What brain science can teach us about thriving at work

Recent brain research is shedding new light on job hunting and career success, writes author Art Markman.

What brain science can teach us about thriving at work

Art Markman, author of Bring Your Brain to Work

Ever wonder why people think and act the way they do? Cognitive science, defined as the study of minds and brains, sets out to explain some of what goes on in people’s heads—including hiring managers’.

Cognitive science “has a lot to say about how people think, feel, and act that has practical applications for how you should live your life, particularly at work,” writes Art Markman, author of Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do It Well, and Advance Your Career.

Markman teaches psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s also executive director of the IC2 Institute, a think tank that applies ideas from a wide range of fields—neuroscience, anthropology, computer science, and philosophy—to entrepreneurship.

A lively read, sprinkled with examples from real life, Bring Your Brain to Work is full of insights that run counter to the same old familiar career advice. Take, for instance, the notion that success requires you to “find your passion.”

Not so fast. Passion is a nice idea, but “you shouldn’t expect love at first sight,” says Markman. “At the outset of any career, you often have to pay your dues and do work that isn’t all that exciting. That doesn’t mean it won’t develop over time into something you love, even if every moment isn’t a passionate experience.”

Plenty of research and anecdotal evidence suggests taking the long view. “Your career is more than just one job,” Markman adds, “and you may find your values, and your goals, change over time. We certainly don’t expect people to take the career paths they envisioned at age 5, or even as adolescents. You shouldn’t hold your 40-year-old self to the wishes of your 25-year-old self, either.”

Knowing what you value, and looking for work that matches up with that as it changes over time, can lead you to some unexpected places. Markman himself has written over 150 scholarly papers, and several books before this one. “If my seventh-grade English teacher knew I’d turn out to write books,” he says, “she’d never believe it.”

Monster recently spoke with Markman about how cognitive science can help you get a job that’s right for you and flourish in it.

Q. What can cognitive science tell us about how to know when it’s time to change jobs?

A. In a nutshell, if you’re doing the same things over and over again and not learning anything new or growing professionally, it’s probably time to move on to a different job. Great leaders have a tremendous depth and breadth of knowledge about their business, so you want to be in a position where you’re learning all the time.

Q. You go into some fascinating detail about how hiring managers think. Could you tell us a bit about that?

A. One thing I came across that surprised me a bit was a phenomenon called The Presenter’s Paradox. We’re often advised to include on a resume everything we’ve done so far. That’s understandable, because you never know what will catch someone’s eye.

But the research shows that’s not the way to make your resume really stand out. Instead, you want to highlight only the very best of what you’ve done. The reason is, hiring managers tend to use a kind of averaging when they look at your CV. If there’s something on there that’s good but not great—a solid B+, but not an A or an A+—it will lower his or her perception of the whole resume. So it’s better to leave those things off.

Q. In a job interview, how should you respond if the hiring manager asks a question you can’t answer?

A. The important point about an interview is that it is essentially a personal audition. After all, the interviewer already knows you have the technical qualifications and experience they’re looking for, or you wouldn’t be there. What he or she is really doing is trying to figure out, would you be good to have around day to day?

So, rather than have a bunch of memorized answers ready, engage in a real conversation. If the interviewer asks a question you can’t answer, ask questions about it until you can come up with an answer. How the interviewer reacts tells you a lot about the company’s culture. If they leave you hanging, that tells you it’s an organization that doesn’t value, or expect, learning on the job.

Q. Let’s say you’re offered the job and you’re tempted to take it without negotiating. Why is that a bad idea?

A. It isn’t always bad, but if there’s anything you want that’s not included in the offer, now is the time to ask. They want to hire you, and they want you to be happy in the job, so you have much more leverage at this moment than you’ll have later on. Any reasonable request you make—whether it’s flextime, for example, or some form of continuing education or training—is almost certainly a lot cheaper for them than it would be to replace you in a few months or a year.

Think of the job offer as a starting point in the process of creating a kind of partnership with the employer. You’re crafting a job that serves both your goals and theirs. And again, this tells you a lot about the culture. If they flat-out refuse to consider any reasonable request you might make, think twice about what it would be like to work there.

Q. You write that, instead of just one mentor, each of us needs a team of them, especially in a new job. Why is that?

A. It’s rare to find one person who knows everything. One person might know the politics of the organization inside out, for instance, while someone else knows how to get a particular kind of task done quickly. So build relationships with all kinds of mentors, above and below you.

This is one of those skills essential to success that nobody teaches you in school. The way we learn is from other people at work. The more you ask for help and advice from other people, and offer it in return, the more invested they become in helping you reach your goals.

Find the right fit

Is all the information about how to find a job making your head spin? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you can get practical tips from career and recruiting experts to help hone your job search skills. Additionally, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs and company cultures that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Sounds like a smart move.

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?