Finding yourself

WSJ Column: How we lose in the race to win

Below is the full text of this column, republished with permission of the Wall Street Journal.

The dumpster in Bijie City where five children died trying to stay warm

Back in business school, macho kids like me studied finance. In the competition of life, money equaled winning, or so we thought, so those who managed the money would become the winners. Didn’t matter that I was a woman – I was as competitive as any guy you’d ever met.

In our imagined hierarchy of the universe, finance-related majors reigned supreme, while Marketing and HR were ‘for the girls,’ or those lacking the IQ for math. We brandished our HP 12c financial calculators like little badges of honor.

It’s taken me a lot of years, a lot of living, and a lot of metabolizing of that living, to realize that my view of the world was upside down. The reality is: finance is for wimps.
Finance is the easy part. It’s much harder to deal with people. ※Deal,§ as in: interact with, negotiate with, lead, love, have any kind of real human interaction with.

The winners in society are the people who understand how to relate to other people.

I always was focused on the race to win

In my 20s, I worked really really hard. I attended name-brand schools and piled on the degrees. I was focused on my climb to the top as a successful real-estate developer. I worked full-time as I was studying, because I was in a hurry.

Then when I was 31, I got to the top in a way that I never imagined possible. I was appointed Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. In that role, I collaborated with leaders from all sectors of society as I spearheaded education and economic development initiatives to move our city forward.

When our four-year term came to a close, I moved to another world of power and money, as a headhunter for CEOs and other top talent for the world’s biggest companies.

As a result of all these experiences, I’ve had the chance to meet, befriend, and work with leaders from all sectors in countries throughout the world.

And here’s what I’ve learned: the leaders are not the highest IQ people in any organization. They didn’t get the highest grades, they didn’t score the highest exam scores.

They got to the top because they have the ability to attract the best people to work for them. And at the root of that power of attraction is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to truly connect with other human beings. It’s life’s hardest but most important skill. And it’s the #1 skill required for leadership in a changing world.

It’s all about relationships

Nothing important ever has been accomplished by one person alone. The far greater value-add is in the relationships between people. That’s why it’s only through learning how to relate effectively to others that we achieve success in career and life.

An organization 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, until you get to the CEO.

The reason why many people never rise above worker-bee status is that their skills are worker-bee skills. They know how to work really hard, all by themselves. That’s what they’ve been trained to do.

Our society pits us one against the other

We grow up in a society in which we’re overly defined by our achievements. Our entire academic system focuses exclusively on the individual. From the moment we start school, we are trained to see all the people around us as names and numbers ranked from high to low. As students, our ‘job’ is to beat everyone else.

Our parents, sincere in their rush to help us excel, exhort us to work first and play later. As a result, we learn to think, academically at least, but not to feel. We never learn to express ourselves. We take away the message that how well we perform is more important than who we are. We never learn to really connect with ourselves, much less to others.

And so, as children, many of us grow emotionally numb, strangers to our own selves. It’s no surprise, then, that as adults, we have a harder time with empathy than people who grow up in cultures emphasizing lifelong emotional development.

When in the drive to excel we all become disconnected from others, the inevitable result is a society where everyone views everyone else as a competitor and an obstacle to our own success.

And the inevitable result of that is a society where today we feel like we can’t trust anyone, a world where we’re all tired, we’re all trapped and scared of what might come next. A world where five innocent children can die in a dumpster just trying to stay warm.

The social power of true human connections

Given the cold and often brutal world we live in, empathy matters even more.
Empathy will lead to success in all aspects of our lives, because everyone is tired, everyone is scared. Taking the initiative to truly connect with the human beings around us is an incredibly powerful first step.

At a deeper level, empathy is the start of filling our lives with the love and trust and true human connection that’s missing in our world today.

*This column was originally written by the author in English. Hear the author read this English column aloud by clicking here.