Malka’s Guide to Keeping a Conversation Going aka “The Balloon Method”

Last week, I wrote about approaching anyone and starting a conversation. This is how I keep conversations going.


Every thread of a conversation can spin off into further threads, which can be completely tangential, but still interesting to talk about. Let’s think of it like this: imagine that you and the person you’re talking to are standing in a room with low ceiling. The room is currently empty. You start with some basic small talk like:

“so, what did you do this weekend?”

They answer that they “went out with some friends, worked out, and did HW” — side note, this is my typical answer these days — but what you now have are 3 potential conversation threads:

  1. out with friends -> who? doing what? where?
  2. working out -> fitness -> what kind of workout style, etc?
  3. HW -> school? -> what are they studying?

So you can really only progress through one thread at a time — let’s say you’re going to go with #1 and ask about where they went with their friends. That doesn’t mean that #2 and #3 disappear: I like to imagine them as balloons on a string that are now floating above my head in this empty room. As the conversation progresses, I will add more balloons. For example, I might ask:

“where’d you guys go? Somewhere around here?”

They might answer something like, “we went to that new restaurant in River North, the Mexican one.”

Three more threads:

4. restaurant -> food!
5. River North (a part of town) -> is that where they live?
6. Mexican food -> tacos?! Mexico? Margaritas? Tequila?

So now you’ll ask about what their favourite restaurant in the city might be? Then you’ll share your favourite and why – which could take your conversation to a different direction. Meanwhile, you’ll let threads #5 and #6 become more balloons.

This goes on and hopefully, you’ll never really run out of things to talk about but, if you do, you just need to tug on one of the balloons. Let’s say awkward silence happens, you’ll say something like:

“Hey! So you mentioned you work out – are you more a weights or yoga person? I’m actually a big fan of boxing…”

Then, repeat the above steps as necessary. It’s really hard to run out of balloons — think of it like population dynamics — some balloons get popped but new ones keep getting added, hopefully at a higher rate.

Bonus points: you’ve been listening!

Actionable step:

True fact.  I have a terrible working memory so when I’m in a situation where it’s particularly important for me to be able to keep a conversation going, I mentally bookmark three balloons for the person I’m talking to. That way, if the natural momentum of the conversation breaks down, I have some back-ups but I don’t worry about figuratively filling up the room with balloons as much as I used to when I wasn’t as confident in my ability to ask thought-provoking questions.



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Malka’s Guide to Motivation


  • It’s not me competing against “the world” – I nixed that mentality when I realised that categorizing other humans as adversaries only primed my brain towards the negative when interacting with my competition, which is actually other human beings. Instead, I’m competing against myself but not the current me, the alternate-universe me who is better, faster, stronger at everything I do. If I can do 10 push-ups, she can do 20.  If I get to work at 7am, she tells me that I’m late. So, alternate-universe Mel is the little voice in my head saying stuff like, “you call that a Burpee? You suck!” or “Wanna know why I’m better than you at coding? Because I didn’t care about watching the entire season of Orange is the New Black in one weekend.” SuperMel tells me to put down the cupcake and pick up the quinoa, much like she tells me to put down the TV remote and pick up the pace. She sucks, but she’s also my favourite person ever. I assume current-me and alternate-me are eventually going to meet in a fight-to-the-death Hunger Games apocalyptic battle and I plan on winning.
  • Thinking of what future-me would think of present-me if I stopped/gave up/didn’t do something/did do something? I’ve become pretty good at calculating my future reactions to current choices so I weigh the situation. If I think future me is going to be disgusted at my not turning in an assignment/blowing a deadline because I’m being lazy/not going for a run that day, then I assume present-me should mitigate that by just doing the damn thing.
  • Staying grateful for the challenges I’ve already overcome and humbled by the ones I will likely face. There’s a funny comic floating around the Internet about how if you feel sad, you should remember that you were the fastest sperm. It’s a silly way of putting into context something that is entirely true: evolution picked you! So, when I think that things are so difficult/insurmountable, I remember that down to the cellular level, I am adaptable, resilient, and…a winner!

Actionable Steps:

  • Extreme organization, even while appearing disorganized. Ask anyone who’s entered my apartment – there are piles of things everywhere. Amidst the chaos, you’ll find laser-accurate to-do lists, deadlines, and obligations. I schedule my laundry time on Google Calendar. If it’s not written down, it’s not getting done. I use color-coded Post-It notes, OmniFocus, and the backs of envelopes when in a pinch. If you’re not worried about figuring out what you have to do, it is one less barrier-to-entry to getting it done!
  • TCB triggers. TCB = Taking Care of Business, aka my new favourite phrase. I have two weak spots: Monday mornings, and housework. Both fall under the TCB category, as in, you gotta get through them (until you’re rich enough to hire someone to clean your house everyday) so I have a TCB playlist. It’s actually only two songs – two very embarrassing songs: Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” and Nelly’s “Hot in Here”. I don’t ever play the playlist unless I need to get housework done or it’s Monday morning and I’m on my way to work. My brain hears those tunes and I instantly get into washing dishes/TCB mode. Try it.
  • If it takes <5 minutes, do it right now. If it takes >5 minutes (like going to the gym) and I have the time to do it, I’ll tell myself that I just “need to spend 5 minutes doing it” (just to see how it feels) and more often than not, I just finish my workout or whatever it is I need to do.
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Malka’s Guide to Approaching Anyone


It’s rumored that I have the ability to approach and talk to practically anyone/anywhere. My friends joke about it, but it’s actually true. Here’s my trick, and while I can’t take full credit for this concept, I also can’t remember who told it to me. It has evolved in my mind over time but the short of it is very simple: whenever you need to approach someone, imagine that you have a million-dollar-cheque in your pocket with their name on it. Why wouldn’t they want to talk to you? You have a million dollars for them!

Actually, you have something arguably more valuable — whatever it is you have to offer might be worth more than a million bucks to them, depending on who you’re talking to. Point is, it is their loss, not yours, if they decide to snub you and you get to keep your million dollars.

Actionable steps:

Read this book. Back in the day, when I was a dating coach, I used to recommend it to every single client who claimed to have either approach anxiety or difficulty carrying a conversation. It’s incredibly well-written and divided into 92 very digestible chapters.

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Malka’s Guide to Getting a Job

I have a job offer. In fact, as of two days ago, I have a job. I accepted a great offer and took myself out of the running at 3 different top-choice companies who couldn’t meet their self-imposed deadline to match my timeline.

It took 90 days, 99 companies, 32 iterations of my resume, and 16 rejection letters (of those who even bothered to respond).

But the truth is, it took a lot more than that and I wanted to take the time to recognize and thank the people who have been there for me through this process. At the bottom of this post, I’ll also include my takeaways from this most recent job search, in hoping that it will help some of you in the same position.

CS, for your generosity in sharing your time and car in helping me get to interviews. Literally could not have done it without you.

CB, my random LinkedIN contact, who literally spent hours with me for several weekends in a row, listing every possible contact she knew to connect me with so I could get a job.

LK, for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule to share [literal] resources and your brain juice, which helped me prepare powerful and compelling answers to the questions I received throughout the interview process.

EV, for the hours you spent walking me through case studies and Excel tutorials.

Random Redditor, for taking 2 hours out of your life to help a complete stranger learn the  basics of Excel data modeling and Bayesian statistics. You deserve more than gold.

MF, for the lending an ear when I was having an emotion, needed to processed, and the final decision-making (crunch time) chat.

RP, for your invaluable encouragement during the roughest parts of this process, and resume-writing advice.

TT, for constantly reminding me that “I had nothing to worry about” and making me laugh when I needed it the most.

MR, for showing support from half a world away. I never felt alone in this,  thanks to you and your spontaneously sporadic “sending love” texts.

LM, for, even jokingly, entertaining the idea that if I couldn’t find a job, I’d be able to move into your house and eat all your salmons.

To every single one of you (there are way too many to list) that took the time and chance of connecting me with a professional contact of yours or recommending me for a job. I could, truly, not have done it without you. Of the 9 companies that I received mid- to late-stage interviews at, 6 of those came from a connection. The trend persists in that 2/3 of the companies I am considering (and hopefully, are considering me) came from a second-degree connection. THANK YOU.

So with that said, what does it take to get a job today? I’ve spent a lot of time considering this so that when I finally took the time to write this blog post, could present it well. I’ve narrowed it down to the following 3 high-level categories:

  1. Research
  2. Your network
  3. Diligence and persistence


What does that even mean? To me, it meant progressing from a shotgun-spray broad approach of blanketing every potentially interesting job opportunity posted on LinkedIN and CareerBuilder to a more refined, targeted approach. I’d narrowed down that I wanted to go into consulting, particularly healthcare/life sciences consulting and so I made a list of firms that operated in this space. My search included the Big 4 players like Deloitte and the brass ring MBB group, more specialized firms like Huron, Navigant, Sg2, and so on, and lastly, small boutique firms based in the Chicago area. The next step was to educate myself on my top picks, and then make a connection with someone in their recruiting department. This leads me to the importance of…

Your network

Once I’d determined the places I needed an “in” at, I reached out to everyone and I mean everyone I could possibly think of who might know someone who knows someone who used to work there and still might. I had no shame. I asked ex-boyfriends, Facebook contacts (I’m actually real-life friends with 95% of my FB friends, so that helps!), former professional acquaintances. Truly, those who care for you are usually going to be the ones who most stick their necks out for you (Meir, Claudia, Christine – thank you again!) and directly recommend you but often times, if you bring something to the table, you’re at least going to get a conversation with someone’s connection and then it is up to you to shine and process forward. I cannot emphasize the importance of this piece because hands-down, having a connection into the company was the most effective way of at least getting a recruiter to call me back. It wasn’t however, the only way because…

Diligence and persistence will also get you there.

Of the 5 companies that I consider as “the final contenders” (some of which I had to drop because of timeline conflicts), there were 3 where I had no connection. 2 of them are notoriously elitist in terms of the types of candidates they consider. But, I made it through and it was not for lack of trying. I literally kept a spreadsheet of the recruiters name, number, and how many times/when I had last contacted them. I demonstrated enough persistence to get noticed but not enough to be a pest. I respectfully kept my distance when their assistants mentioned that this was a “heavy interview week” or that they were on vacation. But – I.Did.Not.Stop. until I heard back. With one of them, it took 6 weeks to hear back and with another, closer to 2 months. The diligence piece has to do with you taking ownership of the process and not flaking on any of your commitments. If you tell a recruiter that you’re going to call them on Wednesday morning to follow-up, you better call them Wednesday morning. If you tell them that you will send your new resume and a cover letter by end of day — no excuses, get it done.

A few more pieces I picked up from this adventure:

How to graciously deal with rejection. I got a ton of rejection letters. Some were form ones from their automated system while others were after an initial interview or from reviewing my resume. When it came to the form ones, I didn’t respond. If the rejection came from someone I had personally spoken to or interviewed, I responded in a way that included the following things.

  • I asked if they could “point me in the right direction” to a company that might be a more suitable fit. Most of the time, they didn’t have any tips, but some of them did lead me to smaller firms that didn’t have as much of a presence online.
  • I asked if they had any feedback on my resume so that I could better present my experience for similar roles. My resume today is reflects their cumulative opinions, as best as possible, and that was invaluable.
  • I asked if I could connect with them on LinkedIN for future inquiries/job opportunities. 100% of them said yes and some sent very kind follow-up messages when we did connect.

*The “other” research, in addition to actually just researching the companies. Once you get the interview, you better be prepared and this was particularly salient in this field where there were so many specific questions to be asked and answered. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent researching healthcare, the ACA, policies, trends, healthcare economics, and how many white papers I read. I played games with myself, where I would prepare answers to questions that my interviewers might ask. I lost so much sleep in the 2 weeks building up to my interviews as a result of this. With that said, the satisfaction I had of “wow-ing” my interviewer with a great answer was worth every minute of exhaustion.

Remembering that there is a human at the other end of the phone interview, decision-making process, email address is another key thing I picked up on here. Yes, you want to be professional and present yourself in the best light. But more importantly, you want to make a connection with the person you are talking to. At the very least, remember how many candidates they are dealing with and make their experience with you as enjoyable as possible. If the interview sounds like a conversation, you’re probably on target. Smile. Smile while you talk on the phone. Make a joke, if it fits. Show your excitement. You will be judged on these things. By the end of this experience, I’d had 3 recruiters of large companies give me their cell phone numbers to follow up. One recruiter invited me to have coffee, not because he had a job for me, but because he wanted to help. Many others sent emails like “it was so great talking to you, thank you for having a personality” and one that I hadn’t even met yet wrote how “bummed she was” that I was withdrawing from their hiring process due to accepting my other offer. Stay professional, but be human.

Making the decision is the final, and sometimes most important, piece of your job search. Who do you choose and why? This is something that in itself, could take up an entire blog post, but I will summarize it using the words spoken by a friend of mine that were to the effect of: “you make the best decision for now, based on the information you have now, and you assume that the best decision for now is also going to be the best decision for the future.”

Here’s to a new challenge and a great adventure.


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