishing you had asked for help in the first place.

This issue of not knowing what you don’t know is a real issue for graduates in particular.


Fresh out of University with your newly minted degree, you feel on top of the world. You have just completed around sixteen years of formal, full time education, and rightly feel bullish about your capacity to contribute in the workplace. You have a high IQ and aced everything that University could throw at you. You feel like an expert in your field and want to really showcase your cumulative knowledge in an interview.

Unfortunately, you have little to no working understanding of how your knowledge can be brought to bear in the workplace. Internships show you a little of what working life is about, but they are barely an amuse bouche to a 12 course banquet.

Additionally, I’m not sure University teaches that much about teamwork. You may study together and play sports, but the mentality is that it is all about you trying to get the best possible degree for yourself.

This might be a tough message, but it is one that is worth heeding.

Be humble, and be very wary of trying too hard to show you have the answer to everything, because you don’t (none of us do, of course, but experience teaches a little wisdom, and as we age we become more aware of our shortcomings).

This is all about being aware of your own limits at all times, and not trying to be a go-it-alone hero.

So, what do you do when an interviewer tries to lure you to your doom with a sneaky line of questioning?

The answer, of course, is to remember that you are not omniscient. Think carefully about what you know – a process linked to what is called metacognition. By knowing what you know, you should be able to draw a mental line, beyond which resides everything you don’t know.


In the interview, be aware enough to recognise that you are being dragged towards this mental line. Then, have the discipline to say that you are not sure of the answer, and seek clarification or guidance from the interviewer.

By doing this, you highlight a behaviour that in the workplace would lead to you asking for help, rather than ploughing on in vain. This is a good thing, and something that will encourage the interviewer to believe you will be a strong hire.

To summarise:

Expect to be taken out of your comfort zone in an interview. It is all about seeing how you react under pressure.

You will have two choices, swim further out and drown, or swim back to the safety of the shore.

As you prepare for your next interview, expect this trap and be prepared to handle it with ease. 



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Image credits: Shutterstock

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