Can you answer Elon Musk's favorite interview question?

In the early days of SpaceX, Elon Musk interviewed every single candidate who came through the doors. It didn't matter what position they were interviewing for — he wanted to talk to everyone. According to his biography, many of those who sat across from Musk would be asked his favorite brain teaser interview question:

“You're standing on the surface of the earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?”

How to answer Elon Musk's interview question

If you're scratching your head at this brain teaser, you're not alone. Apparently engineers usually guessed the correct answer: the North Pole. Following Musk's directions and using the North Pole as the start location, you'd make a triangle and end up right where you began. Another potential answer could be the South Pole.

The good news: Musk wasn't too concerned with job candidates giving him the right answer. When interviewers ask brain teaser questions like this one, they're looking to gauge the candidate's critical-thinking skills and ability to operate under pressure, not necessarily for the correct answer.

“Interviewers use these questions to see if you can think and resolve issues quickly with what data they present,” TopInteview coach Nick D. says. “The answer is often irrelevant. It's the candidate's way of coming to the conclusion that matters.”

What to do if you don't know the answer to the question

Let's say an interviewer asks you a question like this, and you're totally baffled. What do you do? First, don't panic. Remember interviewers aren't necessarily looking for the correct answer. They just want to get a better idea of the way you process information and solve problems. Second, don't try to avoid the question.

“Don't try to talk around a question or pretend you have some expertise when you don't,” Nick says. “An employer wants to know you are honest and have integrity. If you are insincere or lie, bye-bye.”

If you need, feel free to ask follow-up questions to clarify what the interviewer is asking. This will show them you're curious and give them a glimpse into how you solve problems. Then, even if you're not sure about the answer, start talking through your thought process. Break the problem down, explain your assumptions, and map out exactly how you'd arrive at your answer, whatever it ends up being.

Types of brain teaser interview questions

When it comes to preparing for brain teasers, it helps to understand that these types of questions are typically grouped into two categories: process and creative.

Elon Musk asked his candidates a “process” question, which is popular for engineering positions. The question likely won't have an obvious answer, and the candidate will need to talk it through with a step-by-step analysis.

Here's another example of a process-focused brain teaser question: “There's a school bus parked outside. Approximately how many golf balls would fit inside it?”

Again, you probably can't tell the interviewer exactly how many golf balls can fit into a school bus, but Nick offered up an example of how you could respond: “I would calculate or look up the volume of the interior bus space, subtract the volume occupied by the seats, take the volume of a standard gold ball, and divide one into the other to acquire an estimate for the number of golf balls that could fit.”

There are also creative brain teasers to consider. An example of a creative brain teaser question is: “If you were an African animal, which one would you be and why?” With this question, there really isn't a correct answer. An interviewer simply wants to get to know you better and get a glimpse into the way you think.

Nick offered an example of how you could answer that question: “I would be a male lion, as they are instinctive leaders who support their pride. They ensure each member is successful, safe, and has what they need to survive. They're focused on the growth and well-being of the group — nevermind they sleep 18-plus hours a day and only wake up to eat and play.”

How to prepare for brain teaser interview questions

Like your classic behavioral interview questions, the best way to prepare for brain teaser questions is to practice. You can find lists of these types of interview questions online, so take some time to answer a handful of them, talking through your thought process, asking clarifying questions, and explaining exactly how you'd arrive at your answer — even if you don't know the answer off the top of your head.

Also remember to stay calm, take a deep breath, and don't try to wiggle your way out of the question. The interviewer simply wants to better understand the way you operate and process information, so don't shy away from letting them know.

Want to practice answering these types of interview questions with a professional interview coach? TopInterview's experts can help! Connect with a coach today.

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