Ahhhhh, one of the most famous (or infamous) and most common job interview questions. And also one of the most vexing for autistic and other neurodivergent folks. I’ve recently thrown myself into the deep end in LinkedIn and this is a theme that appears in my feed nearly every day. Most articles seem to state that questions such as these are too “open-ended” for neurodivergent folks to answer effectively. I’m not sure I buy this theory completely, though. Allow me to explain…
While I have heard/felt/intuited this from other autistic folks I’ve connected with, I will choose to speak solely for myself here. I strongly believe that autistic people are hard-wired for truth, honesty and accuracy. This is one reason why a fair number (not all) of us are drawn to the technical fields of study. There is not only very little ambiguity in technical fields (code either works or it doesn’t), but there are also explicit inputs, processes and outputs. If you understand the system, you can predict the outcome. This sort of predictability is very comforting.
Unfortunately, human lives do not usually work like computer programs. Even if you put in your best efforts on the things you are most passionate about and skilled at, your contributions may indeed have no effect at all due to circumstances beyond your control. Obviously this is not a given, but there is always risk out there, not to mention the known and unknown unknowns (if I were to be Rumsfeldian about it).
In my case, I would even venture to say I am not predictable to myself. Some nights I get a full night’s sleep and feel great in the morning. More often, I sleep sporadically for no more than 5 total hours and wake up feeling like I was hit by a bus. So if I am having one of those days after one of those nights and I happen to have a job interview where this question comes up, honestly, I’m just hoping I can get myself home for a nap afterward. Literally ANYTHING could happen in 5 years.
And therein lies the problem. You, the interviewer are actually asking about our career ambitions or mid-range goals and I have none. I never have. Any “ambition” I have ever shown has been a result of my assumption that this was how someone was supposed to “career.” Forget “adulting,” I’m talking about “careering.” With this question, my best hope is to say what I actually believe would be a plausible one of a BAZILLION options for where I might be in five years: dead by the impending superquake that will inevitably hit the west coast in the next couple years. If I make you laugh uncomfortably, do I get the job?
This answer is just as plausible, and probably just as likely as any given by any job applicant lately. The question doesn’t imply this is the future we WANT. It doesn’t imply the likeliest future. I absolutely COULD step into the street and get hit by a bus tomorrow. And before you accuse me of being obsessed with my own demise, I very well could also have my toes in the sand on a beach in Hawaii where I live six months of the year because I had a brilliant idea and sold it for an obscene amount of money. Strangely, none of these feel like the “right” answer. They are all probably disqualifying.
Which is why the question is 100% bullshit. It’s a bullshit question (input) which is designed to elicit a bullshit answer (output). The person who answers the question by saying, “Well Bob, I think after 9 months in this position you’re going to offer me today, I’ll be ready to take on a team and quickly build to a multi-million dollar revenue stream after which I will be named VP of…” blah, blah, blah. This answer is WAAAAYYYYYY more bullshit than my original example. THAT person could also get hit by a bus tomorrow.
Every decision we make in every minute of the day has an effect on the choices you have at your disposal tomorrow. If you decide to stay in and have dinner with your family one night, you are deciding NOT to go to the club with your girlfriends where you definitely might run into Leo DiCaprio who absolutely might decide you have THE PERFECT look to be in his new movie. Is that likely? Perhaps not. But it’s not a choice you will have to worry about making when you stay home.
The point I’m trying to make is that if you want to hire honest people who believe in truth and accuracy, don’t ask bullshit questions that require bullshit answers. The question “where do you see yourself in five years” isn’t a problem because it’s open-ended. It’s a problem because it’s impossible to answer with honesty and accuracy. Autistic people want jobs and we can be good at them. But if you think there’s a right answer to that question, you have a problem because there is no right answer to that question.