THE POWER OF QUESTIONS – YOUR ONE WILD AND PRECIOUS LIFE
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
From new and selected Poems, 1992 Beacon Press, Boston, MA
The Harvard Business School Portrait Project has run for seventeen years., An inspired MBA student at Harvard by the name of Tony Deifell borrowed that line from the poem and asked it of his classmates, beginning the annual tradition of Harvard Portrait Project. Since 2002, entrepreneur Deifell has returned to campus from his home in California with his camera every year to capture the essence of the winning essays in beautiful black and white portrait photographs that bring his subject matter to life. They are a wonderful historical record of a moment in time for each person:
Harvard Business School, of their Portrait Project says: “Each year we ask our classmates a straightforward, simple question taken from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver. It seems such an easy question on the surface, but sometimes the easy questions are the hardest to answer. Indeed, although we ask for only 200 words or less, most people grapple with the question a long time.”
”What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”.
It is an intriguing and profound project undertaken by classmates since 2002 that provides insights into the personal worlds of students and their motivations. Ultimately, the project is about storytelling and a community of people. Take a few minutes out to look through the profiles at the Portrait Project – to see what they say to you. For me, the first thing is, they tell powerful compelling stories about individual lives and a story about a decade; and most importantly how it has changed – history in the making. They also represent diversity, beauty, hopes and dreams. All in just 200 words.
We found this site when researching on profiles for personal brands and resumes. Yes we wander online looking for differences that make the difference. It struck me that often it is the quality of the question that delivers the greatest insights. It seems that people get so wrapped up in the process of producing a resume or describing their personal brand rather than spending time asking themselves quality questions to get the story first. Albert Einstein said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes’.
This is where the MBA programmes like Harvard and other leading schools admissions programmes can help you. Not only to differentiate what you write but also what you say in interviews – as at the heart of these questions is the desire to bring out the real person with an acceptance that they have learnt from their successes and struggles in life. Not surprisingly they seem to ask questions around similar themes.
Consider the HBS goals essay: “What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?” Again in just 400 words! What is “career vision?” In their terms, what does “vision” mean? What does “meaningful” really mean? What do they expect of you? This is effectively asking the same thing, that is: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You may say you want to be an IT information security manager or a business entrepreneur … or anything. There’s no right or wrong answer. The point is why is it worth spending your one wild and precious life on? You have to justify it in those terms.
Other questions (all in 400 to 600 words) include:
- Why do you want an MBA (or why our job)? (Stanford)
- What matters most to you and why? (Stanford)
- What do you want to do – REALLY – and why us? (Stanford)
- What makes you stand out among other candidates?
- How would you introduce yourself to your classmates?
- What can you contribute?
- What are your expectations?
- What are your greatest strengths?
- Tell us about three of your accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (Harvard).
- Tell us about a time in the last three years when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations? (Stanford)
- Tell us about a time in the last three years when you identified and pursued an opportunity to improve an organization? (Stanford)
- Tell us about a time in the last years when you went beyond what was defined or established. (Stanford)
- Select a course, opportunity or cause that you are interested in. Tell us why you chose this activity and how it connects to your interests. (Wharton)
- Imagine your work obligations for the afternoon were cancelled and you found yourself “work free” for three hours, what would you do? (Wharton)
- Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (Wharton)
- Tell us three setbacks you have faced? (Harvard)
- Tell us about a time in your professional experience when you were frustrated or disappointed? (Harvard)
- Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (Wharton)
- Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship? (Wharton)
- Where do you want to be in ten years’ time?
- How would your colleagues describe you? (ask them)
- What are your hobbies? (your interests tell people a lot about you)
Answering these questions and those similar gives us a vivid and genuine image of who you are – and they convey how you have become the person you are. They do not focus merely on what you have done or accomplished. Instead they share the values, experiences and lessons that have shaped your perspectives on life. They are written from the heart and address not only a person, situation or event but also how it has influenced your life.
Whether you write the answers, reflect on them or just talk about them; they will help to broaden your thinking to present yourself well, create your profile/ resume, identify your keywords that make up your personal brand or prepare for an interview. These questions also help you identify your great work projects – delve into what makes them great work and you probably have a definition of what your ideal role encompasses too.
BREVITY – JUST 200 WORDS
I also want to reflect on the word count 200 words in one paragraph. I am reminded of the famous quote ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have time’ (Blaith Pascal not Churchill). It is a real skill to write succinctly. A Resume should be no longer than two pages and yet it needs to include your profile, core responsibilities, key projects and achievements. But far more important than these – it needs to make you stand out – so it has to represent who you REALLY are, your character, your brand values and your differences. This makes up the content of your Resume, LinkedIn profile and personal website (if you have one). This requires more than a process – spend your time developing quality content and then consider how best to present it based upon your objective.
START WITH QUESTIONS NOT ANSWERS
So start with what questions do you need to answer not the answers. In my consultancy role I often find myself asking can you just tell me the question that what you just said was the answer to? Often we focus too much on the solution before we have exhausted looking at the questions.
Finally imagine you are asked the question ‘Take me through your resume?’ What is the story you want to tell about you, your life, your accomplishments and what you bring to the table? This takes us full circle to: ”What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”.
Lastly no apologies that this is a long post – it needed to be J.