Model minority. Bamboo ceiling. Stereotypes. The status quo. Yeah yeah, I get it. I’ve heard the same story since I was 12 years old.
You can buy into that story and let it determine your life. Or you can choose not to accept it, to say “fuck you” to the status quo, and carve out your own path.
I grew up as one of the few Asian kids in Wisconsin. I was the opposite of what you’d consider a leader. I was so shy that I profoundly remember one of my Mom’s proudest moments of me when I was 12 — I called someone and left a voicemail where I spoke in complete, coherent sentences.
Over the next couple years I spent most of my days acne-ridden, sitting in front of a computer playing games. I weighed in at about 115 pounds standing 5’11”.
One day, sometime around the age of 17, I decided that I no longer wanted to be the kid who would almost get anxiety attacks over making eye contact. Today, ten years later at the age of 27, I’ve led a team of 25+ in growing a seven-figure business from scratch.
What happened in those transformative ten years?
First and most importantly, I decided I wanted to make a change.
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” — Tony Robbins
Then, I learned how to act and think like a leader.
As Asian-Americans, we’re not used to seeing strong leaders that look like us portrayed in media. Because of this, it’s more challenging to visualize yourself being the leader that you’re destined to be. As a young adult, I’d search on end for a role model that looked like me. Back then, the best I got was Yao Ming (except that I wasn’t 7’6” tall, or a Chinese national, or, for that matter, anything similar to him besides the color of my skin and hair).
We need more young people who will break the status quo and become CEOs, world leaders, politicians, writers, actors, athletes, inventors, innovators, and more. We need more Eddie Huangs, more Jeremy Lins, more Steve Chens and Alexander Wangs.
I think there are a lot of ways to become a successful leader, and plenty of articles out there that tell you a bunch of obvious things that more or less describe a superhero.
Instead of just listing obvious qualities of a leader, I’d like to share with you real moments from my life, deciding moments that led to leadership qualities. Then I’ll also provide a few actionable ways for you to step up and be the leader that we desperately need in the Asian-American community.
My mom, an immigrant from China, raised both my brother and I on her own while going to school part time at the local community college and working as a grocery store bagger by night. She worked hard to make ends meet with a some support from the government via food stamps.
There’s one story that has always stuck with me. She talked about how she rented an apartment from a guy and because he knew that she didn’t speak English well, he didn’t refund any of her security deposit upon moving out. He knew that he could take advantage of the situation and my mom wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
This was a big blow for her, considering she’d already been living paycheck to paycheck just supporting herself and putting food on the table for her two boys. She wanted a better life and future for us, two Chinese-American kids who didn’t have the language barrier that she did.
She knew that she would be perceived as dumb because of her accent, her English, her broken eyeglasses, and the second-hand clothing she bought from garage sales. Looking back, she regretted all the opportunities for scholarships that she could have applied to and probably could have won, but missed, just because she was ignorant. She told my brother and me, “Study hard, knowledge is power, and if you’re smart, then no one will be able to ever take advantage of you.”
Fast forward a few years, and I’m a freshman in college. I study hard, apply to every scholarship I can, win multiple, and ace my courses. Knowledge is power, and by having the best grades and graduating magna cum laude, I was able to gain the confidence and validation that I have something good to say and I’m intellectual enough to back it up.
Study hard, be brilliant, learn as much as you can. No one wants to listen to a leader who isn’t intelligent.
If you’re going to be a leader, you have to overcome the areas you’re insecure about. These are weaknesses that others will see right through — after all, no one wants to be led by someone who isn’t confident.
Personally, as an Asian kid from the midwest, I was insecure about first, being one of the only Asian kids around, and second, being so skinny that a girl that I liked asked me if I was anorexic.
How did I deal with it?
Being skinny was easy to deal with. I just had to eat more food, work out, and join the swim team.
Being Asian was a bit harder. You can’t really change that (although people try to by getting double eyelid surgery, etc.).
It wasn’t until years later that I started to realize that being Asian-American allowed me to stand out, to be different. I realized how privileged I was to be fluent in both English and Mandarin Chinese, and how this would eventually lead me to a plethora of new opportunities and the ability to build close relationships bilingually.
When I was 16, I went and backpacked China with my girlfriend at the time alone for 3 weeks. How her parents let her go on that trip is beyond me. This was a defining moment for me in starting to love my identity. I remember the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which, for the first time, made me feel proud to be a Chinese-American. Later, in 2009, I went back to study abroad in China, and in 2015 I moved to Beijing.
Give, give, give. Help others out of the kindness of your heart and expect nothing in return. Give love, give honest compliments, give advice, give praise. Help others and go above and beyond to be authentic. A leader inspires others and helps others by setting great examples.
Throughout my life, I have loved to share anything I had with others, even if it meant a loss to me. I wanted to share my good fortune, my time, and more to better others. Sometimes this meant people taking advantage of my time and me losing a bit of money or time.
On the other hand, more often that not, it allowed me to build strong relationships with others, and eventually I became friends with like-minded people, thereby building a community of friends who are thoughtful, kind, and got your back.
When it comes to leading a team, I’m always doing things I don’t need to — giving bonuses, gifts, and other types of unexpected favors. People notice this, and respect someone who does things they don’t have to do. More on this in my other blog titled “What To Do After Graduating College” about doing 10% more.
Being a leader means that you’re often working harder than others, taking accountability for things you don’t need to. You’ll have to do a good job picking your battles and knowing which ones are vital and which ones are not a good use of your time.
Always take the high road. You don’t have time for petty shit.
By the time I was 18, I had somehow gone from being a shy loser to hosting the biggest and baddest high school senior prom party. This meant that I had to spent a tremendous amount of time organizing and planning the event while others enjoyed.
We booked two stretch limos to do it big, the final act of coolness before all going our separate ways to different universities.
The problem was that no one had much money, given that we were high school students and everyone was cheap. At the time, I was working for $5.50 per hour at a local Subway. I was left with a giant bill that ultimately I had to take care of because I was the leader.
This kind of situation happened often when it came to money, or time, or other stresses that I didn’t need to be responsible for. By being a leader, you might have small losses here and there, but in the end you’ll be victorious. Through that experience, I learned how to organize, how to plan, and how to lead an event with a lot of people.
Know when to speak up for what you believe in, even if it is often the unpopular decision. This doesn’t mean you should be a brat and have an opinion about every little arbitrary detail, but instead that you should speak up when others are scared to.
Shying away from conflict is an innate part of the human experience, but truth and advancement also lie in working through conflict.
Whenever there’s a difficult situation or decision to be made, I’m the first one to challenge the status quo. I’m okay with having the unpopular opinion as long as I can back it up with something grounded in logic and rationality.
Back when I was in high school, I was part of a multicultural traveling theater group. We toured every day to over 40 elementary and middle schools and presented sketches on social issues such as sexism, racism, and more. Our group was carefully selected by our teacher Rebecca, and composed of 4 black people, 4 white people, 4 Asian-Pacific people, 4 Latino people, and 4 ethnically ambiguous people. We had about a 50–50 split between genders.
A few weeks in, Rebecca called to our attention that our group was having a hard time embracing conflict with each other to discover truth. We were still too “buddy-buddy” with each other, not wanting to stir up the tension. This was severely limiting our ability to bond with each other, and also to create meaningful sketches that really exposed these problems on a visceral level.
One day, we were talking about issues between black students and other students. No one raised the obvious issues because everyone was too afraid of the conflict that might arise out of it.
I decided to cut the crap and tell people how I really felt.
“I feel upset that every time I go on the school bus, the black kids in back steal all of our stuff and beat up other kids. I don’t want to be racist, but I also can’t ignore that I feel that way for a reason.”
This was the first time after weeks that there was any meaningful conversation surrounding the sensitive subject of race.
During our class, Jeremy Holiday, a filmmaker from the University of Wisconsin — Madison, followed our group around and recorded a documentary about the group called Multico.
The climax of the documentary and of our class was the moment that I listened to my gut, stated my opinion confidently, and challenged the status quo. That moment sparked a meaningful conversation which ultimately led to a much stronger emotional bond between each and every member of the group.
Opportunities lie within working through conflict. “Know when to speak up” is the moral of the story.
Leaders don’t have to be perfect; in fact, a leader is someone who can admit their faults and own their mistakes. Be confident being vulnerable — people will embrace you for being imperfect and relatable.
By being vulnerable, you also make yourself much more approachable to your peers. This in turn allows for you to be constantly open to a feedback loop, which ultimately improves your relationship with others because your peers will feel listened to.
Recently, my team and I went to Bulgaria and we did an exercise from a great book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The exercise is called “Personal Histories.”
The purpose of the exercise is to improve trust by giving team members an opportunity to demonstrate vulnerability in a low-risk way and to help team members understand one another at a fundamental level so that they can avoid making false attributions about behaviors and intentions. This exercise is typically the first small step teams take to start developing trust.
The exercise is composed of everyone doing a “Personal History” with three simple questions:
1. Where did you grow up?
2. How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in that order?
3. Please describe a unique or interesting challenge or experience from your childhood.
Obviously each person can digress as much as they’d like regarding these three questions because they’re quite open ended.
Something that I like to do is lay it all on the table; if you can do that and let yourself be that open, then you won’t really have anything to feel insecure about.
When it was my turn, I decided to air out all my greatest failures and insecurities with confidence. I know my problems already, and with that comes a lot of power.
I was raised by a single mother on welfare. She had an incredibly difficult life of abuse, divorce, and poverty. My older brother has had a string of problems including rehab, and my dad just got out of a giant lawsuit that would have ruined most people’s lives forever.
I have a horrible rote memory, meaning I am terrible at memorizing things without understanding the meaning behind it. I graduated at the top of my class in college but failed the MCAT.
I was the shyest kid in the world growing up, probably due to the fact I was one of the few Asian kids in a predominantly white environment in Wisconsin.
The list goes on and on, and I have no problem sharing all of these failures because they make me human and relatable. People see that although today I may be a successful entrepreneur, I really came from a background that wasn’t filled with flowers.
Be an open book — be vulnerable, because if you share what you’re insecure about with confidence, you’ll be able to improve upon it and others won’t be able to find faults that you haven’t already pre-identified.
Authenticity is one of the most important attributes for anyone who wants to build deep relationships with other people. People are highly observant and social animals. We can easily tell if someone is putting on an act or just being themselves.
You can fake being someone or something else, but you aren’t fooling the people who have been there and done that. In other words, you can fool the other fakers because they’re already telling a lie to themselves, but you aren’t fooling the people who really matter.
Perhaps one of the most important things I learned in my time attending drama school in London, as well as scene study under acting coach Aaron Speiser (the coach of Will Smith, Gerard Butler, and many more), is how damn easy it is to tell the fakers from the professionals.
Every day, actors come into scene study trying to become the next movie star. But for new students, Aaron always tells them the same thing:
“You must be honest with yourself: Are you a quality product? Are you really that good? If you can’t look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘No I’m not really that good, I’m fucking great!’, then you’re not ready. Why should we hire ‘she could be that’ when we could hire ‘she is that’?”
Young actors often choose scenes to put up in scene study, and Aaron critiques the scenes. Instantly, anyone can tell the difference between someone who really took the time to study and examine every facet of their character and someone who just went and memorized some lines to recite with a little fake emoting.
Top-tier actors spend tens if not hundreds of hours of time creating a character autobiography and embracing it. If you put up a scene and can’t answer what your character’s family history is, what street you grew up on, what your socioeconomic background is, your religious background, the first time you fell in love, who your heroes are, what makes you angry, what you find humorous, and what your darkest secrets are, then you’re not ready. Instead, all you’re doing is imitating an idea of what a character might be like rather than living in that character’s skin and world.
This level of dedication to the craft separates the Marion Cotillards’, the Will Smiths’, the Viola Davis’, the Daniel Day-Lewis’, the Meryl Streeps’ from the wannabe “actors” working as bartenders.
The acting analogies above apply to anything and everything else in life when it comes to authenticity. If you want to be a better friend, then take the actions necessary to be there for people; if you want to be a better leader, then take the time to invest in your skill sets and self-growth. People will see you truly care and spend the time necessary to be the best you can be.
Practice being authentic in everything you do. You’ll attract like-minded people and see through the bullshitters.
Being a leader means taking ownership when something goes wrong. Never blame other people, the process, uncontrollable circumstances — instead, look inside first for blame.
The CEO has the weight of the entire company on them. If someone else made a mistake, why did you not anticipate it? If you didn’t hit your annual revenue goals, why didn’t you recognize the problem sooner to course correct?
In my company, when the shit hit the fan and we weren’t hitting deadlines, or were way over on costs that were eating into our profit margin, instead of blaming others, I first recognized my mistakes.
Why did I not do more check-ins to look at how things were going earlier on? Why didn’t I give more training to people or ask more questions? Why was our process built in a way that didn’t set us up to succeed? Why did I not create an environment that incentivized accountability? Why did my team not alert me when things were going down the wrong path?
It’s easy to blame others, but as a leader, you ultimately take the final blame for everything and anything. I chose to dive deep to understand and work on elements that I could control, including offering my time for weekly check-in meetings, giving people more autonomy and in turn more accountability, creating a better process document, and more.
Today, although we aren’t there yet, with each project we make significant strides in the right direction because I took personal ownership of the successes and failures.
A linchpin is a person who is indispensable to a company, someone who is remarkable. There’s no easy way to become a linchpin, which is what makes them so valuable. However, I believe that every other point I’ve made so far contributes to linchpin-type qualities.
Seth Godin provides a great example illustrating what a linchpin is:
Your restaurant has four waiters, and tough times require you to lay someone off. Three of the waiters work hard. The other one is good, but is also a master at solving problems. He can placate an angry customer, finesse the balky computer system, and mollify the chef when he’s had too much to drink. Any idea who has the most secure job?
Troubleshooting is never part of a job description, because if you could describe the steps needed to shoot trouble, there wouldn’t be trouble in the first place, right? Troubleshooting is an art, and it’s a gift from the troubleshooter to the person in trouble. The troubleshooter steps in when everyone else has given up, puts himself on the line, and donates the energy and the risk to the cause.
Linchpins are people who go above and beyond with creative problem solving and proactiveness to do things that others wouldn’t even think of. There’s a certain artistic quality about linchpins which lets them finesse difficult situations with ease.
This is highly characteristic of CEOs and founders — just think of any situations when you meet the owner of a business. Usually they have special characteristics that make them stand out, whether it’s the way they compose themselves, or the way they work through problems. This applies to all sorts of businesses, from restaurants to anything else.
All leaders have to start somewhere. For Asian-Americans in general, we have a tougher time embracing leadership characteristics for whatever reason. It might be cultural upbringing, the lack of other visible Asian-American role models in popular media, or institutionalized prejudice. I’m not sure, but regardless, the only thing that is going to bring about change is determined self growth.
I’m excited to be part of a generation that is finally seeing more Asian-Americans break out of traditional career paths and take leadership roles in sports, entertainment, fashion, tech, and everything else.
Just saw the post on Subtle Asian Traits and glad it lead me to this article. It’s interesting to see the similarities of many Asian-Americans despite the different geographical location. I grew up in the West coast and went to middle school, high school, and undergrad that was heavily populated with Asians and yet I still could sense the lingering insecurities amongst my peers and myself as well. In a class of 200 students and 80% Asians, the non-Asian student would raise their hand when a question was asked. I hope that this article reaches more young Asian-Americans to give them that extra motivation when they’re debating if they should speak up and realize that even if they are present in the room, their voice has to be present too.
Yess! Speak up. Be confident by actually confronting insecurities instead of brushing them under the carpet. Stand out. Be okay to be different. Break the status quo.
Your comment is pretty interesting to me because I was raised in a similar environment with many, many Asians, and I still raised my hand to be called on in class and spoke up. This may be because I am used to being a bold, outspoken “good student” who tried to answer the teacher’s questions to the class. However, I am now realizing that I acted the opposite at Chinese school. I raised my hand and contributed my answer in what I call American school, but I remember how I didn’t like to contribute or be called on in Chinese school. This was probably because I wasn’t good at Chinese school. I didn’t speak Mandarin Chinese at home; I was spoken to in Cantonese and usually responded in English. But I stopped going to Chinese school when I started high school, and as a university student at a school made up of mostly Hispanics, I raise my hand, speak up, and contribute in class discussions. I am not sure why, but that is something that I have observed about myself. And I contribute in all my classes, whereas my classmates from all different backgrounds always seem more hesitant to speak up than I am. By the way, I am Asian American.
Thank you for this post. I am a GenXer (1st gen Asian Am) and am still struggling w trying to break the bamboo ceiling/formal line management. I realize a lot probably has to do w current mindset (fear of conflict, making waves, etc). Thanks for useful food for thought
Definitely can relate. Breaking the bamboo ceiling means questioning the status quo, stepping up and not being afraid of conflict. I know as a manager and as an entrepreneur that the people I respect aren’t the people who I always agree with. They are people who are highly self motivated, intelligent, but also willing to speak up when they believe in something. They aren’t always right but I appreciate people who think outside the box and think for themselves. That’s an A-player, and leadership quality type of person.