Interviewing is a delicate art. There is a lot of potential for awkwardness: two people who often have no background sit down and ask each other questions. A good interviewer can put their subject at ease quickly and find artful ways to unearth important stories. It’s not easy, but when someone pulls it off, the result is beautiful.
Recently, I had an interview with René Lönngren, a member of the Circles team, to discuss some of the company’s content needs. It was unlike any interview I’ve done before, and I suppose that’s because Circles is unlike any company I’ve ever known.
I entered the interview expecting René to ask me questions about my experience and abilities. Unexpectedly, he turned the tables. Instead of chatting about what the company needed from a writer, René wanted me to interview him.
Now, I knew interview skills were an important part of the position, but I didn’t expect them to be put to the test so quickly. I felt a touch of panic: I hadn’t prepared for this. I hadn’t written down questions. I didn’t have my recorder or my notepad. What were we even supposed to talk about?
My panic is assuaged by one truth I hold dear: everyone has something to teach you. Everyone has a story—some of them more fascinating than others, but all of them with a lesson. The process of finding that lesson can be a challenge, both for the interviewer and the person being interviewed. But that’s the beauty of human conversation: digging past the surface to find something remarkable that connects you.
And really, an interview is just a conversation. I could have a conversation, right?
So, I dove in. I started with easy, safe questions. How did you come to work with Circles? Why is the mission of Circles important? How has the company changed since it’s inception?
Suddenly, I realized something important: my questions were about Circles, not about René. I was interviewing the company, not the human being sitting in front of me.
Why? Because it was safer.
Writing can become formulaic, especially for those who have been doing it for a long time. I can fall into a dangerous routine with my interviews. Sometimes, I avoid the hard questions, because the answers can be complicated. They can make people uncomfortable. Operating beneath a thin veneer of platitudes and manners is simply easier.
But easy isn’t good. It isn’t rich and interesting and powerful. Conversations only get good when people start to be real and vulnerable.
As I realize my mistake and start to get real with René, that vulnerability comes out in small but significant ways. He confesses that he wants to become a better singer—not getting chosen for the school choir is still a stinging memory, many years later.
“I really love singing and I think I was slightly traumatized growing up when I applied to become a member of the choir,” he says. “So, everytime I’m in New York meeting with the team, I push them to go out and we sing karaoke together. I love that.”
I can tell this piece of information seems small and funny to René, but I find it incredibly important. Not only has Rene allowed himself to admit to a playful and simple goal, but he is actively trying to achieve it. The image is touching: a grown man with an insecurity about singing encouraging his colleagues to go out to karaoke. It’s so human.
René also expresses a desire to improve his relationship with money—another confession that demonstrates his commitment to self-improvement.
“I don’t feel that I’m completely at ease with the energy that is money,” he says. “I’d like to have more structure and predictability—a deeper, more healthy relationship with the energy that is money.”
I share this discomfort and rejoice at his phrasing: “the energy that is money.”
In what is perhaps the most significantly humanizing moment of the interview, René discusses a major challenge he faced as a parent. He is a father of three, all boys under ten.
“When I had my first son, I had to figure out how to set boundaries,” he says. “How do you set limits to another human being and why is that useful? What I realized was that, without limits, a child grows up not knowing what is right and what is not right and that creates insecurity. Figuring out how to set limits in a way that is useful has been great not only for my role as a father, but also for myself in my personal life.”
René is a pensive, considerate person. There is a recurring theme in our conversation: passion. Passion permeates all areas of René’s life, from his work with Circles, to his family, to his general, day-to-day attitude. What feeds that passion? The tireless pursuit of knowledge and growth.
“I get up in the morning to grow and to learn and I do that by getting out of my comfort zone,” he says.
But René is clear that this eagerness to learn can’t be experienced in a vacuum. To be truly fulfilling, that learning has to be shared.
“I enjoy growing and learning, but I also enjoy immensely sharing what I learn,” he says. “Learning for myself is not enough. I’m also really interested in how I can apply what I’ve learned to impact the lives of others.”
This interest is at least partially what led René to his work with Circles. He says that connecting over common suffering can be hugely therapeutic for people, which is a major part of the foundation for Circles.
“Circles, at its core, is really about sharing those thoughts and fears and obstacles and understanding that that is a shared experience,” René says. “It takes the pressure off. It makes you feel more normal. That, I believe, will create more compassion, first for oneself and then for other people. And I think this is a way that we can make this world a better place to live: through more compassion.”
René recommended that I read this article from Esquire about the concept of Radical Honesty. It’s a pretty simple (if revolutionary) idea: don’t lie. About anything. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—all the time. He identifies this as a guiding principle both for him personally and for the Circles organization: not holding back.
“A core value within circles and the kind of organization that we’re building is to not hold back: be honest and transparent, share, and do your best to help others by giving straight up feedback,” he says.
While radical honesty is a little extreme for my tastes, I recognize that we can all benefit from a little more realness in our everyday lives. And I think this is exactly what Circles is about: realness, and vulnerability, and unadulterated connection among people. It’s about creating a space where people can be uninhibitedly themselves, learn from each other, and grow with each other. It’s about cutting through the crap.
This is a mission that resonates with me. I like it. I want to be a part of it. I want to ask the hard questions and be a person that cuts through the crap. An honestly connected person.
And with every awkward, challenging, real interview, I think I’ll get a little closer to being that person.