Use These Unconventional Interview Questions to Find People With a Creative Spark – ZEIT | Region & Cash

AAmidst the tight job market of recent years, recruiting talent has been one of the biggest challenges for many companies.

With a new book called talent, economist Tyler Cowen and investor and entrepreneur Daniel Gross explore how best to go about it and find people with a creative streak. They assume that top candidates are too often overlooked and reject some traditional hiring assumptions and practices.

“Intelligence tends to be overrated,” they conclude, based on a review of research on IQ scores, earnings, and job performance. (p. 79) They argue that top performers instead exhibit a combination of qualities that the authors call “the whole package” (p. 85), including a commitment to practice – the equivalent of a pianist playing scales – for continuous improvement. “What you want is a kind of conscientiousness directed toward the kind of focused practice, and therefore compound learning, that fosters intelligence in the workplace,” they write. (p. 121)

They believe that “stamina” – a testament to the relentless drive they see in the likes of Bob Dylan – is “one of the great underappreciated concepts in talent scouting.” (p. 119) Other qualities to look for are what they call robustness, or consistency in getting work done each day, and generatability, or openly bubbling up and sharing ideas. Their focus is on hiring people who generate new ideas and approaches or “inspire others through their sheer presence, leadership and charisma, regardless of context” (p. 9), and they believe that spotting talent is something in itself , through which a hiring manager can improve train.

talent outlines a provocative approach to hiring, in contrast to many companies’ efforts to standardize hiring processes – and interview questions – to reduce the impact of individual bias. Cowen and Gross reject such approaches as “bureaucratic recruitment methods” (p. 24) and instead focus on “unstructured” interviews in which the interviewer’s individual judgment is a crucial factor. “Interviews are essential, and with so many organizations relying on mindless bureaucratic approaches, the bar is low and the payoff high,” they write. (p. 27)

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

Here is a selection of interview questions they recommend, along with the rationale for each question:

  • What tabs are currently open in your browser? This sheds light on “intellectual habits, curiosity and what a person does in their free time, all at once,” the authors write. (p. 21) You believe that what you do in your free time can help reveal who you are and how you can improve yourself.
  • What did you do this morning? This is a simple opening question that can evoke a story, put someone in a conversational mode and less fake mode, and reveal how a person organizes ideas.
  • What is something strange or unusual that you did early in life? What views do you hold religiously, almost irrationally? These are unusual questions designed to challenge candidates from prepared answers and familiar territory, and to help you gauge their resourcefulness, personality, and confidence. If candidates have trouble answering, the authors recommend repeating the question or sharing your own answer to give them time to think — but don’t be afraid to demand an answer.
  • If you came to us and then weren’t here in three to six months, why should that be? What 10 words would your spouse, partner or friend use to describe you? These questions require specific answers.
  • What have you achieved that is unusual for your peer group? They probably didn’t prepare for this question, so get a sense of how they think and evaluate themselves.
  • How ambitious are you? The answer is difficult to fake and offers valuable information about their targets and how well they can defend them.
  • When have you experienced major regrets at work and why? How much were you to blame for this interaction? Cowen and Gross believe the distance created by online interviews provides opportunities to ask such sectarian, insightful questions.
  • Can you give us a case where you noticed a team issue at work and stepped in to fix it? What exactly was your remedy? The ability to recognize a social problem and its solution is tested.
  • What do you think of the service here? The authors recommend conducting interviews in places like restaurants and cafes. By asking this question, you “give the candidate an opportunity to express emotion, express resentment, and evaluate new and unexpected attitudes, all in a relatively unfiltered manner,” they write. (p. 38)

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

  • Is this person so good that you would like to work for them?
  • Can this person get you where you need to be much faster than any sane person could?
  • If that person doesn’t agree with you, do you think you’re just as likely to be wrong as they are wrong?”

The authors also examine research on why women, disabled people and workers of color face discrimination in the hiring process. “Proper screening for the overlooked end-of-career woman, the unobvious underdog producer, or the 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 gain personal or organizational advantage.” (p. 8)

To be sure:

  • The book praises the practices of prominent Silicon Valley male figures, including Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Marc Andreessen, and offers relatively few examples of exceptional female talent or talent scouts beyond Greta Thunberg, NK Jemesin, and fashion supermodels.
  • While the authors admit they are writing from the perspective of two white men, their section on racial bias in hiring feels naïve at times. Going to a black church or a foreign country like Finland is one of her pieces of advice to experience different perspectives.
  • The focus on refining the individual judgment of hiring managers or investors and moving away from structured “bureaucratic” hiring approaches is likely to allow for greater opportunities for bias and individual blind spots in influencing decisions.
  • The authors often use financial earnings as the primary way to measure job success and its correlation with intelligence and other characteristics. Compensation is arguably a very one-dimensional measure of performance that distorts any analysis of the traits that correlate with success. Thunberg, for example, probably ranks poorly despite her extreme influence and notoriety.
  • Cowen and Gross are sometimes smug and self-indulgent. Cowen “does not consume coffee or tea. The engine is inside,” they write. (p. 128) The book inexplicably cites Gross’s “online memoirs” of the results of a research paper rather than directly summarizing the work.
  • The authors claim that there is no such thing as a talent scouting book. One in this category that I have found valuable over the years is The Talent Advantage by David S Cohen.

Memorable anecdotes and facts:

  • Elon Musk personally interviewed the first 3,000 new hires at SpaceX because he wanted to make sure they were hiring the right people.
  • According to the authors, at least 20% to 40% of the growth in US economic output since 1960 can be attributed to the better allocation of talent, as women and workers of color have better access to jobs for which they are suited.
  • Former Y Combinator President Sam Altman wrote a computer program to measure how quickly the VC firm-funded founders responded to his emails and found that successful founders responded “staggeringly” faster than average those who were unsuccessful.
  • Research in Finland found that higher IQ correlated with the likelihood someone was an inventor, while parental education played a greater role in whether one was a lawyer or a doctor.

Notable Quotes:

  • “If the person is intensely self-improving on a daily basis, and perhaps avoiding more typical and social pursuits, there’s a greater chance they’re the kind of creative obsessive that can make a big difference.” (p. 2)
  • “A world of rampant inequality and insufficient opportunity is, among other things, a world where talent is not recognized and mobilized.” (p. 14)
  • “During an interview, you can ask anything (legal) in the known universe and explore any angle you want. What a great but confusing position to be in.” (p. 25)
  • “The best interviews aren’t formal interviews at all.” (p. 38)
  • “Too often modern society suffers from ‘lookism’, which expects intelligent and ‘capable’ people to conform to a very specific physical image of how they move, act and sound. Try to rid yourself of these prejudices as much as possible.” (p. 169)
  • “A significant underclass of potential workers circulates with many of their talents unseen, or at least significantly more difficult to spot.” (p. 198)

The bottom line 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 thought-provoking.

A special offer for charter subscribers: See what business leaders are saying about talent in new book discovery app Tertulia, which is currently offering the book at a 25% discount. Go to Apple App Store to download Tertulia,

You can also order talent at or Amazon.

Read our book review Impact playerwhich examines the attributes of outstanding individual contributors.

Read our briefing bias interruptedwhich covers ways to troubleshoot the hiring process.

Read all our book presentations here.

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