cropped JHACareerslogo web

Air Sandwich

Don't Be An Air Sandwich!

From Career Tips, 2023 Volume 6, June 2023

Photo by Vicky Ng on Unsplash


Many moons ago, when I lived in NYC, I went to one of my favorite local casual restaurants with some friends from out of town. One ordered the Mozzarella en Carrozza, a fried mozzarella sandwich. Disappointed, he described it as eating an air sandwich.


That phrase always stuck with me. I’m sure that there are very good recipes for such a dish, but I could never bring myself to order it anywhere, and thought differently about that particular restaurant from then on.


What does this have to do with your search or your career?


Many times, we are overly concerned with how others might react to what we are saying. We spend too much time testing the waters and seeing how others feel before putting that stake in the ground and expressing what we are about. When you do this, you risk becoming an air sandwich.


I did all the actuarial hiring for my company for 13 years, and was involved in the hiring process for actuaries at my prior company for a number of years. I regularly saw candidates try hard to avoid giving too much detail about what they were really passionate about, and what they truly brought to the table, until they thought they understood what I was looking for.


They thought they were being savvy, finding out exactly what they should say before committing to it. Instead, they became air sandwiches. 


You and your message are most believable when they come out early, before you are given the answers to the test. 


Suppose I tell you I really want someone who is not just good with numbers, but who really digs into why the numbers are that way and what we can do about it. You tell me that’s exactly what you are, but why should I believe it? After all, you are just telling me what you think I want to hear.


On the other hand, if you came out and volunteered this before I told you that was what I was looking for, I would have every reason to believe that is one of your core qualities.


The same thing happens in work discussions, where someone is presenting an idea:


  • Have you noticed how many people tend to look around the room and judge what others of influence think about the idea before they chime in?
  • And isn’t it interesting how often they just happen to agree with the opinion of the most influential person, once expressed?
  • What do you think of people like that over time? Air sandwiches!


Now what holds many candidates back is a fear that what their core value is, and what they really want to be doing next, isn’t what the interviewer has in mind. This leads to a fear of presenting it upfront.


What’s the worst that happens if you do present a value and a passion that doesn’t fit my needs?


  • You avoid a drawn-out discussion or job offer for a job that isn’t right for you.
  • This frees you up to spend your time going after something that is a better fit.


What’s the best that happens?


  • I get impressed by your passion and what you DO bring to the table, and it opens up a discussion that leads to the right role.
  • Perhaps it’s not in my operation, but I now refer you to the person who would have what is right for you.


Several times, I interviewed someone who wasn’t exactly a fit to what I thought I was seeking for a role, and ended up so impressed with what they DID bring to the table that I ended up adjusting my thinking and hiring them. Those invariably turned out to be my best hires.


Now of course you are going to do your research ahead of time into the company, the operation, the hiring manager, other interviewers, etc., trying to unearth exactly what their issues and opportunities might be, so you can prepare your stories and messaging appropriately. (Do the same for other business situations you might find yourself in.)


Just don’t spend too much time trying to fit yourself to their needs, spend it figuring out exactly what you would bring to the role and why it’s a good fit for you. If it’s not a good fit, don’t waste your or their time going after it in the first place.


Whatever you do, don’t be an air sandwich!


Sign up for Career Tips and receive more articles like this every month!