I have yet to meet anyone who describes him or herself as a “slow learner.”

I’ve interviewed lots of self-described fast learners though. I used to say that about myself too when I was unqualified for jobs I was interviewing for, though I doubt it worked. My little twist on it was referring to myself a “quick study” to give it a little pizzazz.

Incorporating new tools or technologies into your work is a way of life in tech companies. This new caching technology; that new user measurement tool; this new test automation framework; that new messaging tool. Once in a blue moon, a new technology revolutionizes an industry instantly. Usually though, it’s a creeping lava flow that slowly but steadily incinerates how you used to do things.

The point is, many if not most of the people you work with at startups are either pretty smart or very smart. They’re good at learning, or they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. It’s important, just not that impressive.

The Most Important Interview Question

Here’s what I’m interested in when I interview people now: What’s something important you’ve learned that you had to prove for yourself?

Another way to think about that question is, how fast a learner are you when there’s no teacher and no single answer?

The lessons we fall back on when we make big decisions are usually the things we learned slowly. Moreover, you can’t learn those things quickly because you’re usually not sure what you’re learning is correct in the moment. Validation takes time.

For instance (and this is not a reference to the post you’re reading now), I believe that good content still beats personalized content in marketing. Maybe not a profound observation, but given the relentless drumbeat for personalized marketing, it goes against the grain. I didn’t used to believe it, but now I do on the basis of trial, error, and analysis.

It’s hard to be a fast learner when you don’t know if the lessons you’re learning are true.

Whenever you’re doing something new and challenging, you’re swimming in uncertainty. If you’ve ever tried to make sense of conflicting data about your new venture (hey there, nice to meet you), you know what I mean.

How someone answers this question doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a person, but it does tell you one very important thing: how much of a thinker is this person? Young or old, good candidates can point to real business lessons they’ve validated for themselves. If they can’t think of one in the moment, they’ll follow up with you after the conversation.

if they can’t…maybe keep looking.


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