I’m Too Humble to Tell You How Humble I Am

I’ve lived all my life feeling that I was a very ordinary person.  I never really stood out in academically, I was never that popular or talented, but people always told me that I had something “special”.  “You will change the world someday”, they told me.  But I didn’t believe them at the time.  

I really did not have any intention to change the world.  All I wanted was to have a family and do my job, but people kept asking me to step up and lead.  I never knew my ability to inspire others could be used to inspire others.  And now, here I am, poised to change the world for the benefit of all of you who don’t understand what it is that needs to change….

I’ve written once before about the quality of humility and narcissism as being circular blind spots.   For example, if I think I’m humble, or am telling you about my humility, then I’m not being very humble.   The story above, totally fabricated by yours truly, is an example of how someone can brag about being humble without realizing it.

I guess all I can say is that if you catch yourself bragging about your humility and you wish to be viewed as humble, you might want to rethink this approach.   I suspect that the lack of humility is rarely lost on the listener.

Take it from me, someone with genuine humility.  🙂

Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.

Pope Francis-Style Leadership

Even though I’ve been an atheist most of my life (now, spiritual), I’ve been glued to the coverage about Pope Francis’ visit to the US. This 78-year old man has maintained a grueling schedule but continues to light up every time he greets his flock. In contrast, I couldn’t help noticing that when doing the handshake and photo op, Francis seems to fade. His preference for the common man over power and influence is no act, folks.

This genuine humility and concern for the common man almost makes me want to join a church for the first time in my life. Apparently, I am not alone in terms of the secular appeal of the Pope; 63% of people with “no religion” approve of Francis.  At a worldwide 70% approval rating, this Pope seems to have captured the goodwill and attention of the world. Though it is unclear whether Francis’ popularity will reverse the decline in the Catholic population, polls have shown that the strength of affiliation among current Catholics is significantly higher than during the pre-Francis reigns. He also has stabilized the retention rate for Catholics which has been declining for 4 decades (see this article for more information).

Francis’ universal appeal is noteworthy given that religious differences, even between sects, continue to fuel discord and war across the globe. Other leaders that claim to be guided by their religious beliefs often divide, whereas Francis unites as he espouses Catholic principles.

Francis is a leader unlike any I have seen in my lifetime. Francis is accomplishing what seems to be the impossible: bringing people together from all backgrounds and beliefs. He is deeply authentic: he lives by his values and morals in both word and deed. He is the first leader that makes me believe 100% that he is here for me, even my atheist-leaning self.

Consider Francis as a model for business or politics. What would be the impact of this type of leadership on how employees/customers/voters feel about an organization and their jobs? What would you do for people or organizations that lived by the doctrine that your wellbeing was their first priority? What would our society look like if we genuinely embraced that belief?

Businesses and even our government often operate by a mentality that focus on profit, money, or power

Francis, the Servant Leader

Francis, the Servant Leader

regardless of the cost or consequences to the customer, community, employee or environment. Francis is showing us that an organization can be successful and appealing, even to those outside the target demographic, when it focuses on and prioritizes people and the Earth.

I’m not saying this type of leadership is easy. As much as I would like to emulate Francis, I do not have his purity of heart. I may not wear the Gucci papal slippers but I’d at least try them on. Dine with Obama and Nancy Pelosi? For sure! However, I can learn as much as I can from this extraordinary leader and find my own way of living by his message.

The Pope has been ending his speeches with, “if you are not a believer, wish me well.” Francis, I wish you well, am cheering for you, and will do all that I can to follow your example of leading with love and authenticity.

Dealing With Haters

I know you’re awesome and amazing. So am I! Problem is, not everyone sees it that way.

Or so we think.

But maybe we’re wrong.

On the other hand, there are those out there that we love. Sort of. Well, they’re terrific in some ways, but if only….

In other words, we often have ambivalence about our relationships. In addition, an element of uncertainty and subjectivity is ever-present in our interpretation of our and others’ feelings and intentions. There’s always that yin to the yang, our like/dislike, our love/hate, our approval/disapproval.

Thus, when it comes to haters (and lovers, for that matter), circumstances are rarely black/white. First, you may think they hate you, but unless you talk to them, you just don’t know for sure. It’s possible you’re misinterpreting their words or actions. For example, they might be complaining about you or what you do, but they may just be a grouchy, negative person in general, or they may think you’re fundamentally OK but need a change in behavior or attitude around a certain subject. Think about all the people you know and love or respect, and whether there are certain behaviors or attitudes that you’d like to change. Likewise, you could be that person for your hater wherein they may not be handling their frustration constructively.

Second, your belief that they hate you may be fueling what might be an otherwise benign dynamic. You may be reacting to perceived judgment with your own hard energy, aggression, martyrdom, or need to control. They are not going to respond positively to your negativity, which further reinforces your perception of their dislike. And so on. How would the dynamic shift if you reached out with compassion and empathy and/or solid boundaries?

Third, it may be that your hater is actively trying to get you fired, break up your relationship or has told you directly that they think you’re pond scum. Just because they feel that way, doesn’t make it true. It also doesn’t make it false. In other words, explore whether there’s a grain of truth to their criticism, but know that the intensity of their reaction says more about them than it does about you. How can you look past the delivery to the wisdom within the message?  Why are they taking such a destructive approach to the situation? Likely, they are not coping well with their frustration.

Likewise, your own reaction says more about you than it does about them. Do you retaliate and go on the offensive, get depressed, quit or break-up, bury your head in the sand, or do you rise above and take the high road? If your hater brings out the worst in you, then you’ve just – to some degree – validated their complaints. If the hater brings out the best in you, then you’ve risen above the pettiness and shown yourself and others the quality person that you are.

The latter is easier said than done. I know. But this is your growth opportunity, isn’t it? While you’re calm, determine your strategy for dealing with a hater. Ask yourself: What is the best possible outcome for this? How would your role model or best self react to this situation? Your main hurdle is your own feelings about the situation. They’re not easy to manage, but managing them is easier than getting someone else to do the same, right?

Happy Birthday America!

Leadership at All Levels

I’m not sure whether I’m more cognizant of those who fail to either do their jobs or comply with the smallest professional courtesy (like returning a phone call or email), or if such unprofessional behavior is actually more prevalent lately.  So when I see others stepping up to work above and beyond their required duties, it’s a joy and inspiration to me!

I see this extra effort from faculty and staff all the time, mostly in small ways. But most recently, I’ve seen this big-time from our students. Usually there’s a visible leader at the helm who has a vision and can rally the troops with her organizational skills, positivity, work ethic and energy.

In addition, there are many many students who work quietly and with dedication outside of the limelight. They volunteer. They make suggestions. They work without complaining. They do necessary tasks that will not ever be recognized. They quietly contribute their magnificent talent and time to the cause and make it better.

This system of shared or horizontal leadership empowers individuals and brings a sense of teamwork, builds relationships and makes use of the team’s best skills and talents for the task. In doing so, each person is engaged, grows her own strengths, and are more likely to be able to step up when the leader is absent.   While observing such student teams, I see an emerging leader in every single team member, and my faith in our young generation and our future is so rejuvenated.  Thank you, young leaders, for your idealism and commitment to improving our world!

Finding Win-Win When Entering a Storm

Have you ever had a meetings/exam where it feels like your entire future is riding on the outcome? Our performance is critical, but we can’t perform at our best since the stress is so high: failure means that I am not the person I think I am/wish to be. In reality, even passing/achieving my goal will not make me feel whole, at least not for long.

So, here are the real outcomes by this scenario: I “win” and I still feel incomplete or I fail and I feel devastated.   Even when I win, I lose.

The first time I had a situation like this was when I was taking my oral candidacy examination for my doctorate. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, candidates give a presentation of their research proposal and then are grilled for a couple of hours by a panel of typically 5 faculty. Though the questions tend to focus on the proposal itself, any tangent is considered fair game. Because the questioning is both deep and broad, preparation requires up to 4 weeks of devoted preparation. If you fail, you may be given a chance to retake it. If not, or if you fail the make-up, then you’re out. Adios muchacha.

Despite this crazy set-up, I think it’s accurate to say that I went into my oral exam completely calm and did a pretty good job. In fact, some of the feedback I got was that my presentation was one of the best they’ve seen.

What made the difference?

Ironically, I had ambivalence about being in school and so was not emotionally tied to the outcome. I had recently taken a short leave of absence from the program because of my self-doubt about my ability to complete the degree. When I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do, I re-enrolled. Therefore, I went into the exam completely open to their feedback regarding my ability to advance. Who better than a panel of faculty in a 5:1 exam to determine whether I am suited to continue? If I’m not, then it’s better to know now I reasoned than after investing in another 3 years of school. If they decide I am suited, then maybe this is the right path for me after all. In other words, I took the intent of the exam to heart (to determine whether I’m suited to advance) instead of making it a referendum on my self-worth.

Therefore, I can change the calculus from the original lose-lose scenario.   If I am pursuing a goal that is wrong for me then I am more likely to be invited to pursue a different, and more satisfying and fulfilling pathway.  If I feel whole going into the meeting and open about the outcome and the path that it will put me on, I can truly get as much advice and guidance from the meeting as possible, instead of just trying to prove myself. In addition, by being open instead of stressed about the outcome, I can put my best foot forward. A real win-win-win.

How can this perspective improve your performance or quality of life? Given that a high stakes meeting may not be in play for you now, what does feel high stake in your life? How can you switch a lose-lose to a win-win scenario?

Giving Without Burnout

The old adage, “it’s better to give than receive” is really true. Givers are not only more successful than takers, but givers also experience more positive emotion than those on the receiving end.

There are limits to giving; givers that give indiscriminately risk burnout. Instead, givers should give in a way that benefits and feels good to them so that they can keep on giving. For example, effective givers communicate their needs and ask for help and buy-in from others to help them to continue to give successfully.

Good giving is also authentic. What are you passionate about? What type of tasks and roles do you enjoy and allow you to excel? What type of impact are you yearning to make on the world? Give in a way that feeds your soul.

Giving should feel energizing, meaningful, and constructive. If you’re giving in a manner that is sapping your soul or creating a lot of negative emotion, then it’s likely unsustainable, unhealthy or not useful. For example, if you’re giving to someone who is a perpetual taker, then your efforts are likely to have little impact on the recipient’s growth or neediness level regardless of your level of personal sacrifice. Your efforts and energy just will continue to disappear into a black hole with no apparent impact.

Instead, consider your time and effort as a precious commodity, even though they don’t show up on a balance sheet. Be as (or more) judicious with your time and energy as you are with your other resources. Plan how you can use them in ways that benefit both you and others. If you’re not getting a good return on your investment, try a different approach or perspective.

For example, for the perpetual taker/complainer, give them a limited time to vent, then affirm their feelings (“wow, it sounds like it’s been a really rough time for you”). Then switch the direction of the conversation to focus on how they will create a solution. Keep redirecting the conversation to their solution instead of trying to fix the problem for them or allowing them to continue to complain. In doing so, you might help them to stay in a generative mindset and find their own solutions. In addition, they may eventually see that you will no longer solve their problems for them. That’s a nice win-win, isn’t it?

In addition, change your perspective if you’re feeling guilty about continuing to invest in what feels like a black hole. Preserving the dysfunctional status quo is not a good gift for either party. By continuing to invest in a situation that is not improving, you are withholding resources from others that could actually benefit and grow from your investment. Instead, consider giving to someone or something that has a need that is limited in time or scope and/or where the solution can result in an impactful change for the recipient. Wouldn’t that feel so much better and more constructive?

Finally, consider the idea that a gift that makes you feel resentful is not really a gift. It actually may harm the relationship in the long run.  Such a gift could also be hurting the recipient if you are enabling bad behavior or helping them to avoid a problem or a time-bomb that needs their attention. In other words, look to the long-term consequences of your gift and ask yourself whether it is having the intended or desired benefit to you and the recipient.

In conclusion, finding new strategies and perspectives can make giving a joyous experience again. When giving is pleasurable and energizing, then that’s an effort that is sustainable, beneficial and generative. When it is not, then it’s time to make a change in either action or perspective. After all, you wouldn’t want to deprive yourself of one of life’s greatest joys, would you?