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Lesson 3: Ki Tavo – “My father was a fugitive Aramean”: “Tell me about yourself”
It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand.
— Sonia Sotomayor
“You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God:
‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, but there, he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me’” Deuteronomy 26:5–10.
Moses describes a time when the Israelites will be settled and at peace in the Promised Land, when the proud farmer will bring his first fruits to the Holy Temple at harvest time and make an oral declaration before the priest on duty. This telegraphic declaration reviews the Israelite nation’s history, from their meager beginnings, to slavery in Egypt, God’s miraculous salvation from their bondage, to His bringing the people to the land flowing with milk and honey. This historical review is proclaimed in the first person, highlighting the speaker’s status as the culmination of a Divine promise: My father…the Egyptians dealt harshly with us…We cried to the Lord…He heard our plea…He freed us…He brought us to this place and gave us this land). The recitation was then capped by acknowledging God as the source of his bountiful harvest.
This recitation would not only be repeated annually at harvest time but has become the centerpiece of the Jewish people’s annual Passover Seder family feast, focusing on sharpening, even reliving, the family’s “memory” of being liberated by God from Egyptian bondage. This formula has remained unchanged, and the narrative has become embedded in the nation’s collective memory.
One could wonder how the entirety of the Israelites’ history could be distilled into no more than six verses in the narrative. A complete history would be much more protracted and perhaps less effective. So what should be included, and what should be left out? Many significant events were not included, such as the world’s creation, God’s promises to Abraham, the Israelites receiving the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and other historical ups and downs. We assume that the resulting formula––in story form––encompasses what is most relevant to the farmer upon presenting their first fruits. The farmer’s story has a beginning (meager beginnings of the family), middle (the trauma of Egyptian slavery and God’s hearing our cry and saving us), and end (God bringing us to the Promised Land and enabling us to settle it), as well as a look to the future (I’m now a farmer and grateful for my current and future harvests). When an Israelite is asked who they are, this declaration story would be the place to begin––a veritable national CV.
One of the classic, ostensibly simple, questions you can anticipate in a job interview is: “Tell me about yourself.” It comes in various forms, like “What would you like to tell me about yourself,” “How would you describe yourself,” “What should I know about you?” or “Why are you the right person for this position?” It would be a mistake to tell yourself, “What could be hard about that? I’ve known myself since I was born!” Reams have been written to discern the objective of this question and suggestions on how to respond effectively. The question usually follows a bit of small talk and serves as a transition into the substance of the job interview.
The interviewer uses this question to get to know you and to see if you are a good fit for the available position. As in other questions, the interviewer may view your response as a work sample: How good are you at taking an ambiguous, open-ended question in a tense situation and articulating a lean, coherent, interesting response that has a beginning, middle, and end? If that sounds like a tall order––it is! During your response, your interviewer will imagine you communicating with colleagues, customers, and management or representing the organization in various contexts. You don’t want to disappoint them at this early stage.
Your objective in responding to this question is to make an initial impression that would pique your interviewer’s curiosity about what you can offer the organization. The undesirable outcome, of course, is for the interviewer to look away or glance at their watch to see how much time remains before their next interview. Formulating the crucial points of your response and rehearsing them at home are likely to build confidence and reduce (but not eliminate) anticipated stress. Remember, a job interview is a stressful event. Stress diminishes our creativity and spontaneity, so do not underestimate the value of rehearsal.
So what should you include in your response––and what should you leave out? You may have a ready, core response that reviews your current and past accomplishments. These achievements, best told in brief story form (resembling our Israelite farmer), are more critical to share than a litany of your official job titles and dates. Those can be quickly gleaned from your résumé. Interviewers remember stories and narratives, so you will do well to fit your content into stories, helping you stand out. The narrative you choose for a particular job interview will allow you to connect the dots rather than rely on the interviewer’s analysis. You should take the paintbrush in hand and paint your story on the canvas: your foundations in your field, key milestones, and how you came to be sitting where you are now, exploring an attractive job opportunity (that fits well into your narrative). As our farmer in the cited passage, you have an entire history to consider, but unlike our farmer, you have the prerogative to decide what is included.
Viewing these responses as a marketing pitch, you will need to tailor your reply to the particular organization for which you are a candidate. Carefully review the job description and incorporate some of its terms that reflect your key skills in this and subsequent responses. Closely examine their website: What message are they pushing? What image are they trying to cultivate? Do they see themselves as innovative, energetic, youthful, cutting-edge, out-of-the-box thinkers or as a company steeped in tradition and “the responsible adult” in the field? These words should make their way into your responses to impress the interviewer that you can talk the talk in a language with which they are comfortable.
More suggestions: Make sure that any quality or trait you include about yourself can be backed up with one or more ready examples of how you implemented this attribute at your previous workplaces. This is the core of the behavioral interview technique. Find ways to inject energy and passion into your pitch (no matter your age or experience): What event or person triggered your desire to develop your current career direction? What kinds of projects excite you? What new professional directions have occupied you recently? Your goal, then, is for your interviewer to conclude: “Yes, I would like to have a person like this who can do things like that for us–-and enjoy it!”
Even if this is your first job opportunity, you can still formulate a compelling story in response to this classic question, including highlights of your studies, extracurricular activities, and how these make you a good fit for the job. A good performance may allow you to enjoy reaping your “first fruits!”
- A metaphor that I’ve found helpful in formulating a response to the “Tell me about yourself” question is the movie marketing tool called movie trailer and coming attractions. Using visual stimuli and a voice-over narrator, the trailer aims to elicit an emotional reaction and a sense of expectation in the viewer. It will introduce the main characters (you and your team at your last job), set up a conflict or dilemma (one or more challenges your team faced), and somehow suggest a resolution (how you took action to achieve your objective). These ‘teasers’ should now sufficiently move the viewer to buy a ticket for the full production. Note that the critical element of a movie trailer, as for your job interview response, is the editing phase. You have much more material than could fit into a 90–120 second pitch, so most ‘scenes’ from your career will be relegated to the cutting room floor. Since we know that movie trailers are re-edited for various audiences (such as by age or geography), your pitch needs to fit your particular audience (your current interviewer). So pick the highlights that best speak to this position in this organization. Don’t lament editing out some critical events of your past. Save them for the right interviewer.
- Your response to the “Tell me about yourself” question can take many forms. You have likely read numerous suggestions online, but you need to adopt a style and format that work for you and that you feel comfortable performing (Yes, performing! You read that right). Whatever you do, be sure to script your responses at home before the day of your interview. I’ve recommended to all job applicants (especially those concerned about boasting) to tell about those work tasks for which their colleagues have consistently turned to them (“I’ve always been the one they turned to for _______”).
- Try this: Your response will set the stage for the remainder of the interview, as the interviewer will latch on to segments they will ask you to expand. This scenario means you can take some control of the interview by strewing mentions of your achievements that fit the interviewer’s organization and advertised job description, paying particular attention to the unique aspects of your work style, personality, skills, or hobbies.