What is your biggest weakness?
It was questions like this that I vividly remember as a university student preparing for work experience interviews. I scrawled the internet, asked friends and consulted recruitment professionals. The most common answer I could find was something like 'I am too much of a perfectionist', if I could have backed this up with some sort of genuine example then it was, ironically, a 'perfect' response.
The problem was, I hadn't strived to be a perfectionist since I was nine or ten years of age. In fact, I pride myself on not being one. The way I look at it, if someone tells me that their biggest weakness is that they are too much of a 'perfectionist' then the best case scenario is they are being dishonest with me. It's really a lose/lose situation because nobody wants to work with a personality that has dishonesty at its core. Dishonest work colleagues generally try to conceal the errors they make and delegate blame away from themselves. This leads to minor errors becoming near fatal errors and resentment and bickering taking over a team.
If on the other hand the person is being completely honest with me then I also don't see it as a strength masked as a weakness. There are quite a lot of negatives to a person who feels pride in 'perfectionism'. Perfection at its core, is a 'nirvana state' that cannot be reached on a consistent basis by humans. Therefore, if we believe ourselves to be 'perfectionists' then we will, more often than not, find ourselves with feelings of frustration and feelings like frustration often lead people to lash out at others. Perfectionism hinders fast decision making and solid teamwork. The cultures of the Google's and the Facebook's of the world would be largely at odds with someone who prides themselves on 'perfectionism'. In fact Facebook seems to prefer to ship when it is good enough, rather then procrastinate over minutia in the pursuit of excellence every time.
The best way to prepare for an interview is to find out what it is that you want to do in the long term and then decide what role fits in line with the next stepping stone. Granted this is no small task, but it will stand you in good stead if you do figure it out. From my experience, the next step should be to watch interviews of people in that field and read books that you can relate to that field. The good news is most great books can be related to many different fields.
A good general book that can assist greatly with an interview is Managing Oneself by Peter F. Drucker. This book is relatively cheap and short (about 70 pages). In this book it is clear why it is important to try and identify authentic weakness. The vast majority of people cannot properly identify their weaknesses or even their strengths. Therefore, if you can do this then you will stand out from the crowd, and these thousands of people applying for the same job won't intimidate you as much.
I think that this identification mismatch phenomena stems largely from the fact that most people won't ask and take on board third party opinions, and most people are not self motivated into action. The best companies seem to look for people who have their own side projects. This not only demonstrates that the person is driven and has purpose, but in general people with their own agenda and ambitions become more self aware and more aware of their environment. Through action they begin to see what they are naturally good at and what they are weak at. They can then go on to either work on their weaknesses or leverage their strengths. The best option, according to Managing Oneself, is to leverage your strengths. Indeed this is why I think teamwork is so important, because it allows us to leverage our own unique strengths and in the process learn how our weaknesses can be lessened through observation.
This principle of knowing our true strengths and weaknesses is not relatively new. In fact it can be seen as far back as Ancient Greece when the Greek philosopher Thales said
The most difficult thing in life is to Know Thyself
The next time we find ourselves looking for a new job, it would be wise to first consider how well we know ourselves and our goals before we go looking for our next partner. Always remember that questions like 'what is your biggest weakness?' are double edged swords. Anything can be turned into a strength, it is simply a matter of your perception and that perception is what will make your interview stand out from the masses.