Dear Dave

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Thinking outside the paperclip

Dear Dave,

What uses can you think of for a paperclip?

When I was at university, it was the kind of question we were told got asked in job interviews, along with such gems as: What are your three greatest strengths? If you were a kitchen appliance, what kind would you be? What's your favourite drink? (Top Tip: Don't say, 'Tequila Slammers'.) What's your greatest mistake and what did you learn from it. (Again, no mentioning the tequila.) How would you describe the internet to your grandparents? How would you describe your grandparents to the internet? What's the difference between a duck? Why do you want this job? Are you pregnant? Can you guess what I had for lunch? Do you know anything about taxidermy? What's your favourite colour? What's my favourite colour? Who won Wimbledon in 1978? What was their favourite colour? And how would you use a duck and your grandparents to describe this colour to a kitchen appliance?

Then there's that old conundrum of how to get U2 across a bridge at night before their concert starts when they can only cross two at a time and there's only one flashlight. (The expected answer involves band members toing and froing and arriving knackered, the sensible answers is to postpone the concert for a few minutes, and the realistic answer is to use the flashlight to hunt down and fire whoever was supposed to be in charge of illumination procurement and send the whole band across in the dark, hoping the bridge doesn't collapse and drop them into a boat containing a fox, a chicken, a bag of grain and a very surprised farmer.)

Of course, I've never really been asked any of these questions. I have been asked some pretty bizarre ones, though. My favourite is, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, how honest would you say you are?' It's so simple and yet whole dissertations could be written on the best answer to give. Is it 8 or is 9? Say 10 and they're going to assume you're lying. Maybe it's 5 - that way, they just can't be sure whether you're lying or not. An answer of 1 is never truthful, since anyone that dishonest would be bound to lie about it. (They probably wouldn't plump for 2, either - it's just not much of a stretch. If you ever want to hire a spin-doctor, then go for the person who says 3.)

I also once got asked, 'Does your father keep pigs?' before I even had a chance to sit down. That was quite disconcerting.

Ho well. Back to the paperclip. There must be hundreds of possible uses. Let's see: fishing hook, bookmark, cake tester, balloon burster, nozzle unblocker, cheap nose-ring... The list goes on and that's not even including the originally intended use i.e. poking into a tiny hole to press the reset button on temperamental pieces of electronic equipment.

Unfortunately, the paperclip question isn't the best question to be asking potential employees. It's the wrong way round. It's saying, 'Here's a solution we've developed. Go find some problems to solve with it and then convince me that people want it.'

I mean, what kind of company works like that? It would lead to catalogues and catalogues of stuff that looked good but didn't really work...

The question should maybe be turned on its head, requiring innovative solutions from limited resources. It should present a problem and ask how it could be solved with only the aid of a common household implement. It would be important to include a practical element. It's easy to talk the talk but the real test is in remaining cool when presented with an explosive device, a rapidly decreasing timer and a clothes-peg. Or when asked to alleviate the credit crunch armed with nothing but a spatula.

It might not be a particularly effective screening process, but it would be fun to watch.

Ironically, the two of us have ended up in the one job where these kinds of skills are actually essential and we didn't even get put through an interview. A housedad should never be without a paperclip. It can be used as the weight on the end of a paper aeroplane, as a replacement link for a sparkly, pink necklace or to lever a LEGO brick out of the internal workings of a video player. Paperclips are the best things ever.

Or so I thought...

Now I have a little girl, it transpires that the best things ever are 'hair elastics' - those glorified elastic bands that hold a pony-tail in place. Aside from saving Marie from turning into a yeti when it's windy, they can be used for everything from tying a wayward raincover onto a buggy to replacing a shattered rivet on a clog. In a pinch, they can be utilised as weapons, used as makeshift restraints and employed in emergency medical procedures. Combined with a paperclip... Well, the possibilities are endless.

I never leave home without one. It's part of my standard housedad kit, along with a packet of wipes, a change of clothes for Marie, nail-clippers, return bus-fare, a re-usable shopping bag, two handkerchiefs, some mints and a spare pound coin (for unforeseen encounters with vending machines, fairground rides and supermarket trolleys).

I may not have had a formal interview for the job, but with this selection of stuff, I'm ready - no matter what the day might ask of me.

(Although, an asteroid strike or zombie invasion would push my powers of improvisation somewhat. Still, even in these cases, if I could quickly get my hands on some paperclips and an extra hair elastic, I wouldn't be doing too badly...)

Yours in a woman's world,


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