Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘career

An Impossible Question

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I am listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Terry asked her, did she think she would be as successful as she was if she had had children?

I want to talk about the question for a minute, then about Justice Sotomayor’s response.  The question asks the interviewee to speculate on an alternative reality that doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist, no answer is possible.  It’s the kind of question most interviewers, most of the time avoid like the plague.  Rather than asking the interviewee to relate an anecdote based on personal experience or share a fact based on professional training, “What if” questions make the interviewee address a decision about a ship that has long since sailed.  And although their process might be valuable to a listener facing a similar choice, it asks something that is to some extent unfair.

Justice Sotomayor paused a long moment. In fact, the pause was so long that Terry realized she couldn’t answer it because, as they both simultaneously acknowledged, it was “an impossible question.”  It is a question in the current tortuous vein for women, “Can you have it all?”  Justice Sotomayor noted that there have been two women on the court who did have children.  So she said she would like to think that she would have been just as successful with children as she has been without them.  Her logic caused Terry to acknowledge and admit, “Exactly.” [NOTE: When I first wrote this post, I seem to remember hearing in the interview an audio response of “Of course”.  But now the audio is “exactly” so I have changed it to that].

But she also reinterpreted Terry’s question, saying “Can women have it all?” is the wrong question, and substituting it with “What makes you happy as a person?”  Success, she inferred, was dependent on what a person has the will and drive to do regardless of circumstances.  And she was totally gracious with the rest of her response, which led Terry to move on to a different question about her earlier work in a District Attorney’s office.

Sometimes, an interviewer comes up with a list of questions, and they all look good.  Then, they cut the list down to what they think are the best questions.  But sometimes, the don’t realize that there’s still a klunker among them.  A question that, if they were to hear someone else ask it, they might think to themselves, “That’s an impossible question.  How could anybody ever answer that?”  A question that attempts to group groups, not by desire and capability but societal expectations.  Is it a question that puts interviewees in a box or gives them the chance to bust up the box?

And the ultimate test of the question is, would it have been asked of a man?  You can hear Justice Sotomayor’s hesitation after the question is asked here at about 32:04.

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January 14, 2014 at 11:40

Keep ’em Flying

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This isn’t about interviewing.

There are many things about the airline industry I could criticize.  But one concept upon which they’re entire business model seems to be based is the idea that they get the most of our their machines by keeping them working as much as possible.

I think the same concept applies to people.  I knew a man with Cerebral Palsey who regularly rode the same bus I did.  He wore leg braces and a back brace.  He wore very thick glasses.  He was stooped and spoke with much difficulty.  But he got on that bus every morning like clockwork.  And he never got on it without saying “Good Morning” to everybody.  He was one of the most gentle and polite men I’d ever seen.  And I realized at that moment that if that man could go about his life, few of us have any excuse to not go about our own.

You hear all the time about people who say they are a threat, or a double threat or a triple threat.  I’m speaking, of course, about people who have had the opportunity to develop the skills they have into viable careers and lifestyles.  A singer who can also arrange music, or a mechanic who is also a certified plumber.  Of course, they’ve come to know what they know with help; they didn’t do it alone.  But they can do multiple things and they do them, as best as they can and to the extent that they can because they decided to.

None of us is without the will to live, to love or to succeed.  Although we exist on the good graces of others, we still choose who we let in and who we see as too dangerous to let in.  Over time, one may become the other.  That helps us edit who we truly owe for our success versus those who want us to owe them.  And when we fix ourselves on a goal, a star, it is our obligation to do all that we can to reach it.

So, for all the people who think they can’t do it, you can try.  That whole “Trying is Dying” bullshit is just that.  The one in the arena fighting the lion is the only opinion that matters.  And you don’t know if you’ll succeed at anything because life isn’t like that.  But if you don’t make the attempt, ie, to try, you let other people define you and you become a known quantity.  The motto of the Ohio Lottery used to be (and maybe still is), “You can’t win if you don’t play.”  If you don’t play, you become someone with no surprises.  You become predictable and to some extent, disrespected.

So, play hard.  Be a surprise and a threat.  You and your dreams? – Keep ’em Flying.

Written by Interviewer

March 18, 2013 at 03:42