A tour de force post taking us from Google interviews, to self-esteem, to dancing men *UPDATED*

I have been brooding about an article I read the other day, one that describes the brave new world of job interviews.  According to the Wall Street Journal, many companies, having recognized that traditional interview techniques aren’t necessarily a good way to determine whether someone is right for the job, have moved on to brain teasers, intermingled with questions that the really stupid jobs counselor at your high school might once have asked:

Jim’s first interviewer is late and sweaty: He’s biked to work. He starts with some polite questions about Jim’s work history. Jim eagerly explains his short career. The interviewer doesn’t look at him. He’s tapping away at his laptop, taking notes. “The next question I’m going to ask,” he says, “is a little unusual.”

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

The interviewer looks up from his laptop, grinning like a maniac with a new toy.

“I would take the change in my pocket and throw it into the blender motor to jam it,” Jim says.

The interviewer’s tapping resumes. “The inside of a blender is sealed,” he counters, with the air of someone who’s heard it all before. “If you could throw pocket change into the mechanism, then your smoothie would leak into it.”

“Right… um… I would take off my belt and shirt, then. I’d tear the shirt into strips to make a rope, with the belt, too, maybe. Then I’d tie my shoes to the end of the rope and use it like a lasso.”

Furious key clicks.

“I don’t mean a lasso,” Jim plows on. “What are those things Argentinian cowboys throw? It’s like a weight at the end of a rope.”

No answer. Jim now realizes that his idea is lame, but he feels compelled to complete it. “I’d throw the weights over the top of the blender jar. Then I’d climb out.”

“The ‘weights’ are just your shoes,” the interviewer says. “How would they support your body’s weight? You weigh more than your shoes do.”


How are companies coping with this new environment? In September 2009, the Labor Department reported that job seekers outnumbered job openings by 6 to 1. These unemployment numbers have spread riddles, loaded questions and multiple-interview marathons across the corporate food chain, into mature and less cutting-edge industries. Each year Glassdoor.com compiles a list of “oddball” interview questions (puzzles, riddles and the like) reported by members. In the most recent list, only about a quarter of such questions came from tech firms. The rest were from mainstream corporations, from Aflac to Volkswagen.

“If you could be any superhero, who would it be?”

“What color best represents your personality?”

“What animal are you?”

These questions, posted by job candidates on Glassdoor.com, aren’t from some wacky Silicon Valley start-up—they’re asked of applicants at AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America, respectively.

Before I go any further, I have to interject here that I was at the cutting edge of this trend.  A long, long time ago, when I was a young lawyer at a big firm, a young man came for an interview.  But this wasn’t any young man.  His former fraternity brother was one of my colleagues and was part of my social group at the firm.  We thought it would be a great joke to give this young man (I’ll call him “Tom”), the job interview from Hell.  That’s what you do to former fraternity brothers, right?

After much persuasion, the firm allowed us to co-opt an empty conference room and convene a “special panel” to ask Tom some follow-up interview questions.  His former fraternity brother was literally hidden behind a potted palm.

When Tom walked in and saw a row of men and women, all strangers to him, but all young, he suspected a gag, but as there was no way for him to know for sure, and as this was a law firm in San Francisco (read:  potentially wacky), he had to play along.  We started firing off questions:

If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Are you a linear or a circular thinker?

What kind of superhero are you?

What kind of animal are you?

And no, I’m not simply copying my questions from the list of questions asked at AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, and BofA (per the above Wall Street Journal article).  Back in the 1980s, we still understood that those questions were jokes.

Tom bravely fielded the questions, and we let him in on the joke at the end. What’s sad is that today’s young interviewees walk into and out of that room knowing that it’s no joke.

I haven’t been brooding about that article simply because it brought up an old (and fairly amusing) memory.  I was actually thinking about what would happen if I had to face an interview like that today.  I’ve been looking for permanent work in desultory fashion, which means I want to start working again, but I’m thankfully not desperate for work.  I’m also a very secure person.  (I’m neurotic too, and I can tell you that being simultaneously secure and neurotic is one cool party trick.)

So what would I do if a prospective employer asked me really stupid, irritating question?  My instinct is that I would have nothing to do with it:

“Sorry, but I don’t play games.  I meet all the written qualifications for this job.  I’m also very intelligent, utterly reliable, completely honest, and a very pleasant person with whom to work.  Asking me questions about blenders or trees or superheroes will not give you any greater insight into my ability to do well in this job.  Sometimes, you just need to gamble.  Hire me for a six week trial period, and let’s see how it goes.”

I’m not the only seasoned worker who feels this way.  One of my friends went on a series of job interviews last year.  She complained to me about the stupid faux-psychological questions fired at her.  “Bookworm,” she said to me, “I just don’t have the patience for that stuff.  I told them that I can do the job, my resume proves I can do the job, and they either like me or they don’t.”

One of the consolations of aging is that insecurity lessens.  Watching my two children navigate their middle school and high school experiences is a good reminder that youth and insecurity are a matched set.  Considering their age, my children aren’t grossly insecure (a nice combination of a good community and, I flatter myself, adequate parenting), but they’re still constantly worried about the usual things that plague young people:  “Are these clothes right?”  “Do I look stupid?”  “Will anyone notice this zit?”  “If I hang with so-and-so will it help or hurt my social standing?”  As to that last one, I’m pleased to report that my children are sufficiently decent people that they do not reject potential friends merely because the friends don’t rank high on the “popular meter.”

I was infinitely more insecure than my children.  Immigrant parents, urban schools, a child-free neighborhood (I was the only kid on my block), thick glasses, and a diminutive stature all left me seriously questioning my place in the grand scheme of things.  Time, though, has a great leveling effect.  Over the years, I’ve come to terms with who I am.  I know my virtues and my failings.  I embrace the former and am reconciled to the latter.  As Popeye so aptly said, “I yam what I yam.”

It took me a few decades to get to this level of self-knowledge and security.  There are some life experiences, though, that accelerate a person’s knowing, and coming to terms with, himself.  I’ve often commented to my sister that military guys dance.  That’s not as stupid an observation as it first seems.  I love getting out on a floor and dancing.  I’ve got no training, it’s questionable whether I have moves, but I don’t care.  Dancing feels wonderful.  Sadly, middle class guys, for the most part, don’t dance.  Back when they were 13, they figured out that dancing wasn’t cool and the decades have done nothing to shake their unswerving belief that dancing makes them look less than manly.

So why do military guys dance?  (Scroll down for the last three pictures at the link.)  I’ll offer you four theories about why military guys dance.  Theories one and two are mine, theories three and four come from a friend who is actually in the military, so he’s probably more correct than I am.

Theory Number One, harks back to my post thesis, which gives it pride of place here:  Military guys don’t need to worry about whether they “un-man” themselves when they hit the dance floor.  By their willingness to put themselves on the front  line, they’ve proven everything they need to prove. They zoomed up to the top of the secure self-image mountain, without having to spend decades in insecurity purgatory.  They can dance, and they don’t care if you laugh.

Theory Number Two is the boredom factor.  Has their ever been a time in the military when the operative rule hasn’t been “hurry up and wait”?  When there’s nothing else to do, when they’re are no computer games to play, no TV shows to watch, no malls to troll, you dance.

Theory Number Three is that, living as they do in women free environments, military guys know how to make the best of their time in women’s company.  This means they’re more willing than civilians to go where the women go — and that’s the dance floor.

And Theory Number Four is, simply, the joy of being alive.  Neither urbanites nor suburbanites live on the thin edge.  Our biggest adrenalin rush is often slipping past a Highway Patrol guy when we’re going — gasp! — five miles over the speed limit.  For the men on the front line, though, joie de vivre is a very real thing, and it probably does make you feel like dancing.

UPDATE:  I’d love to see how the dancing Marines would have handled this interview.

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  • Spiff

    This struck a cord with me. I read that article as well and my initial thought was “WTF”?  I guess I am lucky, I am not looking for work right now, nor do I see that in my future.  I do know that if I received a question like that I would think (hopefully not out loud): “WTF? Are these guys serious?”  I would seriously evaluate whether I would want to work for a company that does something that un-serious for something that is important and serious.  But then again I work in an industry that doesn’t have time for games like that. 
    But look at who is using those questions. If I recall it was mostly internet and tech companies… you know, sort of the techno geek hipster community I guess.  It appears to be younger crowd that values hipness and appearance over substance and quality.  At least that is my perception.
    I personally found the questions interesting in a sort of brain teaser way, but hardly the substance to evaluate whether someone is right for a job.  Especially when you consider some of the questions have no real answers. But then again, what would human resources consulting firms do if they couldn’t come up with “out of the box” psycho babble stuff to sell off to firms willing to pay crap loads of money for. (Don’t get me started on consultants… my experiences with them have not been positive :) ).   I guess it comes back to a theme that resonates with me… the perpetual adolescence of our society and the devaluation of what it means to be a mature adult.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    At a management class I attended once, we had a psychologist as a guest speaker. He made what I think is a very good point: Try to avoid hiring people of the same personality type as yourself. Because if you do, they will have the same blind spots as your own, and you will all happily march off the cliff together.

    Some of the interview questions cited, especially from Google, seem to select for a certain kind of IQ-related mind. But there are other attributes that are important in most business jobs. If I’m hiring a Business Development person to create partnering relationships with other companies–a skillset that would seem important for Google–yeah, I want him to have sufficient IQ to understand complex deal structures and technologies. But I also want him to be a quick study at understanding how other human beings think, and at decoding politics in other organizations.

    Good interviewing is very hard; it takes work and reflection. There’s no simple bag of tricks for doing it right. 

  • Spiff



    I am only viewing this through my own limited experiences.  These questions may be geared to look for certain attributes and skills. But if the interviewer doesnt know what to look for and expect… or if the panel interprets them differntly I’m not sure what value these questions really bring.  Perhaps coolness and the abiilty to think clearly under pressure.  I guess my question is does this really provide value or is just the next techno hipster management trend… like a pool table doubling as a meeting table in a board room.  Seems more like a trend to me.

    I have been on both sides of the table.  I learned the most on the interviewer side though.  And for the most part the the typical questions dont seem to tell you much more that you cant get from looking at the resume and app.  Your gut rells you more I guess. 

    What I found the most useful is recomendations and referals.  If I got a recomendation from a coworker or someone I trusted in my industry that garnered more value than the interview… unless they flubbed the interview completely. 

    These brain teasers really stumped me at first – some I was able to figure out after thinking about it for awhile.  Not sure I would do well with them under the stress and time constraints of an interview. I woudl like to think I would answer like Book did above. :)

  • Libby

    So glad that I’m not currently looking for a job – those questions just seem more like the latest HR fad than a helpful interview tool. My company doesn’t indulge in such silliness; however, we do have every team lead, manager, and director take a Myers-Briggs based test, followed by a workshop on understanding the results. This ensures that managers know how best to communicate with each other, which really comes in handy for relations between groups such as Sales and (software) Development.
    As for the military dancing theories, I would just add that there’s a level of confidence in service men/women because they are so aware of their abilities; they’ve been so focused on developing themselves, both mentally and physically, and tested – both in training and combat – again and again.  

  • http://ritestuff.blogspot.com/ Karl

    My father once told me his favorite question when he was interviewing job applicants was, “What did your father do for a living?”  He says it gave him a better picture of the applicant’s upbringing and home environment than other questions he tried.  He had to quit using it because it was made illegal.
    I think any number of employers would love to administer an IQ test, but that’s also illegal. So instead, they’re trying questions that are leading to “thinking outside the box” and hoping they don’t look too much like IQ test questions.

  • Michael Adams

    I think one reason the Marines, et al, dance is that dancing is athletic and they are superb athletes. This includes not only strength and endurance but also a confidence in their coordination, which makes them less clumsy.  The getting close to women part is also important, and for civilians, too, BTW.

  • http://callanprimer.com kali

    Oh, great. Now I’m more scared than ever of losing my job. I’ve always been one of those slow but steady thinkers. Leave me alone long enough and I’ll tell you the answer to the universe (answer: enough sleep) but that kind of question would leave me gaping like an idiot. What exactly is it supposed to prove? That you’re willing to humiliate yourself? Does it somehow mean you’ll be a team player?
    As for military men being more willing to dance, one Christmas after my son got out of the army, he stunned us all by dancing to the radio in the kitchen. He would have died before doing that as a teenager.

  • jj

    You have to be able to dance – but I mean dance, not get out on the floor and thrash around.  Your dog can thrash around.  But he probably can’t waltz, tango, or foxtrot.  In her youth, my mother was a popular drag at West Point, she always said the boys (they were all boys then, no girls) were splendid dancers.
    Agreed, Michael.  When I’m dancing my partner will be right there, within the circle of my arms, sharing my personal space.  She will not be five feet away, twitching in my general direction. 

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    Military training, especially for ground forces, over emphasize physical daring. If you were afraid of water, then in the Marines, you’ll either drop out of boot camp or be forced to learn to swim at drowning levels. If you were afraid of heights, that’s going to be an interesting experience on the zip line or Airborne parachute drops. But regardless, you either muster the will power to pass or you don’t. If you pass, then the lower level of anxiety that comes from other physical activities tend to be perceived as less important.

    The military also has a culture of social dares. The guy that chickens out in some activity, especially a challenge, loses status points. So rather than dancing as a teenager and then losing points if you aren’t magnificent, you’d lose points if you simply tried to sit out. You’d actually gain some points if you did something, but did it badly, so long as you tried. It’s a very different culture than what you see in civilian high schools. The japanese, though, have very similar thoughts at times, for civilians.

    Those new to the military will be drawn in and taught the social customs of their peers. This then becomes normal, rather than abnormal. The more embarrassing something is, the more the military culture will attempt to pick it as a challenge in order to make other people, of less will power, chicken out. People may remember the Marine Corps birthday party where some Marines had to bring a date from Hollywood. This was partially done because people felt nervous about asking popular individuals to go out on a date, especially one they never know. This fear of rejection is then tested against the Marine’s fear of losing out to a challenge, and depending on which one wins over the other, the mettle or character of a particular Marine can be shown for a few seconds. Thus the hierarchy is adjusted and some people go up, some people go down in status. Because this is a cooperative setting as well as a competitive one, this is designed to uplift those of weaker will power or flawed characters, to the standard the Marines or Army unit deems “good enough”.

    Traditions such as bringing your coin to the bar or else the person without a coin, has to pay for everyone, and the person with the highest ranked coin doesn’t have to pay anything, has alternative reasons. One is to generate increased value for such coins and the other one is to attach greater importance to the memory the coin represents. Such traditions create esprit de corps.

    The reason why there are still suicides in boot camp sometimes is because some people can’t take the pressure.  Their identity is not well formed enough to be able to resist the social games or to uplift themselves to a higher social status by taking higher risks. The other reason why people who graduate from the military, often times tend to suicide via the firearm if they are male, is because a lot of people who think of suicide are also afraid of death or pain. The military personnel, however, are usually very decisive and when they decide to kill themselves, they’ll use their weapons training to make sure it happens really fast. So a lot of times civilians show “signs” of suicide because they are HESITATING and “talking” about it as a way to get up the courage to do it. Whereas military personnel who passed boot camp have a minimum level of decisiveness and courage, and will often do what they decide to, very quickly. Without any time for their friends to talk them out of it. The training for Air Force and Navy are different than Army or Marines, so their standards and traditions differ as well.


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