leadership, musicals, success, teamwork

What A Zebra Taught Me About Being A Good Leader


Weeks ago, I was interviewed to teach a night class in product management. During our conversation, one of the interviewers was particularly interested in my current title. “Are you a Project Lead?” “No.” I didn’t elaborate, because there was nothing more to say. The natural follow-up question would enable me to describe my role and contribution to teams. But the interviewer didn’t ask the natural follow-up question. “When will you be a Project Lead?” He asked. “I don’t know,” I responded, “I haven’t even had this conversation with my manager.” He pushed harder. “Okay, but what does it take to be a Project Lead?” When I finally explained that employees at my company are fairly autonomous, each of us leading different work streams while embodying the qualities of a leader regardless of title, my interviewer was annoyed and dissatisfied. “I think if your title was Project Lead it would just sell better. Our other instructors have titles like this.” Before the interview was over, I no longer wanted the position. I couldn’t imagine being affiliated with an organization where title carried more weight than skills or experience.

Last Sunday, as the cast took the stage for The Lion King‘s finale, I was mesmerized by one member—but it wasn’t Simba. I couldn’t take my eyes off the zebra as she entered on stage right and lead herself to the front of stage left. It was only when she stopped that I realized that Simba had also entered the stage and had already ascended to the top of Pride Rock. How did I miss his entrance? Where did he come from? Given that I had spent the past two hours following Simba’s character, I was surprised that a minor ensemble character had captured my attention instead of him. I should note that it wasn’t because Simba was not entertaining. He was fantastic. But so was every single other cast member who took the stage over the course of the musical. From the lioness herd that flanked Sarabi to the gazelles who bowed down as Mufasa announced Simba, the musical flaunted the fact that there really are no small parts. Every role, together, made the musical what it was, which is a perfect metaphor for the makeup animal kingdom.

Later in the week, I listened to this NPR podcast about a car parking company who extols the virtues of its customer support representatives. Dubious of this lofty claim, one of the reporters tried to get one of the employees to crack. “You’re talking about a department that is pretty minor in the grand scheme of your app and which a lot of companies take care of with a website, like frequently asked questions.” The employee unwaveringly responds, “I think of them as, you know, the heroes of the company because they’re heroes for individual humans out there in the world.” This company is of the mindset that a person’s given role does not define the impact she has in the world. Employees across the organization consider customer support representatives to be “heroes.” To me, the value this company places on every employee’s contribution is not shocking. That’s because it sounds a lot like places I’ve worked. Arguably, a “flat” hierarchical structure is responsible for the high-quality, creative work that comes out of innovative companies. On a given project, a zebra is just as much the king as a lion because each person brings something unique and significant to the table.

This podcast and my interview earlier this month reminded me that, in many pockets of the business world, leadership is still defined by one’s title, specifically, whether is includes the word “Manager” or “Lead.” But Broadway reminded me that this is all it is. A word. Scar is no more or less a leader once he forcibly takes on the title of King.

Though the schema is a hard one to break, leadership is not a title. Whether you are a zebra or Simba, a customer service representative or CEO, leadership is more than a costume or headset you put on and take off. It is a mindset. And one that only you have the power to unleash.

2016, change, childhood, experiencing, real world, strengths, success

How I Learned That It’s Okay To Ask For Help

In my childhood home, my dad’s office den was the most exciting forbidden room of the house. While it wasn’t hard for us to keep away from the expensive machines and important papers that filled a majority of that room, my brother and I found it impossible not to sneak in and play with his (yes, my dad’s) toy collection (he called them “desk props” and “paper weights”).

Among them included a small plastic crate with a small hole and square button. Through then hole shown an eye, representative of a creature trapped inside the crate. Pressing the button made the crate start shaking uncontrollably while the creature cried, multiple times, “Excuse me, excuse me! Will you let me outta here!!”

Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine this:


My brother and I found endless pleasure in tip-toeing into my dad’s office, pressing the button, then scurrying out and giggling in the hallway while the audio track finished.

The crate wasn’t entertaining to me because it was meant to be or even because it was a forbidden pleasure. It was entertaining because it provided a darker, sadistic humor. The notion of confinement reminded me of my freedom. I had power that this trapped “creature” did not. I was strong, and it was weak.

You see, at age nine, my definition of “weakness” was “in need of help.”

Unlike my brother, I was the “hands-off” child. I voluntarily did my homework and laundry, I chose which books to read, and I came up with my own views on religion and culture (which boiled down to writing letters to God when I wanted intangible things and Santa when I wanted tangible ones). Over the years, my parents and teachers credited my independent actions and thoughts to my strengths as a student and my well-roundedness as a little human. Over the years, I conflated “independence” with “accomplished on my own.” For me, asking for help was a sign of weakness. Failure.

This is the perhaps the most foundational misconception that I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I will never forget my first ever meeting with corporate executives. It was my first product management role and I was to present the initiative I would be working on for the following six months. My slides were a trainwreck and my voiceover was the Titanic. I hadn’t requested that my manager review my work beforehand because I wanted to demonstrate how capable I was. How independent. After all, I had been making slideshows since the sixth grade. As we walked out of the room after the meeting, my manager told me to come see him later. “I’ll teach you how to make a slide presentation.” It is one of my most glamorous failures to date and success would have been no more difficult to attain than asking for help early on.

Last year, I started working at IDEO, the most collaborative place I’ve ever worked. I received a flurry of “new employee” advice from veteran designers when I first joined. All danced around a similar theme, and one way of phrasing it leapt out from the rest: “Never hesitate to ask for help. People here fail when they don’t ask for help.”

This was perhaps the first time in my personal or professional life that I had been encouraged to ask for help, and more importantly, that needing help was no indicator of capability, strength, or success. It was a life-changing revelation.

Since then, I’ve striven to identify opportunities to ask for help — whether it’s on a piece I’m writing, a business model I’m testing, or a meal I’m preparing — and associating them with moments of strength rather than signs of shortcoming.

We forget to tell kids that asking for help is a voluntary decision. Not asking for help whispers ignorance. When we choose not to ask for help, we choose to confine ourselves in a crate. “Help” screams independence. Asking for help is how we help ourselves.

adulthood, camping, life lessons, reflection, San Francisco, stress, success

What Happens At The Campsite Shouldn’t Stay There

One summer when I was eight, my family visited my uncle and aunt in Blacksburg, Virginia. I, a California native, was entirely mystified by the fireflies that guided our nightly walks.

“Can you give me a jar?” I asked my aunt one night when we got home.

“What do you need it for?”

“I want to take it on our walk tomorrow and catch fireflies.”

“Catch fireflies! Why?”

“They’re going to be my night lamp,” I said, wondering how it had not been obvious.

My aunt gave me a jar, and I spent the rest of our trip chasing and failing to capture fireflies. I still dream of having a firefly-powered night lamp, preferably in a Mason Jar.

Two weeks ago, as I stared out onto an empty campsite – one that my friends and I had inhabited for the eighteen hours preceding that moment – I yearned for a way to squish the camping experience into a jar and take it home with me.

Building a fire, waking up with the birds, staring silently at the stars, crunching leaves with each step, are all so perfect in their naturalness. Even imperfections like a drought-dried lake, stinging heat, and petulant bugs, somehow come across as perfect too.

This naturalness restores me. It serves as my bubble of sanity in our unpredictable world. And it’s more than just the lack of internet.

While a large part of my interest in camping is the experience of being away from the city and out in the wild, I’ve found that some of what constitutes camping belongs in our city lives as well. I managed to bottle those up and bring them home with me. Ideas, it turns out, are easier to jar than fireflies.

5 Ways Camping Can Improve City Life

Continue reading

adulthood, fans, friendship, goals, self-doubt, self-publishing, success, support, writing

In the Pursuit of Personal Goals, BYOF (Bring Your Own Fan)

In January 2012, I decided to write a book. Like a running-lover deciding to train for a marathon, I chose this project as a personal challenge to myself. To keep myself accountable, I declared my goal on Facebook. I’ve never been more nervous to click “Post” on Facebook. I still remember sitting on the couch in my living room, hovering my mouse over that tempting blue button. I expected responses telling me what I already knew:
  • What value can you, a green twenty-four year old, possibly bring to literature?
  • You’re nothing in comparison to an Allende/Tartt/Dickens/Fitzgerald/any legitimate author.
  • How do you know what sells?

Not to get all “Upworthy” on you, but I was shocked by “what happened next.” I received one then ten then over thirty Likes on this status about an ambiguous personal goal. Maybe they just like me. Or personal goals. Or Facebook statuses. Prior to the book, my most recent optional personal goal was a thesis in psycholinguistics and nobody was knocking on my door wanting to read that (surprisingly).

THE post

The book was my first unsolicited endeavor — no teacher, no parent, no boss, no friend asked me to do it — which meant that no one but I had a vested interest in the pursuit.

The insecurities I experienced on the quest to my first solo, adult goal, were unparalleled.

In the eighteen months between conceiving and launching the book (which ended up a novella), I questioned my capacity to succeed every single day. I wondered how many people thought I was a fool, always adding one to the number — because I myself thought I was a fool.

Self-doubt, above all else, is our biggest obstacle in life.

This is not an easy obstacle to clear and more importantly, clearing it does not result in better performance.

More statistics:

  • 9 people ripped the earliest draft apart then pieced it together better than the way they found it
  • 38 people together contributed $1,455 to my publishing efforts
  • 84 people signed up to proofread the entire book
  • 20 actually proofread the entire book
  • 234 people like the book’s page on Facebook
  • 365 Goodreads readers requested a copy
  • 137 Goodreaders have it on a shelf to read

Each of these bullets left me asking questions like Who are these people? and Are they bored? and Why does this person care so much about my success? or What’s in it for them?

It was only on the evening of my book launch, as I stood in front of a group of fifty local fans (as in, close friends and family), that I had two important realizations:

1. I succeeded despite myself.

2. People who care about you care about your “solo” success.

Everyone needs at least one person rooting for them on the sidelines. I am grateful (and continually shocked) to have so many.

While self-doubt causes us to question our competence (and results in handicaps like the impostor syndrome) having a fan helps us feel accountable. Telling others that I gave up would have been harder than accepting it for myself. Having fans made me care that much more about my performance.

And guess what? The combination of self-doubt and care about one’s performance leads to subjective overachievement. 

Everyone needs a fan.

As we speak, my new author friend is reaching the beginning of the end of her writing process. Her path is slightly different, but her experience largely the same. I am her fan. She has many others, but I am proud to be one of them. It helps that her writing is genuine and her story, authentic.

It probably goes without saying that I am a fan of many others in this world. They and their projects, more than my own, make my life rich. When they succeed, I succeed.

What I didn’t know before but I know now is that solo adult goals really aren’t very adult or very solo.

There is an insecure child inside each of us and the most adult thing we can do to pacify it is invite others to join our journey from personal challenge to achievement. These ever-positive others will take their roles seriously and actually propel us forward toward our success.

And by taking this adult approach, you and your accomplishments will always be a fan favorite.

academia, goals, grit, happiness, perseverance, real world, success

The Problem with Confusing Ambition and Happiness

It’s Saturday afternoon and you really want to be doing something relaxing. As you think about lazy activities, you are slowly reminded of all the loose ends you left at work on Friday evening. I really should just work you tell yourself as you open your laptop. And well, that’s the excuse you’d use if a friend called. But the crazy thing is you kind of do want to work because you like what you do. You’re pretty happy with it. It’s not what you tell your friends though. They’re so set on starting companies and moving mountains that it would just feel awkward to admit your current happiness.

Especially if you’re on your second or third post-college job, the above scenario may especially resonate. You’ve been on the project that you hated, you’ve been at the company that felt stepping-stoney, and now, you are where you are and you’re generally content. But is that allowed? Are you still the “rockstar” that you once were in your eager beaver days?

We’ll get there, but first some important anecdotes:

During my childhood, the drive home from any family outing – a birthday party, dinner at a friend’s house, a play date, a day trip, a sporting event – would be spent by listening to my brother, despite everything that we did get to do, complain about what we didn’t.

“It’s not fair. Why didn’t we go on that one ride?”

“Why did I have to leave earlier than Nathaniel?”

“I didn’t get my second turn on the Nintendo 64.”

My parents would listen silently while my brother whined, until finally, one would say in a disappointed sing-song, “You’re nev-er hap-py,” as if that made it all better. It kind of did, too, because it provided no conversation around the matter. Nothing on which my brother could linger.

As he left behind his childhood, my brother also left behind his annoying obsession with identifying the negatives in a generally positive situation.

What he didn’t lose, however, was his unbeatable threshold for personal satisfaction. He holds himself to the highest standard, only briefly celebrating his successes before turning more attention to the fine hairs that were out of place. He is smart, but more importantly, he is focused.

This likely explains how my brother continually achieved academic success at the concrete tasks he tackled. He wasn’t happy until he could achieve that “little bit more.” Tangible (albeit controversial) proof includes a near straight-A (or above) record from kindergarten through his graduation from Yale.

Nine months ago, I started tutoring a high school senior in English. She moved to America from China two years ago, and belongs to a family who is still disappointed by her gender (they wanted a boy) and repeatedly told her she would not get into college. They were also unwilling (one parent) and incapable (the other parent) to pay for it.

Over the course of our time together, I watched as my tutee wrote and rewrote tens of essays and researched college upon college not just for its prestige or programs, but also for its commitment to ESL students, women, scholarships, and post-graduate opportunities in pursuit of her goal to be the first female in her family to attend college. “I will be so happy if that happens,” she said to me once.

This fall, my tutee will not only be attending one of her top choice colleges, but also with a fully funded scholarship for her first year. With no more essays to write (Praise the Lord!), we now go for weekly walks practicing conversational English. Last week, I stopped us midway and turned to her.

“How happy do you feel? You got into your top choice school! And with full scholarship!” She looked back at me unmoved.

“It’s my second choice school.”

“Right, but still…”

In 2007, psychologists Duckworth and Peterson set out to understand personal indicators of professional success above and beyond intellect. In their research, they found that one specific non-cognitive factor called “grit,” defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, accounted for a significant 4% variance in attaining success. They concluded that in addition to talent, success relied on focused and sustained talent over long periods of time.

Grit helps us reach goals. Grit is what my brother has. My tutee has grit.

While part of me wonders if I am being the “I’ll be proud of you no matter what” parent/guardian type, the other part of me remembers that I too experienced similar disappointment to my tutee when, eight years ago, my dad wrote a check for my deposit to UPenn. Despite having achieved my general goal to attend college on the East Coast, I wasn’t completely happy about it. “But maybe I’ll come off the waitlist at Columbia,” I told him while thinking, “If only I had gotten into Yale.” (I know, I know.)
To anyone who is past the stage of pre-professional academia, the cases of my brother, my tutee, and me might be worrisome. Is it unhealthy that ambitious individuals are unable to be happy?

Considering the somewhat healthy outcomes of this reluctance to be completely happy with the status quo (self-motivation, hard work, personal goal-setting), I would argue that it actually isn’t a problem during the phase of formal education. Goals are so concrete, landmarks so predictable (the next exam or class project), external validation so clear-cut (a grade), and paths mostly linear (semester after semester). For example, a student might peg happiness on receiving a good grade on her AP US History final project. The ambition is concrete because getting some grade on the assignment is inevitable. Upon receiving a B+, she will likely be unhappy, but the unhappiness won’t linger long because the project itself will never show itself again, and there will be future final projects for which she can strive to perform even better.

The problem comes after school.

Every year around this time, tens of thousands of black-gown-clad college graduates hear some version of the advice to “follow your passions” to “find happiness.”

The advice reiterates what they have learned to be true for most of school: Ambition is conflated with happiness.

While mostly harmless during childhood, this conflation erupts in a post-academic world where paths are meandering or worse nonexistent: When is it okay to say you are happy? If you say you are happy, are you void of ambition? Can you only be perfectly happy once you attain your goals?

This brings us back to the weekend work scenario.

I know a lot of twenty-somethings with big goals. They want to start companies. They want to go to top business schools. They want to travel extensively and exotically. They want to be doctors. They want to get books published (I know this twenty-something particularly well). They want to find soul mates.

But achieving some of these goals is kind of far away. They aren’t like grades that can be earned and improved within weeks of one another. They aren’t really sure-things either. Long-term goals assume many unknowns and are not guaranteed to pan out the way we might anticipate.

If, like in school, we plant our happiness on some far off planet that houses our goals, we start to deny everyday joys and successes. A good streak at work is clouded by the fact that we are not yet working our dream job (how much do you love to hate “#ilovemyjob” instagrams?). A restorative road trip pales in comparison to the desired years-long escapade through Asia. A self-published book is nothing like a Times bestseller. Attending a top business school is yet another sign of being lost. A good boyfriend is “probably not” the one.

This is a problem because these everyday joys and successes are the ones that fill the majority of our lives.

As a follow-up to the Duckworth et al. findings on grit, Singh and Duggal Jha probed further to understand if and how grit is related to happiness. The study demonstrated a significant positive correlation (+26%) between happiness and grit.

Correlation does not prove causation, which in this case helps to prove my point. Grit does not cause happiness, but instead the two are intertwined and positive influence one another. Increased happiness suggests increased grit on the meandering path toward self-identified success.

Happiness cannot be the destination.

Rather than ignoring happiness or worse, convincing ourselves that we cannot be happy yet, we in the real world should be identifying what in our lives makes us happy today. Be okay with admitting it. Bring it with you wherever you go. Because you know what? Happiness is what’s going to get you wherever you need to go. It will motivate you to work harder and embrace what you have in the process.

Happiness is not the lack, but a driver of ambition.