To the non-engineers of the world, the thought of getting a job at Google might appear to be something of an enigma; Google has been notorious for strange, difficult, and often virtually unanswerable questions. Although brainteasers aren’t that trendy anymore and have been phased out from most tech interviews, some companies still rely on them. How effective are they in deciding who’s smart enough, and who’s not? And can anyone learn to think this way?

Last year, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of Google, told the New York Times that Google was no longer doing brainteaser questions because they were a “complete waste of time” and they “serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” He noted that instead, structured behavioral interviews was a better way to assess whether people can solve problems, think on their feet, or work well under pressure. On top of that, studies have shown that what really matters is the first impression — more so than the responses themselves. In other words, not much can be gleaned from on-the-spot brainteasers.

The Behavioral Interview

If you’re one of the lucky ones to get a Google interview, for example, you’re likely going to have to jump through a lot of technical hoops first — like discussing your CV, past projects, and what you can bring to the table. For practical advice, Reddit user googleeng_throwaway notes that during round 2 of the interview process, during which an engineer calls you to interview you for 45 minutes, you should “be prepared to talk to an engineer who expects you to fail, and would rather be doing something else.” That’s because only about one in 10 candidates make it through this phase.

During the behavioral interviewing part, candidates will often be asked how well they worked with a team, or to give examples of a time when they had to adapt to an unexpected situation. Being prepared to respond to things like “tell me about a time you had to be very strategic in order to meet all your priorities” or “tell me about your proudest professional accomplishment” will only do you good in any interview you’re in.

But Google and other companies often look for more than just technical skills, the things on your resume, where you went to college, or even the way you handled past experiences. This is where some of the good things about brainteasers come in — they open up a unique insight into how a person’s brain works to solve a creative problem.

Questions Without Answers

Because Google is a company defined by innovation, it searches for employees who can think outside the box and solve problems that don’t necessarily have a specific answer. This is why, for nearly a decade, Google threw some pretty crazy questions at its interviewees, with the aim of discovering how a person thinks. It’s not about the end answer, but rather the series of thought processes a person goes through to get there.

Some of these whacky questions included “How much does the Empire State Building weigh?”, “How many times a day does a clock’s hands overlap?”, or “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Most of these questions are virtually impossible to answer, but the point of them isn’t in getting the most accurate number — it’s in testing how well a person thinks with flexibility, creativity, and innovation. Someone who thinks about the details — whether the Empire State Building is being weighed with people in it, or completely empty; its width, length, and height; “guesstimating” the weight of the steel-made floors, walls, and ceilings — and describes their thought process step by step, is approaching brainteasers the right way.

Can It Be Learned?

“How many uses can you come up with for a broomstick? A lemon?” Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, musician, and author, writes in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “These are skills that can be nurtured beginning at a young age. Most jobs require some degree of creativity and flexible thinking.”

The good thing about brain flexibility is that it’s not necessarily genetic; it can be learned and practiced. The amazing thing about our brain is its plasticity, or its ability to change and develop over time based on our lifestyles, behavior, environment, and emotions. If we train ourselves to think outside the box more, we’ll be more naturally inclined to solve problems we once thought difficult or impossible.

Levitin continues: “Exercising this part of your brain involves harnessing the power of free association — the brain’s daydreaming mode — in the service of problem solving… This type of thinking can be taught and practiced, and can be nurtured in children as young as five years old… There are no right answers, just opportunities to exercise ingenuity, find new connections, and to allow whimsy and experimentation to become a normal and habitual part of our thinking, which will lead to better problem solving.”

So even though Google thinks brainteasers are a waste of time (and perhaps they are in the interview context), practicing them for the sake of pushing the boundaries of your mind may help you in life or at your job more than you think.

Published by Medicaldaily.com