“What Do You Do for Fun?” is a Great Interview Question – Here’s Why

A couple of days ago I re-read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell 1.

Rich Baby, Poor Baby: Image credit: <www.thefiscaltimes.com>

About 3/4ths of the way through the book, I came upon a passage where Gladwell talks about the role summer vacation plays in creating academic separation between socioeconomic classes of people.

Take a look at this data set.  2. Credit for the statistics go to John Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander.2 From 1st through 5th grade, the data shows the scores of 650 Baltimore public school students on a major reading and math skills exam (The California Achievement Test).

Now observe how the initially small gap between the low and high socioeconomic status children continues to grow – from about 9% to nearly 14% within 5 years.

Finally, observe the statistics I found the most interesting.

First, let’s look at each group’s academic gains during the school year:

As you can see, the lower socioeconomic status children don’t trail the high socioeconomic status children (they actually lead), and they keep pace with the middle-class children in three of five years. But let’s look at the last data set:

Score Changes During Summer Vacation:

Where the high socioeconomic children got ahead (and the low/middle socioeconomic status children fell behind) was during the summers.

Again, credit to Malcolm Gladwell and Karl Alexander for the statistics and study here. What’s important to note, though, is that the academic gap between the students grows exponentially (in both raw numbers and percentage) mostly as a product of gains made during the summertime.

This is a time when the wealthier children had structured activities built into their day to day lives (that allowed them to continue learning and developing)  3. I know that many of you are thinking “sample size/other independent variables etc.”, but to these criticisms, I say “read the book”. Gladwell makes a compelling (empirically backed) case for the role of continued education during the summertime (or lack thereof) having an effect on academic performance.while the poorer and middle-class children saw their skills atrophy in the absence of any real structure.

This brings me to the inherent value of asking a candidate during an interview: “What do you do for fun?”

What a candidate does for fun (over the weekends and after work hours during weekdays) can yield considerable insight into their long term growth trajectory.

Studies show that 33% of high school students and 42% of college graduates will never read another book after they graduate. What this tells me is that much of the population stops investing in a major source of learning and development once they leave the structured/regimented environment of the classroom.

A senior consultant at a big three management consultancy firm 4 once said to me “Never stop learning – if you stop learning you become obsolete and you get replaced.”

To be fair… the nature of most work is such that this is not the case. As cited above, a sizable portion of the population doesn’t continue to actively develop themselves once they complete their formal education, and this results in most jobs having a rather low water level… making someone that takes an active role in their continued development relatively unique in the marketplace.

As such, give me an unpolished candidate that is committed to continuous (lifelong) learning over a more experienced candidate that views him or herself as a finished product any day of the week.

If I’m interviewing you I want to know what you do for fun in your downtime – it tells me a lot about the type of employee you’re going to be.