The amateur psychiatrist

Aside from the more direct questions about your work and career, the slightly more left-field, hypothetical questions can give the interviewer an insight into what kind of person you are.

Alternative and related questions:

If you won the lottery, would you stop working?

The meaning behind the question:

This question isn’t just one of silly speculation.  What it’ll tell the interviewer is what your priorities are outside of your work – and just how much of a priority your work is.  That can be very revealing indeed.

Your answer:

I once saw a cartoon which asked the alternative question, “If you won the lottery, would you stop working?” and the reply was, “I stopped working years ago.  But I might start gloating if it isn’t too hard!”

Many of us think that if we won the lottery we’d end up on a beach somewhere, drinking cocktails and being waited on hand and foot.  I have to say, it does sound rather nice, doesn’t it?  But how long could you really keep that up for before you got well and truly bored?!

There are many ways to answer this question but your focus must be on showing that you’d intend to make constructive use of your time – and don’t by any means feel obliged to say that you’d stop working, at least not completely.

Example:

That’s a very interesting question.  I assume you’re meaning a sufficiently large sum of money that I’d be financially independent for life?  Initially, I think I’d take a bit of a career break and perhaps go travelling for a while, not least to give myself some thinking time and time to adjust to my new circumstances.  After that, I think I would certainly continue working to a degree but I’d probably aim to work on a not-for-profit basis, for example volunteer work for a charity.  And I’d certainly aim for a better work-life balance.  I have many hobbies such as playing the piano which I would appreciate having more time to be able to indulge.  I’m also very keen to learn Spanish.  I think I’d certainly find many ways to occupy my time productively.

Word of warning:

Don’t venture into the territory of, for example, telling the interviewer just what model of Aston Martin you’d be intending to buy yourself or how you’d quite like a butler to serve your gin and tonic every evening.  Restrict your thoughts to ones which show you as someone who needs to continually develop and grow and isn’t content to just sit back and rest on their laurels.

Alternative and related questions:

Who was your favourite teacher and why?

The meaning behind the question:

You might think we’re definitely into the realm of the amateur psychiatrist here.  But are we?  What is a teacher, if not an early form of manager or boss?  The interviewer will be interested in your explanation as to why you consider this particular teacher to be the best you ever had because it’ll give them insight into how you like to be managed and what kind of a person you will be to manage.

Your answer:

No-one forgets a good teacher.  Just take a look at the dedication at the beginning of this book.

This is quite a personal question and so your answer should be personal too.  Tell the interviewer in your own words exactly what you feel made this particular teacher so special, taking care to portray yourself as a serious and enthusiastic student.

It’s also a good idea to slip into your answer mention of some quality you now possess as a direct result of this teacher.  It’s an indirect opportunity to blow your own trumpet!

Example:

For me, the best teacher I ever had was my GCSE History teacher at secondary school.  While I find History interesting, it’s certainly not one of my favourite subjects.  I much prefer Mathematics and Science.  However, through her own passion for the subject, she was able to inspire me to become passionate about it too, to see beyond the straight facts and dates and to really see history come to life.  She didn’t just teach what was on the basic curriculum; she went much further than that.  For example, we would plough through old newspaper cuttings and write articles as if we were journalists living and working in the period we were studying.  By using unconventional techniques, she really engaged her students and I consequently achieved an A grade.  Even now, I find the research and analysis techniques she taught me to be very useful in my current line of work.

Word of warning:

It should go without saying that you don’t want to tell the interviewer that you never liked any of your teachers because they’ll just think you have a problem with authority!

Alternative and related questions:

If you could meet any personality, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Who do you most admire and why?

The meaning behind the question:

This question is not quite as nutty as it might sound.  If the interviewer can identify what sort of person you admire, it will tell them a lot about your own values.

Your answer:

First and foremost, you should obviously select someone who well deserves to be respected and admired and, ideally, choose someone who has certain characteristics in common with you or with the person you’d like to become – characteristics which you can talk about.  Choose someone who has some relevance to your current line of work.  I’d quite like to meet Ingrid Bergman but it’s hard to see how that could be a relevant and useful choice!

Example:

Now that’s a very interesting question!  Let me just think a second…  I reckon I would like to have been able to meet William Shakespeare.  I’ve always been fascinated by his work.  I’d like to know how much of his work he achieved by himself, how much of it was more of a team effort, how he worked with his various collaborators, how the plays evolved over time…  I know that almost all of his plays were based on earlier sources but I’d still like to know from where he drew his inspiration and how he managed to make them his own.  I’m also interested in the business side of things!  Whereas a number of his contemporaries might also have achieved critical success at the time, none of them seem to have been nearly as competent as Shakespeare at handling practical matters and business relationships.  He ended his life a rich man, rather than dying in poverty like some of his contemporaries.  He clearly had a broad diversity of different talents.  A very interesting person.

Word of warning:

It’s best to steer clear of anyone who might be too controversial.  This means avoiding political and religious figures as well as anyone whose reputation might have been excessively sullied.

Alternative and related questions:

What is your greatest fear?
What keeps you up at night?

The meaning behind the question:

An inherently negative question which really puts you on the spot because, as the interviewer well knows, it’s hard for you to wriggle out of.  Along the lines of “What are your weaknesses?” this is a very probing question which might just dig up some very useful information for the interviewer.

Your answer:

Sounds like just the sort of thing a psychiatrist might say, doesn’t it!  But, no, it’s coming from the mouth of an interviewer – so just be sure not to answer as if it was a psychiatrist asking it!

What could you be most afraid of?  Failure, cockroaches, using the telephone?!  While katsaridaphobia and telephonophobia are not suitable answers, atychiphobia might possibly be, although I’d be very wary of baffling the interviewer with words most people have never heard of!  In any case, fear of failure might make you sound like an insecure perfectionist or, worse, a defeatist.

Really, the best way to answer this question is to tell the interviewer that there’s nothing in particular that you’re afraid of or, assuming the interviewer hasn’t phrased the question in such a way that it only applies to a work context, you can tell them about a natural, universal human fear, such as the fear of something bad happening to your family or friends, like serious ill health.

If the interviewer continues to press for an answer – which they’re only likely to do if they’re asking this question in a work context – then try to pick something which isn’t too related to your job and try to downplay it as best as you can, subtly weaving into your answer ways in which you combat your fear.

Example:

There’s really nothing that I’m particularly afraid of.  Like most people, I do get somewhat nervous about having to give presentations, probably because it’s not something I have to do very often and I’ve had no formal training in giving presentations.  But I’m pretty good at controlling my nerves and focussing on the task in hand and my presentations are normally very well received.  I try to bear in mind that you will always feel more nervous than you actually look – and that helps me to feel a lot calmer.  I also work hard to prepare very thoroughly for presentations.  That really helps to boost my confidence.