From The Twitterverse: Elon Musk, Your Most Difficult Problems, and How You Solved Them

Leadership Lesson: What someone considers a problem — and how they address it and all the factors surrounding it — demonstrates a lot about how they pay attention to what is around them, their self-awareness, and how they learn from their experiences.

What’s your problem?

Ok, most of us have several. Let’s not go through the list of today’s. But name one from your past. A tough one. What was it? How did you deal with it? How did it change you?

The reason I ask is that I recently came across the tweet below which mentions how Elon Musk weeds people out in interviews. He asks the question: “What were the most difficult problems you faced and how did you solve them?”

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This is one of the best questions to ask anyone you want to learn something about, especially a candidate you’re interviewing for a job.

I mean, I think we can all agree that no one is really tested when things are going great, right? It’s when things don’t go as planned that you see what someone is really made – and capable — of.

And I bring this up not as a challenge to see or prove how far each of us has been pushed to the brink. This is a call instead to go back and review what we gained from those experiences.

Aside from someone’s actual thought process specific to the problem shared, so many dimensions of someone’s character can be reflected in the way they react to and answer that question about a problem having been faced and solved (or not). Here are just a few:

How honest they will be that they’ve had problems

The answer to the question demonstrates how forthcoming someone is about challenges they’ve encountered during their journey to today. There is no need to try and paint a picture of past perfection. They’re open about their experiences — the good, the bad, and the sometimes mind-boggling.

Their attention to detail

The extent to which someone now understands their past problems demonstrates to us how much they seek to analyze and break down what they have experienced. It shows us how much they go back and assess what didn’t work out and aim to understand it, carrying out an assessment that hopefully leads them to avoid that pitfall going forward.

Their humility (or lack thereof)

Building on the honesty, they don’t need to sound invincible. They understand that things happen and demonstrate some level of humility, self-awareness, and even vulnerability, either on their part for the role they played or for the team’s part when the problem was encountered.

Their sense of teamwork

The language they use about their colleagues demonstrates their respect for the team environment and how much they understand they were part of that team. They shouldn’t be placing blame on another person. But, if it was another person’s fault, they should outline how either they themselves or their team made sure to assist the person in correcting their approach for the next time.

What they consider a problem

This outlines what they consider real challenges to be. Challenges and problems are very subjective. What a person demonstrates as his or her threshold for a problem can reflect their threshold for stress. What one person considers a problem may not even register on another person’s radar because that second person may feel there are bigger obstacles to overcome. Some people may even thrive off of the fires that need to be extinguished. So you can learn about someone’s tolerance for obstacles.

What they took away from the experience

It’s important to note how the person talks about the experience. What did they outline could be taken forward in that same environment to reduce the probability of recurrence? How do they address how the lessons from that problem could be transferred to other situations or systems?

It’s a hard yet free lesson for all of us to learn from those challenges. The alternative — moving forward from a problem as if it never happened or not heeding its lessons because it’s been resolved — leaves someone and their team more susceptible to reliving adversities.

Their level of integrity

A general underlying foundation of character, this item builds upon the honesty and humility aspects of the person. Integrity means they state things as they are, and that there’s no need to sugar coat it or make anything look pretty.

In honesty, they tell you they have had problems.

In humility, they demonstrate they were able to learn from problems and that they weren’t always in control.

Integrity is a more general characteristic, allowing him or her to tell you any of this with conviction regarding the experience. They take ownership of their learning experiences. (That’s what those previous problems are.) They’re saying, “I know where I’ve been, I know what I’ve seen, and I know who I am. This is me. I know the value of my experiences. Respectfully, take it or leave it.”


These are just a few things that this question about problems can show you.

Being proactive in any situation is usually the better option, but we’re not always going to be able to get ahead of issues that might come up. We need to try to stay out of reactive mode, so that we can prepare as best as possible and be ready for anything.

Realistically, though, sometimes we have no choice but to react. There are just too many variables and factors at work in our environment to avoid every problem. But we should try to anticipate and prepare for as much as we can, so that we’re as organized and agile as possible to take on the unknown.

Related: To Move Forward, Answer This: Are You Taking The Proactive or Reactive Path In Life?

Rarely will anyone be perfect in their reaction to a problem, but what does their effort and reaction say about their determination, attitude, and character? What do that effort and reaction, demonstrated on the continuous cycle between problems and solutions, look like? That’s the key part to consider here.

What else do you believe you could learn from someone answering the question?

What can you learn about yourself?


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