Honesty or When a Genius should Lie in an Interview

October 7, 2007

As a person of exceptional intelligence, I am often faced with difficult questions of honesty, so I set out to decide how to handle the problems.

Honesty is an odd thing. People in general are vaguely aware that our childhood understanding of what it means to be honest isn’t sufficient to describe the actual nature of it, but I suppose it doesn’t cause people enough cognitive dissonance to actually think it though. I think I’ve made progress understanding it though. First, let’s define a lie. I think I’m safe defining a lie as:

Communication with the intent to deceive.

This definition hints that it’s not merely the words you choose that define your lie, but the context as well. For example, you’ve stolen something from your friend. If your friend asks you doubtfully if you stole something from him, and you respond with “Yeah, I did,” that may or may not be a lie. If you say it seriously, then you’ve told the truth, admitting the theft. If you say it sarcastically, you intended to deceive him by feigning insult at the thought that you could have stolen the item, and made it easier to lie for yourself because you get to avoid many of the physical symptoms of lying, since you said words that could have been the truth. The net result, despite the content of your answer, is that he thinks you didn’t steal the item, when in fact you did.

But what about jokes? You say something with the intention of momentarily deceiving a person for the purpose of humor. That’s deceptive, but I think we can agree it’s not a “lie.” What about “white lies”? You tell your mom the hat looks great, you tell your friend his haircut is awesome, but neither is the case.

I think the key is understanding that the object of communication isn’t always the subject of communication.

When your mom asked you if the hat looked good, her concern was never the hat, it was her self image. She was asking you to bolster her self image so that she could face the world confidently. You responded honestly to her, that she should indeed face the world confidently.

The communication was false in that you think the hat is ugly, but the hat wasn’t the object of the exchange, only the subject. With a joke, the subject is never the object: the object is humor. You honestly want to communicate humor when you tell a joke, so it doesn’t matter that the subject of the communication was misleading.

This is exactly the case with allegories and metaphors. It doesn’t matter if we are all really in a cave watching shadows, that’s not the point (or object), that’s just the metaphor (or subject). The point is that the world as we perceive it is not the world as it truly exists, so it doesn’t matter that the subject of that communication isn’t literally true.

So, what about job interviews, genius?

Most jobs that you get with a resume instead of an application, are jobs that require skills and experience. A technical position might require “5 to 7 years experience.” That number or range of numbers doesn’t matter, it’s only the subject of communication. The underlying truth is that 5 to 7 years experience corresponds to a certain skill level and knowledge base on average, and that skill level is the real object. A more accurate request would be for a candidate with the skill level that a person of, for example, IQ 130 intelligence would have in 5 to 7 years.

For a genius, that range is reduced drastically. So when you interview for a job you know you are very qualified for, but you don’t have that number of year experience, you have a conundrum. Do you remain accurate in the subject of communication, being “honest” about the true number of years you have been practicing a skill? Seems like the safest bet, but if you do that, you are putting yourself in a precarious position!

You will undoubtedly feel the need to say “I don’t have that number of year experience, but I can do the work anyway.”

“Really?” the potential employer will say, incredulously. “How is that, exactly?”

If you say what is the case: “It’s because I am extremely intelligent, and it doesn’t take me as long to learn skills as it takes other people,” you have shot yourself in the foot. You’ve violated the very social convention that led to the writing of this blog: you’ve “tooted your own horn.” People in our culture will label you as pompous, and you will leave a sour taste in the interviewer’s mouth.

The more likely scenario is that you’ll say: “It’s because I’m a really hard worker, and I’m really dedicated.” Ah, the safe answer. You’re dependable, bright, dedicated. You are also a liar. Even if those things are true, you have communicated with the intent to deceive, because you have skirted what you know to be the true source of your expediency for the sake of avoiding the awkward social situation of explaining how intelligent you are.

What was the point of being accurate in the number of years you claim to have practiced, if you lie about this now? You’ve succeeded in being honest about the subject, but dishonest about the object of conversation (years of experience, versus skill), and you’ve also been dishonest about the subject of the question in an attempt to be honest about the object (hard worker, versus highly intelligent).

I think the better approach is to be honest up front. They are asking for people who have a certain level of skill. You have that skill. You tell them, using a context they understand, that you have that level of skill. They ask for 5 to 7 years of experience, and you say “Yes, I have 7 years of experience,” which honestly communicates to them that you have the skills they are looking for.

5 Responses to “Honesty or When a Genius should Lie in an Interview”

  1. Isti Says:

    It’s a nice line of logic what you’ve written here, but there’s a flaw. As I read trough your lines, I’ve imagined you thinking of an interview for a job, most likely for a programmer or something to do with theoretical problem solving, therefor you didn’t see that the expression: “It’s because I am extremely intelligent, and it doesn’t take me as long to learn skills as it takes other people,” doesn’t cover all carrier types, where experience still has it’s true value. In a practical problem solving carrier you just can’t mix up skill with experience…even if you understand a finite number of variations, given by nature, at the same problem in half the time as a more experienced coworker, you wouldn’t be experiencing twice as much as he is(only if you work twice as much-which would make your supposed lie:“It’s because I’m a really hard worker, and I’m really dedicated.”, a truth). So in this case if you say “Yes, I have 7 years of experience” you can’t be honest about the subject, and dishonest about the object of conversation at the same time. You are simply telling the truth or not.

  2. Jessica Says:

    I agree with the last post, but only to an extent. There will be moments where it will become transparent that you do not have 7 years of experience. They will be when you’re learning to do something novel that is basic to those with experience. However, if you’re learning quickly and working well with others… will they even care? Chances are, they are not paying attention. Most people have this ocean of concerns swimming through their head, and are easily switched to a new topic (especially when that topic is themselves). You have to know what you’re aiming to do, and just do it. I believe it is sound logic to speak to the employer on his/her level by saying you have the experience, because it equates to saying “I can do the job for you.”

  3. Sindre Says:

    I read this post just before going to the store, and pondered the subject as I made the trip. My conclusion is that the situation described is probably worthy of a jargon term. I’d call it a shallow lie.

    A shallow lie would be a lie which, while deceptive in regards to the surface question, is truthful in regards to the deeper sentiment of the person telling it. To derive from your metaphor above, your lie would be shallow because, while you lack seven years of experience in that field of work and are thus lying, you believe yourself to be as skilled as someone who has that amount of experience invested in it.

    There’s no questioning that saying you have seven years of experience when you really don’t is deceptive; it’s just a very different kind of deception from what it would be if you believed yourself to lack the skills as well. You believe the employer’s estimate of “5 to 7 years” need not apply to you, and as such you are telling the truth – even as you lie.

    And, indeed, if you are very intelligent and you want to maintain your social status, you will be forced to tell these kinds of lies. There is no going around it. Otherwise, someone is going to take offence. Major offence. I don’t think this is a problem exclusive to very intelligent people, but it certainly applies directly to our ‘gift’.

    • Ken Says:

      “Shallow Lie” is a pretty good term. The opposite has a term for it as well, when you tell some superficial truth with the intent to deceive. The term is “bullshit,” and it’s well worn 8)

      • Sindre Says:

        Sets me thinking about my philosophy classes. I have this sense of lingering worry about some of my fellow students. When these speak in the open discussions we sometimes have, I get the impression that they do so more to score points in some arbitrary game of politics than to impart any kind of wisdom. Bullshit, along with various rhetorical techniques, is used in an attempt to make their chosen opponent look like a fool. It has nothing to do with their own faith in the subject. Rather, they seem to be on the verge of laughing out loud at the thought of some of the ideas they share.

        When the teacher interrupts us and says “Could we be a bit more civil, please?”, they grin smugly.

        “There,” they seem to think. “I got the teacher to intervene. Ten points.”

        I have no idea what it’s all about, but it certainly doesn’t sit well with me. What I find the most disturbing is that they are also some of the brightest students in the class.

        What gives?

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