The best interview question of all

10 August 2015
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Interviewing is an important job.

MANILA, Philippines – Interviewing is an important job. I can, in fact, argue that there is no more important job in any organization. After all, people are at the root of the success of any company. Identifying, attracting and eventually retaining top talent lies at the core of any successful team.

The ultimate objective of any interview is to deeply understand the individual. To get a glimpse of who they are, and what defines them. What they bring to the party.  Only when we know this can we assess whether they fit into our organizations or not.

Many corporate training sessions on interviewing and the self-proclaimed “gurus” out there will teach what only can be termed a “positive” approach to the interview. You ask about what they have accomplished. What they enjoy in life. What their dreams and aspirations are. And so on.

Early on in my career, I used to follow this formula. I listened to all the supposed experts. And after making a number of glaring hiring mistakes, I gradually learned a few eternal truths:

Nearly all humans are fundamentally aligned in what they aspire to. They want a great job and to make good money. They want health and a superb physique. They want love and fulfillment and all that comes with it. They want to be a “somebody” and leave an indelible mark on the world.

What a person loves, what they dream about, what they fantasize about accomplishing, doesn’t mean a damn thing. Every lazy couch potato has a mind full of dreams! The good stuff doesn’t define who we are, it is the negatives that do. The struggles. The pain. And in particular, the toil that we embrace and choose to have in our lives that makes us who we are. Because we can’t have the good stuff, the fantasies, without enduring a great deal of pain in some shape or form.

You know this, and you know the person. And in knowing the person, you will know how well they will fit — or not fit — into your organization.

What is important in this line of questioning is choice. It’s pain that an individual will willingly take and embrace, versus a hardship that just “happens” as these things do in life.

Often we will equate value or “toughness” with what a person has endured — maybe, maybe not, because often there was no choice in the matter. My parents died when I was relatively young. Over the years I have had dozens, if not hundreds, of people apologize to me for this and say something like, “That must have been tough, I don’t know how you made it through.”

In reality, while this is a nice sentiment, it’s a crock of crap. What choice did I have? It happened. They died.  I did not choose it, nor would I ever embrace it. It just happened. My choices were to get up and move on with life, or go and commit suicide. When people endure horrible events and unpredictable occurrences, they certainly do deserve our sympathy. But this is life and it happens to all of us. It doesn’t define who we are as people.

What defines us is the pain we choose to embrace. The battles we love charging into. The toil that doesn’t seem to us like toil.  That’s who we are.

Let’s take fitness. I don’t know of a person who doesn’t want a great level of health and fitness, a beach-worthy body, to strip down to a bikini in Boracay and have people stop dead in their tracks and admire!

The people who get this are not solely just disciplined and hardworking; no, it’s more than this. They love the gym and the pain of the gym. They embrace the suffering. They love the idea of watching what they eat and making exercise a daily routine. It’s a struggle that they embrace. And the rest simply embrace the dream of having the great body. It’s all about the positives, the good things, the end result, the destination.

The positives don’t define. The dreams don’t define. The good doesn’t define. The wishes and sentiments certainly don’t define.  What defines us are which struggles we willingly choose to embrace. And this is how life is. There is no positive without negatives. There is no end-result without sacrifice. There is no destination without the journey.

Everyone has dreams, and destinations they aspire to, and good thoughts and feelings and desires. This doesn’t tell you a single thing of substance about the core of the person. What it does tell you are the struggles they will embrace in getting there. And if those struggles correlate to the struggles you have in your organization, then you have a winning hire sitting in front of you.

We live, unfortunately, in a microwave culture. We want everything cooked our way and cooked fast. The greatest sales pitch today that suckers more people in is for products and services that offer the positives without the negatives: the destination without the journey, the victory with no sacrifice whatsoever, the money without having to work hard. This is how we get the “amazing weight-loss pills” that, of course, never work, but everyone still wants to buy. Because we want the easy way out. We want it all, without any sacrifice along the way.

I used to believe that people who climbed to the top of the corporate ladder simply endured the toils required to make it to the top. But you know what? It really isn’t about enduring anything; the most successful people embrace and actually love the stress, the pace, the long hours, the office politics. I see time and time again people who have made it to the pinnacle of success and have more than enough money for 20 lifetimes, but they still go all-out into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. What drives them is not retirement, but embracing the hardships. They love the tension. They love the pressure-cooker life. They love the toils of business. And this defines a part of who they are.

Entrepreneurs love the risk taking, the uncertainty, the crazy work hours, and this is why they do it. But it’s not a choice everyone would make.

One man’s hell is another man’s heaven. It’s not a matter of what we will endure; it’s what we love to endure.

The next time you are interviewing someone, stay away from the fluff questions like “What is your dream job?” or “What are your goals?” Instead, focus on learning what pain they embrace in their life. What toils are they able and willing to sustain for life? How do they choose to suffer? This is what defines us as humans — the values we are willing to struggle for, because our struggles determine our success.

And if you know this, you know the person, and you will make the right hiring choice.

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