How to become a leader

Why your grades don’t matter

Recently I turned a blog post over to Wesley Yang’s widely-read, fascinating, big, angry, macho essay on being Asian in America. If you’ve not read that, I highly recommend that you do (click here). Today I want to share my thoughts on it.

He says:

Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility.

He then points to a range of statistics showing how Asians are underrepresented in leadership positions in America, and he points to racism as part of the problem.

American society now is not that racist

When I posted Wesley Yang’s essay a couple weeks ago, some blog readers wrote in basically saying, “Well, when China rules the world, it’ll be our turn to exact revenge on the Americans.” I think this reaction is an understandable reaction, but both the essay and the revenge-seekers are wrong about why Asians are mired in the lower echelons of white-collar work in America.

Yes there is racism against Asians in America, but American society has come a long way. Not too long ago, Chinese women were not allowed to immigrate here, there were brutal race riots against Chinese men, and Chinese were prohibited from owning property.

And racism does exist today. Pop superstar Miley Cyrus poses slant-eyed with her friends, college student Alexandra Wallace makes an anti-Asian video, radio host Rush Limbaugh ridiculously imitates China’s president. But in each instance, most Americans shouted down such behavior as stupid and ignorant. If your English is excellent, check out this hilarious video of TV satirist Steven Colbert making fun of Rush Limbaugh.

As China and the United States work through economic and geopolitical challenges, it’s inevitable that racism will continue to simmer (on both sides). But I believe that intelligent people will continue to separate out the ignorance from the real issues at play. Each of us can create positive change simply through our personal example of thoughtfully living our lives and working across borders.

I have struggled with racism in my own life. However, I do not believe that the racism that exists now is so serious that it threatens the livelihood of any person reflective enough to be reading this blog post. All you need is to learn how to play the new rules of the game. And for those, read on.

The world is a meritocracy, having nothing to do with grades

Wesley Yang contends: “It is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that meritocracy comes to an abrupt end after graduation.”

His analysis is half-right. As a headhunter, I sit on the decision-making side of who gets hired and who gets promoted, and the fact is that the meritocracy of grades and exams does end after graduation.

But the meritocracy of grades is replaced by another meritocracy, an ultimately fairer meritocracy because this one is based not on how hard you work, but on how much value you create.

Companies do not care about your grades. They care about how well you contribute to their bottom line.

A company is shaped like a pyramid. At the bottom are a large number of worker bees. Above them are the people who manage the worker bees. Next are the people who manage them. And further on up.

The reason why most Asians in America do not rise above the red guy in this image is that all their skills are worker-bee skills. They know how to work really really hard, and to follow directions, precisely and well. Nothing in their schooling or their home lives has prepared them with the skills for moving higher. They have never learned to really think, or to communicate effectively to the people around them.

The global meritocracy is based on knowing how to think and how to relate to others

Wesley Yang’s essay points to how Asians who attend Ivy League colleges always get surpassed by white student who graduate from Midwestern state schools and who are twice as successful while working half as hard. When I read this, I thought of my husband Dave de Csepel. Dave is a successful entrepreneur who attended the University of Wisconsin and partied all the way through as the Social Chairman of his fraternity. Back when I attended college, I looked at guys like that and thought, “What is he doing here?” Now I know. He was honing the skills that matter. Dave is an exceptionally savvy thinker, and he’s that guy about whom everyone upon first meeting says, “Wow! What a great guy!” People like and trust Dave, and people do business with people they like and trust.

Having spent a lot of time with global CEOs over the past two decades, I agree entirely with New York Times columnist David Brooks’ thoughts on the Tiger Mom:

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.

Leadership skills are in demand in the USA and in China

Knowing how to think and how to relate to others are leadership skills prized not just by American companies, but by all companies. Including Chinese companies in China. As a headhunter, I’ve spoken with many CEOs – American as well as Chinese – whose companies are constrained because they lack people with skills in innovation and leadership. In fact, it is the shortage of these skills that keeps the headhunting industry in business.

Grades-mania – and the robotic submissiveness that it entails – is an albatross not only for Asians in America but for Chinese in China, because it’s only when someone does step out, and puts ideas together, and then activates others to work together to create value, that companies are born, people are employed, and society moves forward.

The problem lies in our social culture

The problem is a social culture which systematically beats individuality, independent thinking and even lifelong love out of its people (“Marry someone! Anyone! Now!”). Young people today are now put in a position of having to unlearn all that slavish direction-following just to find themselves and learn how to think independently. And that self-knowledge is a requirement for effective communication with others.  If during the first two to three decades of your life, your formal schooling monopolizes your time, then sadly, it may be that only after your formal schooling is over can the real education can begin.

Asian values can be part of the solution

I also think it’s simplistic to indict Asian values as the source of our problem. China reveres its great thinkers of the past, radical thinkers whose contributions inform our lives even now. The concept of 礼 (translated into English as “courtesy” but encompassing a much broader concept of how to treat others) is a starting point for effective communication. And to me it seems buried within the concept of 做人 (literally, become a person, but more broadly, to become a mature person) is an idea that one matures into someone with the self-knowledge necessary to effectively relate to the world.

By comparison, 做机器人 (become a robot) is an idea of a more modern era which I hope that we as a society can unlearn.

I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.