Being on the reality-TV show The Apprentice was all my wife’s idea. Zahara downloaded the application for candidates from NBC’s website and put it on my desk. I put it on the pile of things I’m always meaning to get to. “No, really,” she said, as she rescued it from the pile. “Fill it out.”
After making it through an audition process that included on-camera interviews, physical and psychological tests (they said I have the personality of a Navy Seal), and a boardroom-style interview with Mr. Trump himself, I was told to pack my bags and head to New York City in mid-April 2005.
Having watched the show, I was surprised by how demanding our tasks turned out to be. It’s easy to be a couch-potato critic and say, “Oh, I could do that. That’s easy! What were you thinking??” Yet halfway through the first task (designing a fitness course for Bally Total Fitness), I was absolutely, positively drained. We were running nonstop, my brain hurt, my body was aching, and I simply wanted some rest. And that was only the first task; I had 12 more to go if I was fortunate enough to hang on.
A lot of the tasks were out of my area of expertise. I’d never done street marketing or sales, yet I found myself project manager for the task of getting people to call an 800 number to order samples of a new perfume. On another task, I made a simple mistake. Each team had to write a song, record it with an unsigned musician, and air it on satellite radio. The poster I produced promoting our team’s song had a typo–the wrong channel number–for which I took some heat in the boardroom (where Mr. Trump reviews the contestants’ performances). I resolved to pay greater attention to details and started proofreading everything left and right.
A few tasks played directly into my MIT experiences. One week, we had to organize a tech expo for senior citizens–a task almost tailor-made for me. For my dissertation on the role of technology in underserved communities, I’d studied how people new to technology learn to apply it in their daily lives. And as a PhD candidate at the Media Lab, you always have to be prepared to sell, explain, or provide a quick demo of your work. My experience in Sloan’s Leaders for Manufacturing program helped, too, since that was very much about working in teams. Just being at MIT, surrounded by intelligent, accomplished people, was definitely great preparation for being on the show.