“Any other job in history” — What My Favorite Interview Question Says About You

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

On a client trip a few years ago, my business partner and I were having lunch with the CEO and Chief Data Scientist. We were discussing their recent hiring spree and how to find the best candidates.

We all took turns explaining our philosophies and sharing our favorite interview questions. Then the CEO presented theirs. The question sparked an interesting discussion and it stuck with me.

The CEO’s question was this:

“If you could have any job from any time period in history, what would it be?”

We all took a crack at answering it.

My answer was: “Race car driver in the 1960’s or 1970’s, or Group B Rally in the 1980's.”

They asked me why and this is what I answered: “Two reasons: One, I’m a gearhead. I love cars and sport of racing. Two, because those were the two most interesting eras of racing and at those times, engineers were pushing limits of what an engine could do, how aerodynamics could work, and how to win a race. They were iterating live on the track and making huge strides. Then a few incredibly brave souls strapped themselves into the seats and tested their assumptions. They pushed the sport of automotive racing as far as they could for the era, and I’m incredibly inspired by what they did.”

According to the CEO, it explained a lot about the way I think and the way I work.

Over the years since, I’ve thought about that question and used it in our own candidate interviews. It’s quickly turned into my favorite interview question.

Why your answer matters

The answer you give is the perfect blend of passion and work. It is one of those rare, useful questions that can cut through the noise and uncover how a person thinks without directly asking. It can immediately give you clarity into what a candidate is interested in.

With all the jobs in history at your disposal, you’re naturally going to gravitate towards what would seem interesting or fun to you. Because of this, your answer helps explain what you’re passionate about. After all, you’re not going to pick a job that sounds boring or tedious are you?

If you could do any job at any time in history, what would you do? Wine making? Painter? Jockey? Book keeper?

Your answer also describes how you like to work. Which could also help explain why you’re in the job you’re currently in.

Possibly more importantly for your relationship with the employee, your answer can also help explain the best way for a manager or boss to work with you.

How this question uncovers how you like to work and what you like to work on

Let’s say you chose wine making. That can explain several things about your work style. For example, maybe you like to get your hands dirty and be active in the process. It could say you have patience and like to personally enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Let’s say you got even more specific and answered “wine making in California in the 70’s”. It could say more about a pioneering spirit, striking out as the underdog and exploring new opportunities others don’t see yet (side-note: if you haven’t seen Bottle Shock, you should).

Let’s say you chose something else like horse racing jockey or quarterback. That could say something about your leadership style and maybe help describe how you like to lead a project.

Pay special attention to whether the answer describes if they like to work in a group or prefer to be a lone gun. That can help determine how well they work with others.

From a managers perspective, this helps answer another thing. Now they know the kind of work to give you, how to motivate you, and more importantly the kind of work NOT to give you.

  • You like pioneering work (explorer) — give this person new projects, new initiatives, let them carve new paths
  • You like tinkering and experimenting (scientist,) — give this person a clear end goal, the tools they need and the freedom to experiment
  • You like researching and discovering (historian, archaeologist) — give this person research projects, have them discover insights about the business and tread new ground to discover new opportunities.
  • You like building (architect) — Give this person blueprints and plan with tools to build things
  • Astronaut — give this person space 😉

How does my answer describe me?

I’m and engineer and a designer. Naturally, both engineers and designers love to tinker. Ask any designer or engineer and they’ll invariably describe side projects they’re working on, or new languages, techniques, or tools they’re trying out. They’ll probably also tell you nothing we do is ever done, it can always be better. We are always working out how to improve it (refactoring code, keep painting until it feels “right”).

For me personally, another trait I’ve learned about myself is I thrive when given a singular, specific goal, the necessary tools to reach that goal, and the time to tinker to discover the best way to approach it.

I also thrive in risk.

In my answer, the singular goal is “go around the race track faster than the competition”. In the rules of racing are a set of rules regarding how you can achieve that. The rules basically describe your limitations. For example, you have to use a particular type of engine (ie, no jet engines), the displacement of the engine, the kind of tire you can use, and more. Just about everything else is within your control, like the shape of the car (aerodynamics), the tweaks you can do to the engine, the driver’s skill, etc. That’s our leverage.

The clear, defining belief is this: the car can always go faster.

As a race-car driver, I would be working to measure, analyze, tweak, test, and repeat. Most importantly, I would be working with the team and thinking on our feet to figure out the best approach, like “what if we put a vent here?”, or “maybe there’s a way to get more power out of the engine”. (The movie Ford VS Ferrari is a great example).

Race car engineers and drivers are always thinking about how to push the boundaries of what’s possible by constantly testing, measuring, and iterating. That is why you hear about new features in passenger cars having come from the race track.

To me, that sounds like the ultimate fun. Plus, I’d get to play with cars all day.

What job would you choose and what do you think that says about you?

Originally published at https://charlesforster.com

Co-founder at a 7-figure software development agency. I write about Entrepreneurship, UI & UX, software engineering and personal development.

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