Song of Myself
In this edition: Interviewing myself. The modern interview is so often like being questioned by a lazy apparatchik that it is surprising to find an interesting or useful question asked during an interview. As a permanent gigger, a rent boy on the digital market, I have racked up more than a few interviews. Two good interviews cause me to reflect on the mot interesting personal questions I have gotten while interviewing.
The job interview is like a dance, except instead of enjoyment its main byproduct is bullshit. To a premodern artisan— the kind idolized by Adam Smith— it was enough to admit that work was an exchange: “I work so I can afford to live.” No longer: Our work lives are at a place where it is not enough to tolerate a job. Regardless of what it is you’re actually doing, one must imagine themselves to be changing the world (“I jump up in the morning eager to fill out spreadsheets or to write internal memos or to fetch coffee!”).
The pretense is, often, more important than the actual work. In fact, most people seem to feel as though they add little to no value to the world. This is a topic the late David Graeber famously took up in his book Bullshit Jobs.
I, luckily enough, don’t feel that way. I have been extremely fortunate.
However, one strange consequence of the workscape is that the interview process has generally become a minefield of pit-and-pratfalls. I, as a near-permanent rent boy of the digital gig economy, have racked up more than my fair share. I know I have lost at least one gig by flubbing a throwaway personal question. What’s your biggest flaw? “Um… That I work too hard and care too much?”
Recently, I had the strange experience of not one but two surprisingly good interviews for contracting work. The questions were relevant and focused; homework had been done. I almost couldn’t perform the ritual out of shock. After so many bad interviews it was almost perverse to go through a pair of good ones. It caused me to reflect on the less stellar experiences I have had.
Here are some of the more interesting interview questions I have ever gotten (and one or two bad ones that caught me off guard), with answers:
Q: What’s your favorite punctuation mark?
A: The question mark. It is without pretension. Even when used as a purely rhetorical move, it retains some of its luscious uncertainty as a matter of form. Everyone is uncertain. Life is messy. Am I sure that what I am saying is true? That genuflection pleases. It’s lovely in its incompleteness... right?
Q: Is there anything else you're particularly good at (or enjoy doing) that you would like to tell us about?… Permutations include: “What do you do for fun?” and “Seriously are you a lifeless dullard or do you do weird stuff outside of the office for which we can disqualify you?”
A: Yes, I used to make money as a music teacher at after school programs, and I taught private music lessons throughout college (I play guitar and have training in music composition). I'm also an avid philosophy and politics reader. I lettered in baseball in high school, and I am intimately connected with the South Sudanese diaspora.
Q: What are some of your favorite quotes? (Real question: what misattributed quotes can you quickly recall that don’t make you sound too strange)
A: “Rather than the manufactured clash of civi;izations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, anlive together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow.” - Orientalism, Edward Said; “Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur” - Satires, Horace; “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” - Paradise Lost, John Milton. “I can resist everything except temptation.” Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde.
Q: What’s a short story that moved you?
A: One of the short stories that has always stuck with me is Gabriel García Márquez's "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World." I read it in high school. What struck me was the way Márquez bent the literary structure to capture a non-European tradition (this was one of my first exposures to a non-European tradition, and I was struggling with my own lack of belonging in traditional ethnic categories, owing to my father's unknown ethnic background. I also harbored a secret desire to write). This story managed to grab the reader and whisper, “Hey there's another tradition somewhere.” I would later go on, like so many others, to devour Márquez's work.
Q: Do you think you can work in an office-setting consistently?
A: Yes. I have worked in many office settings… If the real assumption is that I won’t be satisfied in an office setting after working outside of what then this is a tacit admission that there’s something grueling in the office culture, isn’t it?
Q: What’s a book that you found meaningful?
A: The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Caro is one of the few writers I have ever read who lets the documents lead him, and yet who can scribble a compelling story. The book chronicles the life of Robert Moses who was never elected to public office but who covertly shaped New York (and thus the lives of those in the city). It tracks the power wielded by Moses, as well as the impact of that power, putting human faces to seemingly abstract questions. Moses' life and legacy have been forever marked by this book. The book also describes power in as vital a way as any other book I have ever read, with the possible exception of Caro's "Master of the Senate" series about LBJ. Ultimately, Moses was a dreamer and a reformer who was molded by the drug of power, or as Robert Caro has elsewhere indicated, “Power doesn’t corrupt. It reveals.”
Q: Who is someone (alive or dead) that you’d like to spend time with (and why)?
A: Hunter Thompson. The list is hard to narrow down, and one hesitates. But Thompson was so alive that it would be interesting to spend an afternoon with him. It almost doesn't matter what we do, but I would like to put him in a depressingly normal situation: going shopping at the grocery store, visiting elderly relatives, things of that nature. Alternatively, any time spent with Oscar Wilde would be well-spent.