The Interview Method: Why Our Assumptions About Success Are Often Wrong

I love people who say they “know” what they need to do, they just don’t do it. These are the same people who claim that without credentials, connections or whatever they happen to lack, success is impossible.

The truth is, most people put almost zero effort into figuring out how success actually works in their field, so you can outclass the majority, just by doing a little research.

“All Employers Care About is a Degree”

A few days after my MIT Challenge completed, it was picked up by the social media website, reddit. While many of the comments were supportive of the challenge, a number disparaged that the concept was nice but that, without a real degree, the knowledge was almost useless.

Interestingly, HR recruiters also responded to the thread and they told a different story. Many of them claimed that, contrary to the students’ expectations, they were very interested in hiring someone who was aggressively self-educated. One from a large firm even offered to set me up with a job interview.

I’m certainly not saying degrees are useless, or even that employers would make no distinction between my challenge and a real degree. But what amazed me was that nobody had actually done any research. The assumption was that all employers cared about was a degree, even though that was being contradicted in the exact same discussion forum.

You Don’t Know What it Takes to Be Successful (and That’s Okay)

I’m picking on these commenters, but in reality I was brainwashed with many of the same lies. I thought that software companies, particularly big firms, would never make exceptions on degree requirements, and that they wanted new hires to have mastered the particular technologies they use.

The difference, in my case, is that realizing I didn’t understand what employers care about, I decided to ask someone who works for a big software firm. I was surprised to learn that he had several colleagues who worked as programmers without computer science degrees—one even studied music.

I was even more surprised to hear that he said particular mastery of a technology wasn’t their main hiring criteria. They expected to do a lot of training internally, so overall programming ability mattered more than skills with a particular language.

After just a single interview, I can’t say whether these trends are the exception or the norm. However, even after just an hour of talking to someone, I was already beginning to see that many of the assumptions I had were wrong.

From Job Hunting to Customer Insight

When I first started selling ebooks and courses, the popular wisdom was: more is better. People wanted more content, more features and more material. Believing this, I made sure when I built my course I included nearly eight hours of audio and video content.

Therefore I was in for a big surprise, when I interviewed actual customers. It turned out that most of them had watched less than a third of the videos, even when they said they loved the content.

I changed this when I re-released Learning on Steroids. I recorded short videos, sometimes only a couple minutes, that honed in on the key ideas.

Interviewing actual customers turned up dozens of little improvements that would have gone untested had I stuck with my assumptions.

Use The Interview Method to Kill Faulty Assumptions

The big problem both with the students who thought all employers cared about were degrees and my product, was that we both thought we “knew” how it worked. Our assumptions could have been easily fixed, but we never put the small effort into fixing them.

The interview method is a way around this problem. You can kill a lot of bad ideas, just by talking to people who have a better understanding of how the field works.

The steps are simple:

  1. Identify at least five people who are moderately successful in your field.
  2. Reach out to them and ask if you can buy them lunch.
  3. Meet up with them and get them to share their thoughts.

Yes, some people might be too busy or not have an interest in helping you. For that reason I also suggest picking people who aren’t likely to be getting tons of similar requests. A mid-level manager will probably consider your request for advice more seriously than Bill Gates.

Even if you do get some polite declines, researching and contacting a dozen or so people in this way will likely yield at least a couple interviews. The reason most people fail at this is that they never ask, not because it’s difficult.

I also suggest not directly asking for advice. Hindsight bias clouds many direct advice-giving efforts, so useful information ends up buried in useless platitudes. Instead, ask the person to share their story, or if they’re in a position of influence, what they look for when evaluating potential employees or clients.

Repeating this process several times will give you a road map of how success works in your field. This doesn’t mean you should blindly follow their example, sometimes you may spot faster avenues that the majority of successful people missed. But at least understanding how success typically works gives you an enormous edge, even if you opt for more creative solutions.

Case Study: How Do You Become a Successful Architect?

Architecture is a notoriously difficult field, and when my good friend Vat graduated almost none of his peers were able to find work in the post-recession economy.

Even after finding a job, his prospects weren’t looking particularly good. Pay is typically low, even for people with decades of experience and graduate degrees. Adding to the difficulty, he was hoping to one day open his own firm, something few people succeed at.

Following a conversation with Maneesh Sethi, regarding his own use of the interview technique, he decided to use it in understanding the career path of successful architects. He started a blog interviewing local architects about their thoughts on the profession.

Not only did he get hours of valuable advice on managing the difficulties of the career, the interviews also led to dozens of high-value contacts, job offers and referrals.

This is all during a time when most of Vat’s peers have either given up looking for work in the field, or gone back to school to delay life for another few years.

Why This Method Allows for Easy Wins

The interview approach is incredibly valuable for the advice it yields. Knowing how success works in your field is essential, even if none of the people you interview ever offer any material help.

But the method is more powerful because in reaching out to people, in order to learn from them, you often form relationships that turn out to be valuable later. People like people who are eager to learn from them, and have the discipline to apply it.

When I look at my own email response habits, I see I’m much more willing to respond to a blogger politely asking for advice, than someone callously asking for me to link to them.

Why the Interview Method Often Beats Reading Books

The interview method is often better than just reading a lot of books or expert opinions on the subject. Pundits like me have different constraints for writing than just merely giving accurate advice—we’re also need to be interesting, entertaining and original. This means great career or business books may leave out the boring, but essential details to be successful at something.

The other advantage of the interview method is specificity. Because you’re picking people to interview that are nearer to your situation, you’ll be able to learn a lot more details that don’t generalize well.

By interviewing customers, I learned which specific modules should be highlighted, something I could never learn reading a business author. By speaking with an actual hiring manager at a big software firm, I could know exactly how they conduct their interviews, something I wouldn’t know just reading a newspaper article about employment trends.

Most people don’t know what they don’t know. Doing several interviews to figure out how a field works can save months of effort and be the difference between success and failure.