In Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross’s excellent new book, Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World, the authors suggest alternative questions for job interviews. For example: What tabs are open on your browser right now? (In my case: a draft of an upcoming Revisionist History episode, a Youtube video of a Canadian businessman who personally sponsored 50 Syrian refugees, a journal article on the merit of homework, and the Car and Driver review of the new special edition Golf R.)
Cowen and Gross think this kind of indirect question is a better way of assessing someone’s interests and curiosity than simply asking them a direct question. I agree. The standard interviewing process—with its conventional set of easily anticipated questions—is just too easy to game. (“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” “In your chair!”)
This reminds me of a question I used for years in interviewing potential assistants: Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? If you said no, you didn’t get hired.
I know that sounds terribly arbitrary. But here’s my reasoning. It is not necessary to know how to drive a stick in the 21st century—particularly if you’re 22 years old. So the only people who do are those who are willing to take the time to master a marginally useful skill. Now why would a 22-year-old do that? One reason is that they like knowing how to do things that most people do not. Another is that they realize that the most fun cars in the world to drive are sports cars, and the most fun sports cars to drive are the ones with manual transmission, and they like the idea of being able to turn a rote activity (driving) into an enjoyable activity. I want to work with the kind of person who thinks both those things.
We just launched a new podcast at Pushkin—Car Show! with Eddie Alterman. Eddie was the long-time editor of Car and Driver magazine. Actually—before I go any further, go watch the trailer below. The whole thing is a lot of fun. I think you’ll see what I mean.
And in one of the first episodes of Car Show, Eddie and I drive my prized possession: a 2003 BMW M5—a very boring-looking, four-door sedan with the heart of a lion.
Among car enthusiasts, it is considered a classic: a big, eight-cylinder old-school analog sports sedan with the sweetest manual gearbox you have ever seen. People who don’t drive stick look at my M5 and have no idea what the fuss is about. (My partner, who disdains all things automotives, calls it the “ugly” car.) But people who drive stick see it and beg me for the keys. My nephew Nathan, who falls into the latter category, will happily drive my M5 50 miles for a cup of coffee. I think, in no small part, human happiness is a numbers game. The more small things in your life that you can turn from negative to neutral, or neutral to positive, the happier you are. The people who bother to learn how to drive a manual understand this. Like I said, these are the people I like to have working with me.
Two additional thoughts about my favorite interview question. First, is this a silent form of discrimination against women, since women are—according to stereotype—underrepresented in the gear-head category? No! I used this as a gatekeeper question on five occasions, and four of the people I ended up hiring were women. So let’s dispense with the stereotype.
Second—is this a form of class discrimination? That is, if you grew up in a house without a car, it sounds like you can’t be my assistant. Not true! I don’t ask my putative assistants to actually drive a manual transmission on the spot. I ask them if they can drive one. The ideal answer to that question is yes. But equally ideal is a candidate who understands that the answer I’m looking for is yes. And says: “I don’t. But that’s a skill I’d love to master. Can I learn on your M5?”
Here it is—me, Eddie, and my M5, starring in Pushkin’s latest: Car Show. Listen on your favorite podcast app or stream every episode on Youtube and follow Eddie on the road.