Curious about job interview efficiency and about how short short can be, I Googled “the world’s shortest job interview” and found this:

“Interviewer: What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?

Applicant: Honesty.

Interviewer: Honesty? I don’t think of honesty as being a weakness.

Applicant: I don’t give a **** what you think.

Nice irony and paradox. But our instinctive assessment of what made this interview so short may not be the most insightful.

Your common sense and gut probably told you that the interview was super-short because the interviewer was insulted and shocked by the candidate’s rudeness. Now, take a second look. There was something else going on that short-circuited the interview, and what it was captured the essence of the “Catch 22” dilemma and paradox—“Catch 22” being the title of the novel (Joseph Heller, published 1961) and movie that presented the now well-known dilemma of Captain John Yossarian, a WW II B-25 bombardier terrified to fly further high-fatality combat missions.

He could be relieved of combat duty only by applying for a “Section 8” medical discharge on the grounds of insanity, when, unfortunately, as he soon discovers, such an application clearly establishes the sanity of the applicant (as sufficient grounds for refusal of his request)—since, after all, he’s got to be crazy to be willing to fly more missions. As the story’s narrator puts it, “If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

The Super-Short “Catch 22” Job Interview

The job applicant and interviewer in the world’s shortest job interview are in exactly the same fix as Yossarian scrambling for his exit from bomber duty. Well, almost exactly, since the interviewer gets to show the candidate the exit that Yossarian couldn’t find. In both cases, the applicant (Yossarian and the job candidate) presents information that is self-disqualifying, while the interviewer unwittingly engineers a self-contradiction. Each can make his case only by having it invalidated.

However, the job interview adds another layer of twist: The interviewee not only has his initial self-defeating claim (of being too honest or insane) and application rejected (as does Yossarian), but also, in the end, has it validated by the job interviewer, who finally can see that the applicant is, as claimed, too honest. 

That’s a twist and validation that Yossarian is denied, since he is categorically declared sane upon applying, despite his protestations, unlike the job applicant who indeed proved all too clearly that he is too honest. In Yossarian’s case, all that is necessary to prove his insanity is to withdraw his application. For the interviewee, that reversal will not be an option: His flawed honesty will have been irreversibly and abundantly proven.

Unfortunately, the validation of the claim to honesty is at the same time an invalidation of the application—a Catch 22 case of “proof as disproof” and example of a self-defeating application process.

From the interviewer’s perspective, the exchange with the applicant may have triggered a kind of logical meltdown as much as umbrage. Of course, the interviewer was offended, but perhaps was also confused, since he had to entertain as true the proposition that honesty is not a weakness and the contradictory proposition that it is.  

That’s the kind of paradox, double-bind and contradiction that God is supposed to be able to deal with when asked, as the Omnipotent One, who is able to do anything, to make a rock that is so heavy that (S)He can’t lift it—the idea being that if one is omnipotent, nothing should be impossible for you, including doing the impossible.

The “Catch 22” Interview Formula

As a recipe for job interview disaster, this job applicant scenario warrants a closer, more formal examination. In general, abstract outline, the formula for a super-short Catch 22 job interview is this:

1. Make a claim (in this case, to demonstrate modesty and sincerity as a job applicant by claiming you’re too honest).

2. Respond to the interviewer’s simultaneous denial of and encouragement of that claim with conclusive evidence for the claim.

In the catastrophic job interview above, the key to the disastrous outcome was the interviewer’s simultaneous denial and encouragement of applicant honesty as a weakness.

Clearly, that interview did not go well and amounted to interviewer-assisted interview and applicant self-destruction.  But could this script work to the benefit of the applicant—and perhaps for the interviewer too? Suppose, for example, that the initial claim is a strongly qualifying, rather than potentially disqualifying claim about oneself.

Here’s how that could work:

Interviewer: What do you believe to be your greatest strength?

Applicant: My ability to anticipate what others will think and say.

Interviewer: But you didn’t know I’d be asking this question.

Applicant: To tell you the truth, I also knew you’d say, “But you didn’t know I’d be asking this question.”

Notice here that once again the interviewer is both denying and encouraging proof of the initial claim—except that in this instance, both applicant and interviewer should win, since, obviously, who wouldn’t want to end the interview right there and immediately hire someone with super-psychic powers that could be used with clients and customers, and against competitors?

As a slightly less whimsical and fanciful example of the positive power of Catch 22 interviews, consider this:

Interviewer: What would you change about this interview if you could?

Applicant: I would allot the additional time needed for answers.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Applicant: Precisely what I said and just proved.

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