The Great MIT Balloon Hack

When someone says, “So, tell me about yourself,” a lot of people stumble. Michael was one of those people.

mit-balloon-hackIn high school Michael, 59, focused on fine arts, but by his senior year he realized he really enjoyed building things. And inventing things. He had never touched a motherboard when a friend invited him to an engineering club meeting in 12th grade. Before long, Michael built a prosthetic arm.

“It was an amazing experience to see my invention come alive,” he said. Michael has been inventing and building ever since.

A passionate technical leader and engineer, he spent 22 years as Head of Engineering for a Dallas-based manufacturing company. Though he liked the role, the company’s growth had stalled. Michael was beginning to perform his job mechanically. He was ready to give himself the new experiences, new challenges and range of muscle-building activities executives naturally encounter by changing jobs.

He knew that he didn’t want to move back east to Massachusetts. He began targeting CTO positions in the Dallas area.
Because he hadn’t changed jobs in many years, Michael was not comfortable with interviewing – especially figuring out how to tell someone who doesn’t know much about him something about himself.

next-great-next-join-buttonIf you’re like Michael, when you craft your answer to that question you have 10 million hours of information to choose from. Many people actually hate getting this question because it’s so hard to zero-in on an answer.

“This is an honest question. Someone wants to know about you,” says ExecuNet Director of Coaching Services Harriette Lowenthal. “You should learn to choose the right things to say, so you can answer the question in a way that allows people to connect with you and remember you.”

“At the executive level, when you’ve gone through the screening interviews and you may have had some interviews by phone, they’ve already determined that you can do the work. The question then goes to fit: can the interviewer work with you, and can you, the candidate, work with them.”

“What you don’t want to do when you’re asked that question is what most people do, which is begin summarizing everything that’s already on your resume,” says Harriette.

When you know something really well, like every detail of your life, it’s difficult to figure out how to tell someone who doesn’t know. “You could begin with a few words about your childhood, or share a quote and how it represents your life,” Harriette advises. “When you answer this way, you’re giving the interviewer insight into who you are, which helps both you and the interviewer determine fit.”

Michael had the experience, the leadership skills, and double degrees from MIT. But clear at the bottom of his resume, and the thing most interviewers picked up on, was a different kind of accomplishment: The Great MIT Balloon Hack, Harvard Stadium, November 20, 1982. This was the thing people wanted to know about: “What is this?” “What did you do?” “How interesting.”

It was the most fun and adventurous (and risky) thing Michael had ever done in his entire life. Harriette noticed that when he talked about it, he got excited. His voice changed. It brought out something about his personality that an interviewer wouldn’t get when he’s talking about plant engineering and tooling.

The coaching sessions paid off: today, Michael is the CTO of a leading onboard infotainment platform developer. Still building things, still inventing things. And now, more excited about the future than ever.

Sometimes, you only have time for a one-sentence summary of your life – when you are introduced to someone briefly at a conference, for example. Other times – like in an interview – there is more time for an answer. When you have more time, tell a memorable story.

Most people instinctively list details about their life, “I did this, then this, then this.” It’s not very interesting. Stories are more engaging.

Telling stories about yourself takes practice. A lot of it is trial and error. Most of us could use help learning to answer that simple but important question in a way that creates a single, memorable picture of ourselves that is relevant to the person we’re talking to.

When you find a good story – like Michael did – hone it until you’re conveying what you want people to know, in a way they’ll enjoy hearing.

Once you’ve practiced a bit, you can relish the moment someone says, “So, what do you do?” If you understand how to talk about yourself, this is an opening to connect in a meaningful way and make a lasting impression.

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