Tag Archives: professional

Are you treated like a child at work? 6 ways to respond.

Hi everyone! It’s my third week as a new Executive Director and I’m starting to feel settled into the role. All of the nightmares I had about team meetings have gone way. The staff are also starting to show me the respect I deserve. I’ve asked them to address me with the title bác, which is a Vietnamese word used when speaking to elders. “Hello Bác James. Let me help you up the stairs.” “Bác James, tell us what it was like to use a flip phone.”  “Bác James, my tummy is hurting again.” Go see a doctor then! You have health insurance benefits! “Bác, why didn’t you become a pharmacist?” Ugh, youth these days…so disrespectful.

I’ve previously written about how race and ethnicity can impact people’s perception of leadership. Similarly, age and the perceptions of experience can also be challenging–especially for Asian Americans where cultural norms around these issues are very powerful. Many of the challenges I have experienced in my career are because people viewed me as too young (other challenges include not knowing how to Tweet and Snapchat). It’s like I am a Vietnamese, non-profit, social justice version of Justin Beiber.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about similar challenges she was having. We wondered how young leaders can make a meaningful impact in our careers when our age and perceived lack of experience become barriers to success. It becomes very tiring because it makes us second-guess everything we do. For example, it took me a very long time to see myself as an Executive Director. Fortunately, I had the support from mentors, friends and colleagues who pushed me in that direction. While I am grateful for this opportunity, I recognize there are so many other young professionals who are ready to step up too.

Here are some comments that I’ve received and how I have responded to each of them. For anyone looking for an extra bit of help, you can also read my article “7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect.”

“You look so young. Are you a volunteer?”

Just because some of the students we serve are taller than me, doesn’t make me a volunteer. What’s up with always associating youthfulness with volunteerism? They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When I was in the Peace Corps, I had the honor of serving with volunteers who were already retired; one was a dean of a graduate school; and some volunteers were in their 40s and 50s. Assuming that just because all young people are volunteers is rude, and doesn’t acknowledge the skills and perspectives we bring into the work. It is also a disservice to actual volunteers–the ones who give up their time and energy to support their community.

How you can respond: “I’ll make you a deal. If you donate to my organization, I’ll tell you what type of moisturizer I use. Spoiler alert: It has coconut extract! But no, I’m not a volunteer, though I really appreciate all of the passion and support they bring to our work. My role as a staff member is to make sure that we’re enabling our volunteers, students and community members to succeed.”

“Is this your job? Do you get paid?”

What is this? Do people assume millennials just sit around drinking craft beer and organic coffee all day? We only do that after 5:30pm or when we’re singing karaoke. Of course I have a job! How else do you expect me to survive? It sure as hell ain’t from blogging. All of those stereotypes that millennials can’t find employment and have to live at home with their parents are crap. AHHHHHH!!!! BLARGHH!!!!!! UGH!!!!!!

How you can respond: Listen Mom, you’re crushing my individuality! Yes, this is my job. And I already told you, I’m never going to be the doctor you wanted me to be. I’m not like every other Asian kid. I want to help our community.

Side note: If you actually did become a doctor, then simply replace “doctor” with “lawyer” and “help our community” with “make money and live debt free.”

“I’m not sure if you have the experience quite yet.”

This comment annoys me the most. It’s condescending, like people think they’re doing young professionals a favor by “protecting” them from failure. We can only get the experience if we are given the opportunities to learn, grow, make mistakes, and succeed. Society said that everyone needs a higher education to be successful. Many of us did exactly that. How much more experience do you want?

How you can respond: Although your gut reaction might be to face palm whoever made the comment, it is critical that you resist this impulse. As Asians, there’s a cultural norm not to question authority or challenge the status quo. Humbleness and humility are important, but don’t be a push over. Advocate for yourself! Try this:

I realize there’s still a lot I can learn in this field/position/role/etc. I would really appreciate any feedback or suggestions you have. I want to respectfully push back though. I’m willing to work hard and give this role my all, but that will also require your support to enable that success. I’d love to work with you to figure out ways I can get the coaching and training you think I’ll need. Thanks a bunch, you’re totes awesome.

“Look kid, I love the enthusiasm, but you’re out of your league. I’m 62, which makes me twice as smart and good looking.”

So…no one has actually ever said this to me before. I don’t give them a chance to. I walk around with my head up; ready to stiff arm anyone as if I were Marshawn Lynch. We millennials are bad asses! Organic buying, gluten-free, ride-sharing, socially conscious, bad asses.

How you can respond: I’m sorry you feel that way but I beg to differ. I grew up in the generation that invented Facebook and transformed social media. Our vote helped put the first African-American President in the White House. We embrace marriage equality and women’s rights. And yes, despite what you might think, we do care very much about money and the economy. Even though we didn’t have anything to do with The Great Recession, you’re welcome for the bailout. So if you’re done with your anti-millennial tirade…do you have a usb charger I can borrow? My phone died and I super need to check my Farmville score.

Wow! You’re such an exception.

Though this may seem like flattery, don’t fall for the trap. Singling you out as an exception (even though we’re all exceptional individuals) is a disservice to all of the other smart and talented young professionals out there. It pits us against one another, but we must stay strong and united. That’s one of the main reasons I started Asian Happy Hour, to find and support other young leaders in our community…and because going to happy hour alone is really sad.

How you can respond: Thanks…I think. What exactly do you mean by that, if I may ask? From my experience, there are a lot of talented young professionals out there. I’m happy to introduce you to them if you’d like.

“Can I ask you how old you are? For anyone who works in a management or director level position–or position where you have power and authority over other employees–never ask an employee their age! The HR in me says it opens the door to age discrimination–real or perceived. You don’t want to go down that road. But on a peer-to-peer level, it’s just rude. It’s like asking someone their weight. The only difference is people can lose weight, but you can’t lose age. No sir…can’t lose it at all…your age just gets bigger and bigger every year…for the rest of your life…until you die… Then you’ll be reincarnated and the cycle begins anew. Why is life so hard!!!?

How you can respond: So are you asking me for my permission to ask me how old I am? Or are you directly asking me how old I am? If the former, then no, you may not. If the latter, why don’t you just say “How old are you?” to which I would respond “I’ll only tell you if you have sincere intentions to celebrate my birthday with ice cream and candles. Otherwise, none of your business!”

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Disconnect from your phone! A New Year’s Resolution Every Asian Should Take to Heart

Happy New Year everyone!I hope you all had a restful holiday.

I for one am ready to get going in 2015 and have my resolution picked out. I know some people–especially at my age–think resolutions are lame and antiquated, but I beg to differ. Resolutions are a great way to get energized and motivate oneself for healthy life changes.

My resolution this year, as it has been every single year since college, is to be more awesome. And so far, I have never failed—except in 2005, the year of eternal darkness. 2005 was the year of the monkey, who is a great enemy to pigs, my animal spirit (I was born in 1984). Anyways, I don’t talk about 2005 anymore; I turned 21 that year…

In order to achieve greater awesomeness, I have specifically resolved to disconnect my work email from my smartphone. I know what you’re thinking, “OMG. O.M.F.G. How can a man who works at a non-profit afford a smartphone?” Relax y’alls. It’s a Windows Phone.

Now-a-days, everyone talks about how kids are always on their phones. What adults don’t realize is that we’re exactly the same way! But instead of using our phones to Snapchat, Tweet or play Candy Crush, we use them to work. As if I don’t get enough of work at work.

There’s been a lot of talk in America about a dangerous trend toward overworking, especially in regards to white-collar workers and exempt staff who don’t punch cards to track their hours. Many conversations I’ve had with my Asian peers anecdotally confirm this trend. “I just got scheduled to another meeting this evening.” “My boss keeps emailing me at 2 am.” “My inbox has over a thousand emails!”

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I too have felt the constant need to work from my phone. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why, I believe it is a product of cultural norms and external expectations. Things like having to be the highest achieving student later translated into being the highest achieving worker. Others might say that Asians have a culture of obedience, which frankly, I don’t really buy. We Asians can be very vocal and opinionated when we want to be. Besides, everyone is working more! Not just Asians.

Motherjones.com provided an excellent summary on this topic. Here’s some pretty alarming data.

  • 60% of smartphone-using professionals kept in touch with work for a full 13.5 hours per day, and then spent another 5 hours juggling work email each weekend. That’s 72 hours a week of job-related contact.
  • 68% checked work email before 8 a.m., 50% checked it while in bed, and 38% “routinely” did so at the dinner table.
  • People who make more than $75,000 per year are more likely to fret that their phone makes it impossible for them to stop thinking about work.

Unfortunately, the result isn’t increased productivity—just the illusion of it. The reality is we’re inundated with more distractions and stress than ever. In my own work, I’m finding it harder to focus on tasks and projects when a new email is interrupting my workflow every minute. Most of them aren’t even important. Most of them are useless bulk cc’s from other people and annoying mailing lists.

I’m learning that a smartphone, while amazing, is also draining my energy. A smartphone has increased my volume of work, but not necessarily the quality. It has allowed me to extend my work day up to 24 hours, and even send  emoticons too, like 🙂 and :p. So not only did others see me working more, but they also thought I was happier doing it. That’s a recipe for burnout. Technology has made our work increasingly flexible and mobile; yet this same technology has also increased our overall workload. Because we’re now able to literally carry work in our pockets 24/7, we have also felt compelled to work 24/7.

I admit, I didn’t mind the constant connection at first. I love what I do and am grateful to have the opportunity. In fact, a good day work actually gives me energy. But overtime, I have come to realize that it’s not the only thing I love doing. Spending time with my friends and family, playing sports, camping…all of these activities give me energy too, as well as wonderful memories.

I fully admit that work, for some people, has evolved beyond the traditional 9-5. Some people are most productive at night, others in the mornings. And that’s great. I personally prefer the 10-6 schedule. But again, this doesn’t mean we have to work every single waking hour or minute just because the phone is in our pockets. There are more important things we can put in our pockets…like quarters, chewing gums, hands and puppies.

While I may have made a conscious decision to disconnect in my own life, all around me I have colleagues, peers and partners who haven’t. So there’s still that external expectation and pressure to immediately reply emails. This needs to move beyond an individual decision. As employers, we also need to recalibrate our standards and expectations in order to create a new norm for all of our staff.

The bottom line is: you should disconnect anytime you’re not at work.

***

It’s been two weeks since I have disconnected my work email from the phone and it’s felt like walking on sunshine. I’ve danced with bartenders in pubs, enjoyed fireside chats by the ocean, and received a $50 Olive Garden gift card from my mom. Who knew disconnecting from work could bring so much happiness? To be fair, it was the just holidays and many folks were out, so only time will tell. But I’m feeling pretty confident that my work and personal life won’t fall into ruins because of being disconnected.

OR…

Maybe I’m wrong and shit will hit the fan tomorrow. If this happens, then I will quickly reconnect my work email to my phone, sincerely apologize to all I have hurt by my actions, and promise to make better life decisions moving forward.

How about everyone else out there? How do you achieve separation from work?

Relationship advice for Asians (everyone else benefits too)

This past weekend I was invited to give a workshop at the Northwest Vietnamese Student Association Summit. The Summit is a regional gathering of young, emerging leaders from the Vietnamese community. They come from all over the northwest, from California and Portland up to Canada. My talk was called “Relationship Building for Dummies: Why you’re wasting your time networking.” It focused on the differences between relationship building and networking, and how to strengthen authentic, positive professional relationships in your own life. Here’s a summary of my talk.

Why Networking is stupid

Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? The idea is that you need to quickly and clearly introduce yourself in the time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to another: “You need me; let me tell you why.” Elevator pitches embody just about everything I dislike about networking.

The problem is that networking is “me” based. “There are five reasons why I’m awesome. One, decisive. Two, intelligent. Three, I’m good communicator. Four…” *ding ding ding* The elevator doors slowly open. “Ah dang it, wait. Don’t leave. I haven’t told you about reasons four and five! Can I get your number?”

Networking focuses on short-sighted, immediate goals and very often results in superficial, fleeting relationships. Think about all of those speed-dating events or job fairs you went to—how often did you actually follow up with the people you connect with? People who rely on networking focus too much time and energy getting their names out there, rather than genuine relationships with the people around them.

Focus on building, deep, authentic relationships

Relationship building, as opposed to networking, focuses on two-way, reciprocal connections. It carefully builds a partnership based on give and take…kind of like marriage. In fact, you should just pretend like you are married to the other person–cook them dinner, clean their floors, watch their children, etc…

Developing authentic relationships between people is critical to success. The word authentic is extremely important because people rarely communicate authentically. Relationship building isn’t about being fake, dishonest, or self-serving. Instead, it focuses on how you could support others, not what they can do for you. In order to have a friend, you need to be a friend.

How to connect with new people

Get an introduction: It’s really awkward to go up to someone you don’t know—so avoid it if you can. “Hello. You don’t know me, but my name is James. Sorry, my hand is kind of wet. I was just in the bathroom but don’t worry, I washed them.” Be honest, you’ve all probably been in either side of that scenario—it’s about as comfortable as an Asian parent saying “I love you.”

Use introductions instead. Introductions are a powerful way to connect to new people since it stems from a foundation of trust. If you ever find yourself where you don’t know many people, ask a friend or co-worker introduce you to people they know and go from there.

What happens if I don’t know anyone? Very rarely will you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know anyone (maybe if you were in North Korea). In general, chances are good that you know at least one person—whether it’s a school event, a job, or a community gathering. Use that!

Find common ground: Have you ever met someone new and you simply didn’t know what to talk about? Think about how awkward and uncomfortable that was. “Hi, I’m James. Do you like the Seahawks? You don’t like the Seahawks!? WTF is wrong with you? Well what do you like? Baseball? I hate baseball.” This is a common networking trap. Genuine dialogue occurs when you both discuss shared interests. Otherwise, one of you will be bored out of your mind.

Communicate in a way that is culturally appropriate: Be mindful of your audience. Know that people come from diverse backgrounds; you need to communicate in a way that is respectful of that. “But where are you really from?” is what you should not say to an Asian person. Trying to piecemeal together a sentence from using someone’s native language is also rude (unless you actually know their language). Making comments about a woman’s intelligence or appearance is also an invitation for trouble. “I was just joking! Don’t take it so seriously.” Relationship building is about mutual respect, so spend less time trying to be funny and more time being real (unless your real self is a jerk, then just stop and walk away).

How to gracefully end a conversation

Ending a conversation, especially with someone you don’t know that well, can be extremely difficult. It’s kind of like saying goodbye to someone, and you both start walking off in the same direction. Awkward! The best way that I have found to gracefully end a conversation is to “pass it on.”

  • Step 1: Introduce your new friend to someone else you know. ““Rachel, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Michael?”
  • Step 2: Establish common ground for the new couple; something simple goes a long way. “You two actually both studied psychology in undergraduate. What are the odds? Two Asians and neither was pre-med.”
  • Step 3: Carefully remove yourself from the conversation. “Why don’t you two talk more about the brain and I’m going to grab us another drink” or “Would you two excuse me? I need to use the restroom. Keep talking though!”

In this example, notice we use the power of introductions to our advantage; in this case, to gracefully and politely end a conversation. Secondly, by pre-establishing common ground for your two friends, you’re giving them something to talk about. This makes it easier for you to step back.

What happens if they hate each other? Use your best judgment. Connect people based on their common ground. If you have reason to believe two people are going to hate each other, don’t introduce them. Pretend like you’re setting up a friend on a blind date—the same rules apply.

Why you must always follow up with people

The biggest mistake most people make is trading long-term success for convenience and immediacy. “This person isn’t worth my time anymore” or “He’s not interesting enough to stay in touch with” or “She’s weird, I don’t want to follow up with her.”

Following up with people is extremely important! It’s how you keep relationships alive and healthy. The truth is we don’t know where people will end up in one year, five or ten, so we shouldn’t get in the habit of trying to pick winners and losers in our relationships. Everyone should be worthy of our time, attention and support. This is why follow up is critical to strong relationships.

What do to with business cards: In the age of smartphones, business cards still rule the professional world—kind of like how email is still top dog despite Facebook and Snapchat. Most organizations and businesses give their employees thousands of business cards, which most of us don’t know what to do with. So we shower people with cards wherever we go. “You get a business card. You get one too!” Give ‘em to your friends. Trade ‘em with your parents.

My general rule of thumb whenever you get a business card (or any type of contact information) is to follow up within 24 hours. Why 24 hours? Because it’s timely and better than 3 days or 1 week. And for goodness sake, just keep it simple. There’s no need to follow up with a lengthy essay–keep it Twitter length. “Hi Michelle. It was nice meeting you yesterday. I really enjoyed our conversation together. I hope we can stay in touch.” Short and simple.

One last note about business cards: It helps to make notes on the back of cards to help you remember who you talked to. That way, when you follow up with them it doesn’t sound lame and generic.

The big take away

I think we often get networking and relationship building mixed up because they both inherently deal with our connections to other people. But networking has become a game where we calculate the most gain with the least amount of effort. Don’t fall into that trap. Focus on building authentic relationships with the people around you.

Now, I’ve said all I have to say about this. So who wants one of my business cards? Seriously, I need to get rid of them. I have over 600 left! So…the first 600 people to like this post or comment will get a business card, autographed by me!

How Asians can manage their stress effectively

These past couple of weeks have been excruciatingly stressful for me. It has probably been the lowest point in my entire career.

FML.

I wish I were two years old again. My mom can swaddle me and make everything better. Two is an appropriate age to be swaddled, right? Meh, forget it. Someone needs to swaddle me right now.

Anyways, I’ve been receiving advice and support from various colleagues and peers in order to help me navigate this challenging time. Here’s what I got.

Organize your tasks: Someone suggested that I write down everything I have on my plate and organize it using the “Urgent/Important Matrix.” You start with items that are important and urgent, and then move counterclockwise in the matrix. I thought it was a superb idea and recommended the matrix to other staff members. Unfortunately, I myself haven’t around to using it because I listed “Use Urgent/Important Matrix” in the not urgent and not important square. I should have planned that better…

Important Not important
Urgent Start here. This is third.
Not Urgent Then move here. Do these last.

Learn to say no and take a step back: Another piece of advice that I got was to take a step back. It has always been really hard for me to say “no” to other people. It makes me feel like I’m letting them down. As an Asian American I feel an intense pressure to always take on more and more work. As a result, I’m taking things on faster than I can clear them off of my plate. I’m learning that I need a break too. I used this strategy last weekend in fact. “No mom, I can’t come home to see you this weekend. I’m learning to take a step back and trying to figure out what kidneys do. Love you!” Whew, I felt so much better.

Assume everything is in your control: In the Greek mythology, Sisyphus was forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill only to watch it fall back down, and to continue this for all eternity. That’s how I was feeling–powerless and helpless. Whenever I cleared one thing from my plate, two more would get piled on. It happened over and over again. A lot of people have told me to just admit that not everything is in your control. I completely disagree. We need the opposite kind of attitude. Everything is in our control. One of the biggest challenges people face when they are stressed out is feeling helpless. But if we give into this feeling, then we surely will be. We need to start believing that we have the skills and competencies to affect change in all aspects of our lives. Just because a solution isn’t readily apparent, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Ask for support: To be clear, just because everything is in our control, doesn’t mean we need to do everything by ourselves! Everyone needs help and support. I have often felt a very competitive “go at it alone” approach within the Asian American culture. Our parents are always comparing us to other kids, and medical schools are only going to admit so many applicants. The #1 thing I love most about working at VFA is that my coworkers are always asking me “How can I support you?” Sometimes, I tell them; other times I reply “I don’t know how you can help right now, but thanks.” It is such as relief to know that other people are looking out for you. Sisyphus would have had a much easier time pushing that boulder if he had some friends to help…or if he had gone to medical school instead of working for a non-profit and can afford to hire movers to do the work for him.

Stop being the model minority: Asians have been telling the world for decades that we’re really not as perfect as everyone thinks. We’re not the so-called model minority. We’re not all good at math; not blindly obedient; we don’t all know karate (only 89% of us do); we’re not all bad kissers; and our English is pretty good. So when it comes to stress, we must also push back and show the world we’re not perfect. Awesome yes, perfect no. We must resist perfectionism and tell people how we feel. Showing frustration and emotions are ok; bottling up your stress and anger is not. It’s like shaking up a can of soda. Sooner or later that can is going to explode and create a big, sticky, sweet, delicious mess.

Take a deep breath and be nice: Yoda once said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Stress works the same way. For example, we fear failing. If we don’t manage it safely and positively, that stress can turn into anger. Has this ever happened to you? You’re having a bad day when a coworker makes an innocent, well-intentioned joke or comment and you go off on them. You want to punch them. Maybe you do. At the very least, you start yelling at them and then they’re like “Huh? I’m was only kidding. Calm down. Geez.” This only makes you more incensed. If you ever find yourself in this situation, take a deep breath and remember to be nice. Always be nice, especially when it’s hard. Be nice, and then ask for support.

Have fun! My official moto for work is “Fun and done” (trademarked). I think there’s a lot of truth to this. Work isn’t about being miserable, but about having as much fun as possible. We should do what we love and enjoy, even when bad days are inevitable. Have fun and get your work done. That’s it.