Finding yourself

I’m writing a book!

To hear Joy read this post in English, click here.

That’s right, everyone. I’m so happy to announce today that I am writing a book.

Today’s post is the behind-the-scenes story of: how this project came about, why I started the Global Rencai blog, and how I started writing in the first place. So, grab a drink, relax, and enjoy the show.

But don’t get too relaxed, because next time, we’ll be talking about you.

We all need to express ourselves

I’ve previously written about how I discovered photography as a creative outlet when I was a kid growing up in the States. My English was horrible so I rarely opened my mouth at school.  At home, we often spoke Chinese, but we never discussed feelings, so I never learned how to express myself in Chinese, either. I was a girl without a native language.

So I was grateful when my father handed me a used Canon A-1, at the time the high-tech camera of choice for amateur photographers. I jumped at photography as a medium for self-expression. Every week, I snapped new images, then rushed to the high-school darkroom, where I developed my films and made prints by hand.

Typically, I’d go in the afternoons after school. Upon entering the darkroom, I’d wait by the door for my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. As I immersed myself, time inevitably fast-forwarded.  When I emerged with prints in hand, often the sky would have darkened, saving my eyes from having to readjust back to light.

Then writing became my creative outlet

By the time I was appointed Los Angeles Deputy Mayor 15 years later, I’d worked hard to polish my English, so writing speeches became a terrific creative challenge. As a politician, I could say something in a straightforward way: “Register for our new college financial-aid program!” Or I could try to inspire someone. I would imagine a young mother in front of her TV, made cynical by the empty promises of politicians who’d come before. I tried to insert just the right golden words, the vivid illustrations, the pregnant pauses, to help her look beyond the daily obstacles in her life to envision an educated tomorrow for her children.

After politics, I entered headhunting and my writing slowed to a trickle.  My clients, busy CEOs and HR directors, had no interest in lyrical turns of phrase.  Each time I assessed a candidate, they wanted to know one thing: “Should I hire this person?” I limited my writing to serving their needs.

Antidote for midlife crisis: Global Rencai blog

Then I turned 40, known in the States as “midlife crisis” time.  It’s when the stereotypical American male divorces his longtime wife (he married too young!), finds a much-younger doll to hang on his arm, and buys a Porsche to carry her around in.

To me, such voguish midlife accessories held no appeal. For one thing, having first focused on my career, I’d only recently gotten married, to Mr. Right. And I’d already bought my hot sports car.

Headhunting was lucrative. No complaints there. But what I did miss from my days in public service was a way to make the world a better place. I missed helping people, on a large scale, in ways that were personal and important to them.

How could I contribute something meaningful?

As a headhunter, I was at the table as my clients hired ambitious young Chinese at the entry levels, and then consistently passed them over when announcing promotions. I noticed how so many of these young people could benefit from a little mentoring, and how they lacked any mentorship at all. I decided to start a careers blog, in Chinese and English, on the unspoken rules of getting to the top in global companies. I called it Global Rencai.

How the headhunter got headhunted by a book editor

Shortly after starting the blog, I was contacted by a mysterious freelance editor with an unusual single-word name: 汤汤. She wanted me to write a book for Chinese women. Sounded interesting, I replied, but I didn’t want to alienate my male readers. We emailed back and forth a few times, neither one convincing the other.  She disappeared.

Life went on. Headhunting kept me busy. I had a second baby, a girl again. That got me started thinking seriously about the world awaiting my future young women.

Also, I noticed something odd happening with the blog.  Men were reading it, but women were devouring it. Women were pushing it worldwide, across online forums I’d never even heard of. I realized that, yes, the blog had male readers, but it had female fanatics.  In spite of me, Global Rencai had become a women’s blog.

Then 汤汤 reappeared. Still wanting me to write a book for women. It would be a sensation, she was sure of it.

I admired her persistence. And this time, I was ready to talk.

To test the waters, I wrote and posted a piece called “Do not marry before age 30.” Within hours, traffic spiked so high that my servers crashed.

So, 汤汤 and I crafted a book proposal, and she shopped it around.  Ultimately, we chose as our publisher CITIC Press Corporation.

Working-titled “Do not marry before age 30,” the book will build on some of the ideas I’ve explored on the blog since the start.  After all, to bag an outstanding man, you need to be an outstanding woman.

“Writing is easy!”

Spring of this year, I took a sabbatical from headhunting to write the book. I wrote swiftly, the words pouring onto the screen. “Do this, and then do that!” In my mind, the book was shaping up as a savvy instruction guide to life and men.

The first half was done in a snap. I was well ahead of deadline. “Finally,” I thought. “I’ve made it!”  I had worked, so hard, for two decades, and I looked forward to Summer and Fall on Easy Street. A little of this, a little of that. Writing. Tennis. Travel. Chocolate bonbons.

Or so I thought. Until I showed my draft to 汤汤.

She woke me from my daydreams. “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “Readers don’t want a list of do’s and don’ts! They need stories!  Write about when you felt vulnerable!”

When I felt vulnerable?

My breath left my body. This was not what I’d had in mind when I signed that book deal. After all, politics in America is a Darwinian sport, and we who survived did so by hiding our weaknesses. I’d spent 20 years burnishing an image as a Superwoman who leaped from one tall building of success to the next. I was not keen to give all that up.

Did women even want my stories?

Time for another blog experiment. I wrote a piece about how I felt lost and insecure, and posted it. Traffic soared.  Proving two things: (1) Why汤汤 makes the big bucks; and (2) I had to start over on the book.

As they say here in Hollywood when a studio rejects a script: “RE-WRITE!”

Creative work requires risk-taking

So, I’ve started writing the book all over again.

The 2nd time around is a whole different process from the first. This time, I’m looking in the mirror, making note of all the blemishes that were sympathetically concealed in my recent spreads in Rayli and Marie Claire China (their make-up artists and photographers are magicians).

Going well beyond the glossy magazine images, I feel as if I’m on an archaeological excavation of my innermost thoughts and experiences. Each day, I carefully brush away the sediment, uncover shards of ideas, and raise them to the light for examination. The ones which might prove useful, I painstakingly articulate into physical form on the screen.

It’s quiet in my office. The hours fly by. A book project which began as a Springtime lark has shape-shifted into the hardest, most invigorating, most maddening, most personally satisfying thing I have ever done.

This is better than chocolate bonbons.  After all, I want my two young women to be brave, and I hope that someday they’ll aspire to more than a comfortable life. So I’d better set them an example. The fact is, I’m too young to retire, and damn it, I want my work to matter.

Quite amazingly to me, in the same way that 汤汤 appeared in my life, Global Rencai has brought me others. In Los Angeles, marketing professional Lynn Zhou contributes social-media and translation for the blog. In Northern California, user-experience engineer Yingying Zhang contributes blog design. In Beijing, foreign-language publisher Ivy Wang will be translating the book.  Each of these women has become a professional colleague, creative fellow-traveler, and dear friend.

Many headhunting firms today call themselves global, but none has the consistent reach to assemble such a talented and passionate team across geographies. The irony is not lost on me. Only creative work, globally communicated, can inspire this kind of 缘分.

I’m writing this book for you

Speaking of 缘分, dear reader, Global Rencai has brought me you, this incredible community of modern, independent Chinese women across the planet Earth.

I started this blog 17 months ago with no readers. When publishing my initial posts, I was reminded of the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

Since then, each of you has stumbled across this blog. I don’t know how. What I do know is that each of your retweets and comments emboldens me to reach deeper and write better, in hopes of delighting you. Despite the fact that we’ve not met in person, I feel we’re connected, as if you’re the sisters I never had.

I have not learned all of life’s lessons. I still have a lot of living to do myself. You may or may not agree with everything I have to say. But it’s my hope that my book will encourage you to go out and grab hold of the life and of the man that you deserve. And that you’ll find a way to translate my stories into a form that’s useful to you.

I am not a professional writer and never will be. Because in my core, I’m a deeply social animal.  Some people say I have an oversized personality for an undersized woman (I’m 154 cm).  Well, after I complete the book, I’ll come to China, and then we can meet, and chat about our lives. I can’t wait to see you!

Creative work engenders magnificent new friendships and opportunities

I started Global Rencai as a way to give something to the world. In return, I have received so much more, in the form of: (1) this book project, (2) my team, and (3) you.

This is what I hope you take away from my story: When you unleash your creativity and create something honest and true, that comes from deep inside of you, and that helps other people, and you share it effectively, amazing things will happen. New friends will appear in your life, fellow creative travelers, people who love the same things you do. People who see in your work a glimpse of themselves.

And they will bring you opportunities for collaboration. Opportunities which are perfectly suited to them and perfectly suited to you, and which you never could have imagined on your own.

Next, ladies, it’ll be your turn to create something.


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Comments welcome, in Chinese, on the Chinese version of this post, here.
To hear Joy read this post in English, subscribe to the GlobalRencai podcast on iTunes, or hear or download the MP3 here.