This One Question Can Determine Your Critical Thinking Skills

The Backstory

I once met a fellow who graduated at the top of his MBA from the University of Michigan, had a stellar career at one of the world’s leading consulting firms, and is now a managing partner at a private VC firm in Wisconsin.

While chatting with him over a glass of wine one evening, I asked him what it’s like to interview top applicants from schools like Harvard, Booth, and Kellogg when they apply for a position at his firm.

“They’re smart,” he said, “hard-working, ambitious, and at the start of what will most likely be exciting and successful careers.”

“Well then,” I wondered, “how do you know which applicant to choose when you have so many great potential hires?”

“Easy,” he answered. “I ask them a series of questions that are typical for an interview. Why do you want to work herewhere do you see yourself in 5 years, and so on. Then I ask one question in particular that provides me with invaluable insight into their communication and critical thinkings skills under pressure.”

The Question

You have one minute to answer this question and there are no clues. I also want you to think out loud. However you’re working this problem out in your head, express it vocally.

Here’s the question — how many miles around is the Earth at the equator?

(Answer at the bottom)

Critical Thinking Insights

I proceeded to stumble over my words and thoughts for the following minute, eventually ending up with an answer of 29,000.

I figured that the United States is about 3,000 miles coast-to-coast. It’s a 6-hour flight (or so) from Los Angeles to New York. Another 6-hour flight from New York to Portugal. That’s roughly a quarter of the earth, give or take.

If I would have stopped there, I would have guessed within 1,000 miles of the correct answer. But I doubted my critical thinking skills— figuring there was no way that it was that easy. I assumed that I grossly underestimated the distance from Portugal back to my starting point of Los Angeles. So at the end of the minute, I added 5,000 miles to my guess.

He smirked.

“What’s the answer?” I asked.

“It’s not about the right or wrong answer,” he said. “It’s about how you got there. I wanted to hear your thought process in breaking down a complicated problem into smaller, manageable chunks. I also wanted to hear how you communicate under pressure.”

Then I remembered something my sister mentioned to me while pursuing her MBA at Booth. In management consulting, banking, finance, science, engineering, venture capital, and similar career tracks, managers often hire candidates that are able to demonstrate a propensity for understanding critical root issues.

In other words, they look for people with ability to determine the important stuff in what seems like an impossible challenge — whether it’s saving a failing business, persevering through a scientific breakthrough, performing due diligence on an acquisition, or aligning around a company vision.

There is no right way to solve a given problem. There is only the problem, the individual, and the team. It’s up to the individual (and team) to identify what’s relevant, what’s unnecessary, and to make an educated decision.

The Answer

So, how many miles around is the Earth at the equator?


What was your guess? How did you arrive at your answer?

No matter what type of challenge you face or what stands in the way of achieving your goal, it can (and should) be broken down into smaller pieces.

Tackle one thing at a time. Prioritize the biggest issues. Focus your attention on what needs solving today — right now.

For those interested, here’s one interesting way to break down the question above:

  • There are 24 time zones around the world

  • The United States is roughly 3,000 miles wide

  • The United States contains 3 major time zones

  • 24 global times zones / 3 U.S. times zones = 8

  • 8 (time zones) x 3,000 miles = 24,000.

  • The United States is slightly above the equator and so one can estimate that the answer is slightly >24,000 miles

Intelligence isn’t only determined by your IQ score, it’s the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in a given situation.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my other musings. I write about life stuff such as happiness, investing, traveling, decision making (and lots more) in my newsletter, Thinker.