Finding yourself / How to become a leader

Are you losing yourself or finding yourself?

你是在迷失自我还是寻找自我The Global Rencai blog is one year old this week! People now tell me that this blog, together with my SINA weibo and Renren page, has become the #1 blog read by Chinese outside of China.

I started out writing about tactical things, such as the importance of branding yourself, whether to have sex with your boss to get ahead, and how to shake hands like President Clinton. But the blog really took off when I started writing about finding yourself.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the pressure

Readers responded with comments like:

刘倩倩 (Lindsay Liu): They refer to our generation, born after 1980, as 橡皮人, or “rubber people.” That is to say that we have no dreams, no happiness and no pain (无痛、无趣、无梦), since most of us are NOT living a life but a status (marriage status, employment status, income status, etc.). We’ve been compared with one another since childhood, by our exam score, the school we attended, the degree we hold and the salary we earn……We’re anxious because all our values are reflected in those quantitative indicators. We care about how others think of us more than what value we create. Therefore our dreams, if we still have any, are likely to be based on external comparisons, like being super-smart, or owning a big company, or having a lot of money, rather than devoting ourselves to something from within our hearts.

崔梦阳 (Mengyang Cui): From elementary to high school, students are required to study the “standard” course materials. We’re told by teachers and parents every day and night that a successful future (aka. entering a top university in China) = high score, and high score = mastering all “standard” course material!  So all “top” students become top standardized people, with little distinctions or different interests.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of pressure that all of you have lived under throughout your lives. I experienced a little of that, growing up here in the States. My family spent most of our time within an insular Chinese-American community where the parents were constantly comparing themselves by whose kids got into which top U.S. colleges, whose kids worked for which big companies, and whose kids were married first.

How I got my first dream job

Don’t let your career be guided simply by what you’ve studied in the past, or by peer pressure, or by what your parents’ friends kids are successfully doing. Follow your heart in choosing one job over another, or in simply focusing your job around the things you like best.

In 1991, I graduated from college and, to escape the pressure, moved to Los Angeles, with no money and no connections, and started to support myself.  I worked really hard to gain my footing, living in tiny apartments and eating a lot of ramen.  It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always clear that I would be successful. Along the way, I wondered many times whether I’d made the right choice not to go the conventional route.

I had a dream, to become a successful real-estate developer, and to build wonderful environments where people could live, work, and raise their children.  At that time, a small firm, Maguire Thomas Partners, was doing truly innovative work with the world’s most exciting architects. I badly wanted to work for them. But, I was a nobody, Maguire didn’t offer internships, and there was no internet to help get me in the door.

Through my research, I found that two of the senior partners were on the Board of the USC Architectural Guild, the fundraising charity of the USC Architecture School. That would be my back door (后门) to the firm. I couldn’t afford to go to the fancy fundraising events, but I could volunteer my time. Back then, there was no email, so each event required lots of menial labor, stuffing envelopes, licking stamps, arranging chairs, etc.  I did it all, and all for free, to ensure that the events were flawless and to make the VIPs look good.

Well, those VIPs were no dummies, and after a few months, I found myself an official “committee member” for upcoming events at the Guild. After two years of volunteering, I was appointed to the charity’s full Board of Directors. People were amazed, thinking: “How did a young Chinese girl get on the Board of such a prestigious charity? She must be rich!”

By then, I’d earned the trust of the Maguire executives on the Board, and it was simple for me to ask if there was anything around the firm that I could help with.

And that is how I got my first dream job, as a project assistant at the firm. To many, it probably didn’t seem like a dream job.  I was the only woman employee who wasn’t a secretary, and my salary was perhaps half of what the secretaries were making. But I was thrilled, and I went in resolved to make the most of the experience.

There always will be pressure to go the conventional route

During this time, I also attended graduate school at UCLA, where again I encountered peer pressure, this time on what jobs to get after graduation.  I did consider other careers and even joined the many applicants to the big management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. McKinsey gave me an offer, but after thinking things through, I just didn’t feel it was right for me.  So I stuck with my own path.

Often through my 20s, people questioned the choices I made. Those people included my parents, who could not understand how I could have gotten two graduate degrees without getting the one degree they wanted by my name, the degree called “Mrs.”

But here’s where my story reached a real turning point. After a decade in real estate, I left the industry and entered politics.

I guess you could call me a real-estate bum

It was then in politics, and later in headhunting, that I’ve made my mark on the world. Now, my career in real estate does not even show up in my bio. Looking back, you could say that I’d wasted an entire decade of slavish work and two graduate degrees on a career that I’ve since abandoned.

But I do not consider those years a waste of time. That’s because what I took away was not the thousands of hours I invested in mapping out sidewalk widths and projecting cash-flows. Most valuable to my future were the soft skills I developed:

•  The self-assurance that comes from forging one’s own path in the world.

•  How powerful people communicate with one another.

•  How to accumulate knowledge from many different sources and perspectives (structural engineering, architectural design, financing, political reality) and assemble them into a coherent view of a problem.

•  How not to be dejected by what’s here and now (a hardscrabble piece of dirt), but to boldly envision and focus on the future.

•  How to develop a message about the future and sell it.

•  How to brand yourself so the relevant exciting people in the world want to be with you.

•  How to really connect with other people, in the skill called empathy.

All these skills have been key to my personal growth, and led directly to my appointment as a Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles at age 31. And it was because I was so alive and excited about my path that I was open to soaking in all this learning.

Are you losing yourself or finding yourself?

It’s a natural part of being human that we yearn to live with purpose. And yet it’s so easy to become accustomed to smothering our dreams in order to live according to the expectations of others. Problem is, when you do this, you can continue to walk and breathe, but you cut yourself off from the sources of joy and inspiration that make for a good life. You feel lost, knowing you deserve better. That internal tension then causes you to turn inwards, and that inward focus distracts you from being able to really focus on others, and all the learning and growth that result from doing so.

In hindsight, my 20s were extraordinarily productive, just not in the way I intended.

Don’t let your career be guided simply by what you’ve studied in the past, or by peer pressure, or by what your parents’ friends kids are successfully doing. Follow your heart in choosing one job over another, or in simply focusing your job around the things you like best. Your strengths will unfold over time as you develop them. So don’t feel so stressed about finding the perfect job right now. Less important than any one choice you make in your career is how you learn and grow every single day in whatever you are doing.

Finding yourself is really about creating yourself

Don’t expect to find the perfectly fulfilling career in your 20s. You can expect a few years of seeming drudgery doing the menial things that the important people don’t want to do. Utilize this time to really listen, observe closely, and practice. Because in the course of “finding” your career, what you’re really doing is “creating” a stronger, better version of you.

Thank you for an amazing year

Here in the States, we have a concept of the “mid-life crisis,” when we hit 40 and start to face up to what we want to have achieved in our lives. The stereotypical American male reacts to this by buying a Porsche and trading in his wife for a younger prettier version.  I reached 40 and started this blog, sending out into the ether a few thoughts about careers and life, not knowing if anyone would pay attention.  In return, I’ve received so much more than I’ve given away. Thank you for all your inspiration, fresh ideas, energy, passion, and love.  I’m grateful that you’ve allowed me in to a little part of your journey. You’ve become a special part of mine.

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