Use these unconventional job interview questions to find people with a creative spark


AAmid the tight labor market of the past few years, recruiting talent has been one of the biggest challenges for many organizations.

With a new book called Talenteconomist Tyler Cowen and investor and entrepreneur Daniel Gross tackle the question of how best to go about it and find people with a creative spark. They posit that the best candidates are too often overlooked and reject certain traditional hiring assumptions and practices.

“Intelligence is generally overrated,” they conclude based on a review of research on IQ scores, income and career success. (p. 79) They argue that instead, the best performers exhibit a combination of traits the authors call “the whole” (p. 85), including a commitment to practice – the equivalent of a pianist playing scales – for continuous improvement. “What you want is a kind of awareness directed toward the type of targeted practice and therefore compound learning that will build intelligence on the job,” they write. (page 121)

They believe that “stamina” – the proof of a tireless drive they see in people like Bob Dylan – is “one of the great underestimated concepts for talent hunting”. (p. 119) Other traits they recommend looking for include what they call hardiness, or consistency in the work done every day, and generativity, or open bubbling and sharing of ideas. Their goal is to hire workers who generate new ideas and approaches or “inspire others with their presence, leadership and charisma, regardless of the context” (p. 9) and they believe talent scouting is in itself something a hiring manager can improve through practice.

Talent describes a provocative approach to hiring, contrary to the efforts of many companies to standardize hiring processes – and interview questions – to reduce the impact of individual bias. Cowen and Gross dismiss these approaches as “bureaucratic methods of hiring” (p. 24) and focus instead on “unstructured” interviews where the interviewer’s individual judgment is a deciding factor. “Interviews are essential, and because so many organizations rely on mindless bureaucratic approaches, the bar is low and the payoff high,” they write. (p.27)

Cowen and Gross believe hiring managers should strive to build trust with candidates, avoid asking obvious questions, try to get candidates to tell stories about themselves, and ask for specific information. .

Here’s a sample of interview questions they recommend, along with the reasoning behind each:

  • What tabs are open on your browser right now? It sheds light on “intellectual habits, curiosity, and what a person does in their spare time, all at once,” the authors write. (p. 21) They believe that what you do in your free time can help reveal your personality and your approach to self-improvement.
  • What did you do this morning? This is a simple opening question that can spark a story, shift someone into a conversational and less fake mode, and reveal how a person organizes their ideas.
  • What did you do that was weird or unusual early in your life? What opinions do you hold religiously, almost irrationally? These are uncommon questions, meant to get candidates out of prepared answers and familiar territory, and to help you gauge their ingenuity, personality, and self-awareness. If candidates struggle to answer, the authors recommend repeating the question or sharing your own answer to give them time to think, but without giving up on demanding an answer.
  • If you joined us and in three to six months you were gone, why would that be? What are 10 words your spouse or partner or friend would use to describe you? These questions call for precise answers.
  • What did you accomplish that was unusual for your peer group? It’s a question they probably haven’t prepared for, so it gives you an idea of ​​how they think and rate themselves.
  • How ambitious are you? The response is difficult to fake and offers valuable information about their objectives and their ability to defend them.
  • When have you felt great regret at work and why? To what extent were you at fault in this interaction? Cowen and Gross believe that the distance created by online interviews provides openings for asking such confessional and revealing questions.
  • Can you give us an example where you perceived a team problem at work and intervened to solve it? What exactly was your remedy? This tests the ability to identify a social problem and its solution.
  • What do you think of the service here? The authors recommend doing interviews in places like restaurants and cafes. With this question, “you give the candidate a chance to express emotions, register grudges, and assess new and unexpected parameters, all in a relatively unfiltered form,” they write. (p.38)

Cowen and Gross suggest a few questions to ask a candidate’s credentials, originally offered by Stripe CEO Patrick Collison:

  • Is this person so good that you would be happy to work for them?
  • Can this person get you where you need to be much faster than any reasonable person?
  • When this person disagrees with you, do you think you are as likely to be wrong as they are wrong? »

The authors also explore research on why women, people with disabilities, and workers of color face discrimination in the hiring process. “Rightly selecting the overlooked late-career woman, unobvious misfit producer, or hidden gem is your best bet for building a unique, motivated, and loyal team,” write Cowen and Gross. “Identifying underappreciated talent is one of the most powerful ways to give yourself a personal or organizational advantage.” (page 8)

Be certain:

  • The book touts the practices of prominent Silicon Valley male figures, including Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and Marc Andreessen, and provides relatively few examples of outstanding female talent or talent scouts beyond Greta Thunberg, NK Jemesin and fashion models.
  • While the authors acknowledge that they are writing from the perspective of two white men, their section on racial bias in hiring sometimes comes across as naïve. Visiting a black church or an unfamiliar country like Finland is part of their advice to discover different perspectives.
  • The emphasis on honing the individual judgment of hiring managers or investors and rejecting structured “bureaucratic” approaches to hiring likely leave greater openings for bias and individual blind spots to influence decisions.
  • Authors frequently use financial earnings as a primary means of measuring professional success and its correlation with intelligence and other traits. Compensation is arguably a very one-dimensional measure of success, skewing any analysis of the traits that correlate with success. Thunberg, for example, probably ranks poorly in terms of earnings despite his extreme impact and notoriety.
  • Cowen and Gross sometimes compliment each other and sometimes indulge. Cowen “does not drink coffee or tea. The engine is inside,” they write. (p. 128) The book inexplicably quotes Gross’s “online memoir” of the results of a research paper rather than simply summarizing the paper.
  • The authors claim that there is no definitive book on finding talent. One in this category that I have found valuable over the years is The talent advantage by David S. Cohen.

Anecdotes and memorable facts:

  • Elon Musk personally interviewed the first 3,000 hires at SpaceX because he wanted to make sure they were hiring the right people.
  • According to the authors, at least 20 to 40 percent of the growth in American economic output since 1960 has come from a better distribution of talent, as women and workers of color are better able to access the jobs that suit them.
  • Former Y Combinator president Sam Altman wrote a computer program to measure how quickly founders funded by the venture capital firm responded to his emails.
  • Research in Finland found that a higher IQ was correlated with a person’s likelihood of being an inventor, while parental education level played a bigger role in whether a person was a lawyer or a doctor. .

Notable quotes:

  • “If the person engages in daily, intensive self-improvement, perhaps avoiding more typical, more social activities, there’s a better chance that they’ll be the kind of creative obsessive who can make a big difference.” (page 2)
  • “A world of rampant inequality and insufficient opportunity is, among other things, a world that fails to recognize and mobilize talent.” (page 14)
  • “In an interview, you can ask anything (legal) in the known universe and explore any angle you want. What a splendid but also confusing position to be in. (p. 25)
  • “The best interviews aren’t formal interviews at all.” (p.38)
  • “Contemporary society still too often suffers from ‘lookism’, which expects intelligent and ‘capable’ people to fit a very particular physical image of how to move, act and sound. As far as possible, try to free yourself from these prejudices. (p.169)
  • “A significant underclass of potential workers walks around with many of their talents invisible or at least much harder to spot.” (p.198)

The main thing is that Talent is a provocative tour of the considerations and assumptions that go into hiring. The interview questions recommended by the authors are particularly stimulating.

A special offer for Charter subscribers: Find out what business leaders are saying about Talent about the new book discovery app Tertulia, which is currently offering the book 25% off. Head to the Apple App Store to download Tertulia,

You can also order Talent at Where Amazon.

Read our book brief Impact Playerswhich examines the attributes of the most notable individual contributors.

Read our briefing on Interrupted biaswhich covers ways to fix the hiring process.

Lily all our book briefings here.


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