The pretend reasons and the real reasons behind the “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?” type questions

By Jack J. Kelly


Once in your career, you must have been on the receiving end of a ridiculously, annoyingly difficult interview question. I’m not referring to when they ask you your name, where you live, and what you do at your current job type question. This is not the usual, standard issue “so, tell me about yourself” question, but rather a brain teaser variety, such as the following:

  • Estimate how many cars there are in New York.
  • How many quarters would you need to reach the height of the Empire State Building?
  • How many cows are in Canada?
  • If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
  • Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?
  • Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?
  • How long would it take to wash every window in Chicago?
  • How many pianos are there in New Jersey?
  • Why are manhole covers round?
  • A penguin walks into a bar wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?
  • If an elephant falls into a hole, how would you get it out?

The rationale that companies will use for asking these painfully annoying questions is that they are trying to ascertain how an applicant thinks, plans, solves problems thinks critically, and sets priorities. The companies also want to determine the job seeker’s deductive reasoning powers, career ambitions, self-awareness, confidence levels, abilities to perform under stress, emotional intelligence, ethics, honesty, and raw intelligence.

 I don’t buy it.  In my opinion, the real reasons firms ask these inane questions are as follows:

  1. To create an image of only hiring the best and brightest.
  2. Intimidate candidates and throw them off their game.
  3. Ego and power trip of the interviewer and management.
  4. Thinks it is the cool thing to do.
  5. A form of hazing.
  6. Deceiving themselves about the superiority of their screening process.
  7. Cop-out of not having to ask real questions.
  8. Laziness by not doing the heavy lifting and spending the time to really get to know the candidate.
  9. General rudeness.
  10. Take perverse joy in watching someone squirm.

The major reason that I am not a fan of this style of questioning is that it makes a candidate very uncomfortable for no real valid reason. The interview process is nerve- wracking enough that it does not need to be compounded by tortuous questions. Someone who is interviewing must first come up with a reason to get out of the office, which is an awkward thing since the reality is that they are lying to their boss. Then, the job seeker needs to get to the interview, which if you are in New York, entails an overcrowded, too-hot or too- cold subway ride or an insane cab or Uber driver that nearly crashes into 10 pedestrians and three messenger bicyclists on the ride over.  You then frantically wait in the lobby (decompressing from the near-death experience of getting to the interview) to be called and try to quell the near panic and anxiety pulsating through your body.  To add onto the intense pressure and stress by asking silly questions is pointless and mean.

 As an Executive Recruiter, I have interviewed literally thousands of people over the last 20 years. It is just as easy to find out about a person by simply asking them reasonable questions about themselves, their job, past positions, responsibilities, future goals and ambitions. I’ve learned that if you allow someone to open up and talk about themselves, and you actually listen, you will find out so much more about someone. Try this in your personal life. Ask somebody you know several open-ended questions (ones that you can’t answer with a yes or no answer) and let them share with you. Really listen to them in a non-judgmental way. You will probably learn more about them in a half hour than you have over the last 10 years of friendship.  Most people are only too happy to share information – both good and bad – about themselves.

 Therefore, it is completely unnecessary to torture someone with these ‘brain teasers’ when you can ask questions more humanely and also learn considerably  more about the candidate by just being polite, asking real questions, and actually listening to their answers.

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