A few years ago, my business partner and I were having lunch with the CEO and Chief Data Scientist of a company we were working with. During that lunch, we were discussing hiring and how to find the best candidates.
Each of us took turns discussing our philosophies and the interview questions we like to ask, and the CEO presented theirs. It sparked an interesting question and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
The CEO’s question was this:
“If you could have any job from any time period in history, what would it be?”
We were all intrigued, so we went around the table answering.
My answer was: “Race car driver in the 1960’s or 1970’s, or Group B Rally in the 1980’s.”
They asked me why and I replied: “Two reasons: One, I’m an absolute car nut. I love the beauty of cars and sport of racing. Two, because those were the two most interesting eras of racing and at that time, engineers were pushing limits of what an engine could do, how aerodynamics could work, and how to win a race. They were learning and tweaking on the track and making huge strides. Then a few incredibly brave souls strapped themselves into the seat and tested their assumptions. They pushed the sport of automotive racing as far as they could, and I’m incredibly inspired by what they did.”
According to the CEO, it explained a lot about the way I think and the way I work. The question stuck with me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Why your answer matters
This question is the perfect blend of passion and work. It is one of those rare, useful questions that can help dig deeper into how a person thinks without directly asking. It cuts right through the fluff so you can understand what a candidate is interested in.
With all the jobs in history at your disposal, you gravitate towards what would seem interesting or fun to you, the one that would scratch your itch the most. Your answer helps explain what you’re passionate about.
If you could do any job at any time in history, what would you do? Wine making? Painter? Jockey? Book keeper?
Your answer invariably describes how you like to work. It could also help explain why you’re in the job you’re currently in.
Possibly more importantly, it can help explain the best way for a manager or boss to work with you.
It uncovers how you like to work and what you like to work on
Let’s say you chose wine making. That can mean several things about your work style, like you like to get your hands dirty. It could say you like watching things mature and can demonstrate patience.
Let’s say you got more specific and chose wine making in California in the 70’s. It could say more about a pioneering spirit, being the underdog and carving a new path (sidenote: if you haven’t seen Bottle Shock, you should).
Let’s say you chose horse racing jockey or quarterback. That could mean more about your leadership style and how you like to handle a project.
From a managers perspective, now they know the kind of work to give you and how to motivate you, and more importantly the kind of work NOT to give –
- You like pioneering work – give this person new projects, new initiatives, let them carve new paths
- You like tinkering and experimenting – give this person a clear goal with tools and freedom to experiment
- Historian, archaeologist – give this person research projects, have them discover insights about the business and discover new opportunities.
- You like building – Give this person blueprints and plan with tools to build things
- Astronaut – give this person space 😉
How does my answer describe me?
How about my answer? How does that explain me?
Well, engineers and designers love to tinker. Ask any designer or engineer and they’ll invariably describe side projects they’re working on, or new languages, techniques, or tools they’re trying out. They’ll probably also tell you nothing we do is ever done, it can always be better. We are always working out how to improve it (refactoring code, keep painting until it feels “right”).
For me personally, in addition to tinkering, I thrive when given a singular, specific goal, the tools to reach that goal, and the time to tinker with the best way to approach it.
Not only that, I also thrive in risk.
In my answer, the job involves a singular goal of “go around the race track faster than the competition”. Within the rules of racing is a set of defined guidelines regarding the how. Those rules basically state your limitations, like you have to use a particular type of engine (ie, no jet engines) or the kind of tire you can use, etc. Just about everything else is within your control, like the shape of the car (aerodynamics), the tweaks you can do to the engine, the driver’s skill, etc.
More importantly, the car can always go faster.
In this historical job, I would be working to measure, analyze, tweak, test, and repeat. Most importantly, we would be thinking on our feet to figure out the best approach, like “what if we put a vent here?”, or “maybe there’s a way to get more power out of the engine”. (The movie Ford VS Ferrari is a great example).
Race car engineers are always thinking about how to push the boundaries of what’s possible, testing, measuring, and iterating. That is why you hear about features in passenger cars coming from race tech.
To me, that sounds like the ultimate fun. Plus, I’d get to play with cars all day.
What job would you choose and what do you think that says about you?