Career DNA


What kind of 6-year-old builds a wind tunnel to test his model airplanes? The kind who ends up being the first man to ever step foot on the moon.

I found this gem in Neil Armstrong’s obituary yesterday. Despite all of his many achievements – test pilot, one of our first astronauts and, of course, his famous first step on the moon – the wind tunnel is what fascinated me most.

This bit of insight into the DNA that drove his lifelong fascination with the engineering of flying machines is the kind of thing I try to uncover in my clients.

It isn’t just that I love figuring out how people ended up being who and what they are. It’s also that I believe that’s far more interesting than a list of responsibilities you had at your most recent job.

How about a 10-year-old who taught teenagers to shoot free throws? He’s one of my clients. He was so obsessed with basketball that he spent most of his waking hours thinking, dreaming, practicing and deconstructing the shot.

One of the big kids wanted to know how he sank so many. Quoting from a speech I wrote for him:

“It’s simple.  You stand slightly off to the side and line-up your shooting shoulder with the middle of the room, which makes the angle straight, rather than off to the side.  Aim for the heel of the rim, so that if the ball is short it swishes in, but if it’s long it hits the heel, backward, and has a chance to roll in.  And shoot with the laces slightly off parallel to horizontal so the ball doesn’t jump as much if it hits the rim.”

Actually, he wrote that part. That’s what he knew when he was 10. Now here’s him in his fifties, explaining his free throws, and how he built two multi-million dollar businesses:

“I was just looking at things in a way that seemed natural to me. Some people take apart or build cars, houses, and appliances. Without being able to put it into words I was taking apart and re-building processes to enhance the opportunities for success.  I thought, unconsciously, how can I remove as many obstacles to success as possible.”

Here’s another one of my favorites: the author, researcher, public speaker and history professor who recalls spending a rainy afternoon with another eight-year-old creating a book that catalogued all the fish in the world. The day flew by as they carefully researched, wrote and illustrated this book of knowledge designed so others could learn. And that is what he spent the rest of his life doing.

I was inspired to create this exercise to discover what’s in your DNA by a friend who was an attorney. He’d been one whole life. He just didn’t know it.

He was telling me how whenever he and his buddies got busted for something when they were teens, he always made them stand aside and shut up while he negotiated with the adults.

I said, “Funny you ended up being a lawyer.”

A look of stunned recognition crossed his face. It had never occurred to him that he’d always been a lawyer.

So who would you rather hire? A lawyer or CEO or professor who has what you need in their DNA? Or just someone who went to a good school and has some experience? How about someone with the whole package?

Of course, you’d never expect to get a job based on something you did when you were 10, but a well-told story that shows your intrinsic abilities and deep-seated passion could certainly give you a competitive advantage.