“Big Three”

What I call the Big Three is an open-ended question that you might ask someone to get some insight into their deepest thoughts. Asking this question gives someone an opportunity to share some of the insights, discoveries, and understandings they have gained in life and that they feel have shaped who they are, and maybe what separates them from others. A well thought out answer is very revealing. I feel it can provide a reasonable measure of someone’s intellectual depth and their approach to discussing ambitious topics.


When a colleague and I were recruiting software engineers for a dot-com start-up, we had discussions about the interviewing process and we were forced to look long and hard at whether we were doing the best job possible of identifying smart, motivated, and effective people. We found it challenging. Not surprisingly, personal endorsements were the most reliable indicator of success. But more surprisingly to me was that conventional interviewing techniques of all sorts were of limited use. Even good open-ended questions were a poor way to evaluate a candidate’s thought process, judgment, and problem-solving capability.

We all know the stories of unconventional interview techniques used by oh-so-clever companies like Microsoft and Google. They involve riddles, or brain-teasers, or unsolvable problems designed to elicit deeper insight into thought processes and problem solving abilities. They are probably a step forward, but when I see them in action they look more like a gimmick to me than any kind of breakthrough. The idea seems valid. The weakness of the approach might just be that the asker can only formulate tasks and questions that their mind considers valid. So at best they can only identify if another person thinks like them and are as sharp as they are in ways they understand. Those clever types of interviews always left me thinking that the interviewers were well-intentioned but especially clueless. It occurred to me that a better interview question might be “what’s the best interview question?”.

However, there are models that are used in fields like psychology and education that have been shown to be effective in assessing intellectual and social development. Examples are the Piaget stages of development and Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development (just examples – I’m not qualified to judge their merits). But those don’t extend to what we think of as higher levels of abstract thought. For that we seem to rely on IQ tests and analogy tests and more correlative measures. They must have their uses, but they don’t seem to be useful predictors of job success, even of engineering judgment.

My colleague had some insights I thought were very good as well. At one point we were discussing how it seemed most software engineers and mathematicians at some point develop an interest in gambling, in our case blackjack. He made a great point that you could judge how smart someone was by at what age they discover the Martingale system, then at what age they discover it doesn’t work. The same goes for the Gambler’s Fallacy and so on. It sounds a lot like the stages of development.

Pyramid test: The same colleague shared another idea that I thought was actually ingenious. So much so that I actually turned it into a Windows App that strives to measure one’s intelligence. The idea was to try to discover where a person stood in determining what common ideas were real or not. He proposed that all such things formed a kind of pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid were the things most everybody would understand and agree to: Santa Clause is not real. Easter bunny is not real. and so on. A level up the pyramid would be things like: Ghosts are not real. Astrology is baseless. Earth is round. The next level might be: whether human-produced CO2 affects the Earth’s climate, or whether vaccinations cause autism. As you get further up the pyramid you are in more elite company where you have sifted through lots of contradictory and misleading information to determine an actual truth. Thus the smartest people would climb high up the pyramid. Perhaps the very peak is reserved for Einstein or Shawn Carrol or Sabine Hossenfelder. I love this idea, but you can see the obvious flaw from my example. It MUST contain FACTS that are highly controversial yet are judged definitive by the author. Consider for example that I construct my pyramid to give high points for those who conclude that the universe is superdeterministic and that de Broglie–Bohm pilot wave theory is the basis of reality, or worse yet that there either is or is not a supreme being. We will never agree on who makes the standard. We could conceivably have the world’s  leading scientists construct a pyramid that corresponds to existing evidence. Each question could be constructed as so: “Based on all credible evidence, what is the proper degree of belief one should have in the theory of Special Relativity? 1-100″ I’d like to write such a test, but I would not want to take it! Bu to be honest, I would absolutely relish knowing where I would disagree with Shawn Carrol on such a test!

So back to reality. The line of thought I just described leads me to my Big Three question. It’s purpose is similar, but it is designed to be realistic and less absolute or judgmental. It won’t give you a number representing anyone’s intellect, and it may not even reveal how smart someone is, but it will open the door to discuss such things in a real and useful way. More importantly it can help two people to know what forms of insights they value and why. I propose that it’s about as good as you can do. And perhaps what I’m suggesting is that it is the ultimate interview question, or lets call it my current best shot.

A way to phrase the Big Three question:

What concepts (or ideas, theories, disciplines) do you feel you have some special understanding of that most people misunderstand, or do not understand as well? Pick three that you get a lot of satisfaction in understanding, and that contribute most to deep insights into the world, and also that represent your most insightful thoughts. You won’t be judged or challenged on your actual expertise.

Here are some simple examples that might be given:

  • General relativity
  • Cosmology
  • Salesmanship
  • Evolution
  • Auto repair
  • Christianity
  • Chess
  • Child rearing
  • Superconductivity in Bose-Einstein Condensates
  • Witchcraft

I’ve taken a shot at my own answer here.