The best job interview question, according to Angela Duckworth of “Grit” fame

Think of a good one.
Think of a good one.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
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I once managed to land a job offer by casually referencing my admiration for Leonard Cohen during the interview. Also, they needed someone immediately and I was available.

This is not the right way to hire anyone, but it’s not unusual, Angela Duckworth, the psychologist and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance explained in a recent episode of No Stupid Questions, a smart new podcast by the crew behind the Freakonomics growing media empire.

What social scientists call an unstructured interview—or “a random walk through topics” as Duckworth says—are common. “A person walks in, you strike up a conversation, you’re like: ‘Oh, I noticed you’ve got Phillies hat on. Are you from Philadelphia?’,” she says. All of a sudden, “an hour has gone by and the interview is over.”

The problem with expecting such an organic talk to be informative on its own is pretty self-apparent: the interviewer can give too much weight to how much they enjoyed gabbing with someone and not properly assess that candidate’s suitability. Not only do unstructured interviews “not add much predictive value to hiring the right person, but in many cases could detract value,” Duckworth says, “In other words, if you hadn’t interviewed the person at all, you’d be better off.”

Such casual evaluations that center “cultural fit” may also perpetuate structural inequalities, Quartz has reported. People are naturally drawn to those who are like them, so chatting about your alma matter, the World Series, or a famous blue raincoat, during an interview raises the risk that you will build an organization that lacks diversity.

A “mountain of research” has shown the best way to hire someone is by requesting a work sample as part of the application process, Duckworth explains on the podcast. This could be assigned homework, like the editing test that Dubner describes taking earlier in his career, or a kind of audition, like a hackathon.

At some point, however, managers will need to face candidates for a live conversation. When that time comes, they may want to steal Duckworth’s suggested query: “Tell me the question I should ask you that’s going to make me want to hire you.”

The meta question is brilliant because it not only tells the gatekeeper or manager which personal traits candidates value, but also whether they understand the workplace ethos and the interviewer’s mindset. Or at least one of the above, depending on how sincere or strategic one’s answer—or question, more accurately—is.

Duckworth also discloses it’s not her idea; rather, the question was proposed to her when she was interviewing someone for Character Lab, a research group she founded and leads in Philadelphia. When she took the bait, the candidate proposed: “Will you eat, breathe, drink, and sleep your work?” Arguably, the answer-question is not as original as the question-question, but both impressed the boss. That fellow now runs the lab.

Despite the promise offered by the title of No Stupid Questions, both hosts bemoaned the standard list of job interview questions about strengths and weaknesses, etc. By comparison, this one has much more potential to illuminate.