The most abstract interview questions don't just prove whether you're qualified.
Have you ever been in an interview in which you were asked about the next job you wanted, after the one you were applying for? It's a weird place to be if you're a job candidate: sitting across a conference room table as the interviewer stares you down with the question, "What do you see yourself doing when you finish at my company?"
Now, I can tell you from my side of the table what it's like to ask that question and why I may ask candidates to think beyond the jobs for which they are applying. I want to see how candidates are thinking about their career paths, and then I can determine whether our business and the role fits naturally with those expectations.
There's another reason: It's odd for the candidates and usually knocks them off their guard. Interviewers have lots of questions designed to challenge; in fact, it's even part of Google's legendary hiring process--with questions so crazy they were banned. Come on, unless you're interviewing at the department of public works, do you really think an interviewer who asks "Why are manhole covers round?" is interested in the history of urban planning?
Interviewing is an inevitable part of finding the coveted #GoodWork. You aren't going to escape it. There is an old saying that you are interviewing the company just as much as it is interviewing you--that's the exact motivation behind this recent Mashable piece. You want to get a sense of the person for whom you may be working, as that individual stands to be your manager or colleague for the foreseeable future.
If you take this really seriously, you can think about going further than that chemistry check. Yes, part of the reason I may ask candidates to tell me what they want to do after they work with me is to see if our visions align for the medium- and long-term future. I'm not looking to hire people who will leave immediately. That said, another reason I ask the question is that I want to see how the person thinks about what lies ahead. It gives me an opportunity to consider whether the job that I have open could actually constitute #GoodWork for them. As an interviewee, if you take your part of the inspection process seriously, you can do more than answer the question--you might even find out what "good work" means to you along the way.
One of my colleagues at Startup Institute likes to throw out the question, "What keeps you up at night?" As an interviewer, I don't know his habits directly, but I could envision he may be posing that broad question to see what you do without much direction. Do you answer with something focused on work? Your personal life? Does your response mesh with the culture and work-life balance (or lack thereof) at our company?
From your side of the table, you have a different conundrum: Reveal too much and you may come off as overly anxious, jeopardizing the opportunity. Too little, and you may be too robotic, or rehearsed, to be a clear culture fit. As so with a first date, if you cannot be honest now, are you giving yourself a chance to find the right option for the rest of your life?
I've been known to ask candidates to explain to me a time when they were relentless about achieving something in life. What if you aren't the type of person who considers yourself relentless? People can succeed in life without that quality; perhaps making up for it with patience.
Similarly, when a potential employer, like Sergey Brin, says to you, " Could you teach me something complicated I don't know?" you may find the practice of solving problems to be much more enjoyable than having to explain complicated concepts. As the interviewee, it is easy to feel like you need to get all the right answers, but this sort of mental exercise may indicate that you're on a quest for a different kind of work.
Abstract interview questions are meant to confirm chemistry. Interviewers may be striving to see how goals, culture, or practical methodologies align, but both parties need to confirm this fit in order to consider it good work.
Regardless of the outcome, these are the probing questions that can help us to define and achieve our own professional aspirations. Shifting the focus from the "right" answers to the honest ones may bring you one step closer to finding your own good work. One question an interviewer may never ask: Why not make the most of it?
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