The Harvard Portfolio Project and the Power of Great Questions

HOW the Harvard Business School Portrait Project and a Poem about a grasshopper can guide your job search and interview preparation.

The Harvard Business School Portrait Project has run from 2002 to 2018. An inspired MBA student at Harvard, by the name of Tony Deifell borrowed that line from Mary Oliver’s 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. 

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

From new and selected Poems, 1992 Beacon Press, Boston, MA

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?

 They are a wonderful historical record of a moment in time for each person. See some of them here:

 Harvard Portrait Project

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 from diverse backgrounds. Take a few minutes out to look through the profiles at the Portrait Project – to see what they say to you.Harvard Business School, of their Portrait Project said:

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.

This special question is:

Tell Me What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

For me, the first thing is, they tell powerful compelling stories about individual lives and a story about a moment in time; and most importantly how it has changed – history in the making. They also represent diversity, beauty, hopes and dreams. They are stunning, as are the beautiful black and white Portraits. All with just 200 words.

We found this site when doing research on profiles for personal brands and resumes. It struck me that often it is the quality of the question that delivers the greatest insights. Often 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.

This is where the MBA programs like Harvard and other leading schools’ admissions programs can help you. Not only to differentiate what you write, but also help you think through what you say in interviews. At the heart of these questions is the desire to bring out the real person with an acknowledgement 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 is no right or wrong answer. The point is why is it worth spending your one wild and precious life on it? You have to justify it,  in those terms. Or you could look at it through the meme that Tony Deifell is also attributed with coming up with – that seeks your story and to connect with your core values:

WDYDWYD?  or Why Do You Do What You Do?

Other questions (all set with a 400 to 600 word limit) 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. They help you identify your Persona and the story it tells.

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 differently, identify your keywords that make up your personal brand or simply prepare for an interview.


I also want to reflect on that word count for the Harvard Project. Only 200 words in one paragraph are allowed. I am reminded of the famous quote ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have time’ (Blaith Pascal not Winston Churchill). It is a real skill to write so succinctly. In a world where attention spans are constantly reducing because the world is drowning in information your ability to write clearly and concisely, is a premium transferable skill. It takes longer to work out what to omit but it is worth it.


This question should teach us to never underestimate the power of great questions – it is better to  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?’  Answers can be full of assumptions. Often, we focus too much on the solution or answer before we have exhausted looking at the problem and the questions it poses.

Finally, imagine you are asked the simple yet a bit boring 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? The Hikmaty TASKED Framework (Talents, Attitude, Skills, Knowhow, Experience and Deliverables) can help with this. However this really just takes us full circle to:

What have you done with your one wild and precious life so far?

So much more interesting and hard to come up with a uninspiring answer.


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