Impressiveness and Interviews

I just generated a wholly original interview question.[1] You know how it’s so hard for non-narcissists to talk about themselves? You know how in interviews one is supposed to subtly brag and hit specific beats in specific ways that show both competence and self-awareness and how this delicate dance probably reveals more about one’s ability to successfully play games than deliver useful labor? I have a solution.

You can’t fake friends. In one’s mind, sure, but never in reality since reality offers the most objective of tests: how much time do you spend engaged with said “friends”? And if you aren’t actually spending time, you won’t actually know these “friends,” and thus you’ll be unable to really talk about what makes them tick. Yea, but people present a fraudulent depiction of themselves all the time, so surely they can pretend to have friends they don’t have. Not so much, I think. People are well-versed at lying about themselves – I’m a great team player; my weakness is that I work just a little too hard – but they don’t have nearly the same reps lying on behalf of other people. So when pushed to describe a fake friend in more than superficial terms, words won’t come so easily. This reality marks the first foundation of this new interview question.

The second foundation is that your friends say something important about you. Yes, some version of you-are-the-product-of-the-five-people-you-surround-yourself-with is true. Thus, if HR could truly know who someone is surrounded by, resumes could henceforth be discontinued and replaced by a simple strategy of drafting candidates with the most impressive friends.

We still need another foundation, though, because “impressive” is not universally agreed upon. Rather, what one finds impressive is a revelation of values. It’s values, after all, that HR is trying to ascertain through standard interview questioning. Describe yourself in three words. What are your strengths? What’s your preferred work environment? Values, values, and values. The problem is that since these questions are filtered through a self that’s trained to craft interview answers about oneself tuned to what people want to hear, it’s quite hard to distinguish between values and gamesmanship. Change this rhythm. Tell me, xxxxxxxxx, who are your two[2] most impressive friends? What makes them impressive?  I don’t pretend that the candidate will suddenly forget an interview is occurring; I do believe that getting the candidate off-script and into a place where honesty is generally far easier[3] makes the discovery of values more likely.

I’m thinking about all of this and thinking how my knee-jerk answers would probably be wrong. I would first want to go to incandescent talent, to the xxxxxxxxxs of the world who run really fast or the xxxxxxxxxs who drum really hard. Or then maybe it’s all my friends who are crushingly intelligent, who may well meaningfully change the world through sheer brainpower. All these answers are perfectly acceptable, fun to deliver,[4] and would probably say something positive about me. These answers also reveal flawed thinking I likely wouldn’t catch in the time crunch of an interview. I do catch it now.

Hard times are gonna come. Always. For everyone. If “impressiveness” is just about the talent that looks great when up 30 in the 4th quarter, you’ll be ill-equipped when you most need something formidable to draw upon. Driving home from the hypothetical interview where they happened to ask me my invented interview question, I see that I missed this “something formidable.” I see clearly, as is too often the case after an interview, that I want my definition of “impressiveness” to bypass the popular answers and instead recognize the ability to do that which needs to be done despite the immediate pain. Naturally, I thought of you and the challenge of getting out of a marriage. I thought about the task of rebuilding a life, of still having goals and dreams and desires and nobly pursuing them when capitulation would have been defensible. Oh honey, you are going through a lot. Just sit here and rest. You can’t really choose to be smart or fast; you can choose to hold your head high when the wind is howling and everyone else is seeking shelter. And so it is in this choice that I find you most impressive.[5]

Doing/saying what needs to be done/said surely applies to your work-life as well. While I haven’t worked with you, I feel reasonably confident that your action-orientation, even when it’s hard, makes you an invaluable member of any organization. You would, though, be forgiven for swallowing this part of yourself as the burdens of breadwinning whisper Be safe. Keep your head down. Collect those paychecks. For there is absolutely something risky about standing out and challenging the status quo.[6] Now, you may say you’d go crazy, be overworked, or bored if you suppressed this part of yourself. Don’t you see: that is your impressiveness winning while damn near everyone else caves to safety rationalizations. Not to say you never procrastinate or turn in a lazy day or pass on fighting a certain battle or regret or, or, or, it’s that you ultimately opt to push forward at an elite rate.

The Christian God is not impressive to me. If you 100% know that giving your only son to be crucified means he’ll save humanity and sit at your right hand for eternity, you are doing that which is obvious and easy. Thirty-fiveish years is irrelevant in the face of forever, and celebrating omniscient “decision-making” is like praising a kid who stole the test answers before the exam. For mere mortals, we don’t get certainty. We don’t really get all that many obvious, easy decisions. We get serious tradeoffs and a relentless pressure to do nothing at all. And with these terms of engagement, we would do well to, well, be more like you.

[1] Of course someone else has surely also thought of it. I mean original in the sense that I did not knowingly plagiarize it.

[2] One is too small. Three is too big. And not naming a number is too open-ended.

[3] Interview or not, most people can more honestly brag about a friend than themselves. And again, while people can smoothly craft lies about themselves, it’s much harder to do this about other people you don’t actually know (i.e., fake friends). So both shady candidates (who can adroitly lie about themselves) and reticent ones (who feel awkward with self-aggrandizement) are thrust into a situation where real values are more likely to be revealed.

[4] If you have real friends, really speaking about why you so adore them is joy.

[5] You are smart. Maybe fast too. Whatever.

[6] Even when it should be challenged.