Tag Archives: success

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!”


Being a Nguyener: Why Asians need to celebrate success

When I was in the third grade, my now best friend (back then he was just another 80s baby with a mullet) invited me to play on his soccer team; his dad was the coach. Soccer provided a wonderful and much needed escape from the rigors of school and homework. Even though I was only in third grade, my parents already had me doing calculus, performing surgeries, coining their backs, and giving them their annual dental exams—my tiny fingers gave me a competitive advantage in oral health.

I loved playing soccer. But it was never a passion or excitement that my parents shared. I remember one game in particular. During the game, I scored my first goal ever and became rabid with excitement. Yes, rabid. My first goal! Who knew when the next goal would ever come (answer: 9 years later in a high school JV game).

Afterward, when my teammates and other parents came up to congratulate me, my mom was there and she replied “He’s so proud. He’s so excited.” As a kid, that stuck with me vividly because I wanted my mom to share that pride and excitement too. I wanted her to feel like it was her goal, even though, let’s be real, I did all of the work.

This has been one of the ongoing challenges of growing up Asian; feeling like your hard work goes unnoticed. Can anyone else relate to this? Or is it just me? I’m not talking about the big stuff like graduations or birthdays, but little things like soccer games and winning Halo deathmatches. I’ve also been in situations where other people diminish my successes. How many of us Asians have had a parent tell us a B+ isn’t good enough? Or even an A-? Or that we will never succeed if we don’t go to med school?

Anyways, curious about how other people celebrate success, I googled it. A lot of the results that came back gave advice like:

  • Buy yourself a banana split from your favorite ice cream store.
  • Give yourself permission to take a day off and relax.
  • Go to lunch with your best friend.
  • Buy yourself a new shirt.
  • Get yourself an iPod.
  • Whistle.

I spent a good 15 minutes browsing through the list and thought “This is the worst advice ever.” First off, I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1000 iPods (Get it? I’m saying I succeed a lot. 1000 times a lot!) And whistle? Really? Some people actually whistle to celebrate success? My problem with this sort of advice is that it doesn’t actually celebrate success, but turns it into a series of rewards. If you read my post on success vs failure, you’ll understand why I can’t stand this. And seriously, I don’t need to give myself permission to take a day off and relax; my boss does.

Celebrate everything

I think we have become paralyzed with waiting for “the right time” to celebrate success: waiting for the weekend, combining it with another occasion because it’s more efficient, etc. I’m of the mindset that we should celebrate everything…immediately. Big things and small things. Success and failure. Perfection and mediocrity. B+’s and A-‘s. Why put off a good thing?

Share appreciation

The second thing we should start doing in regards to success is share appreciation. Basically, don’t keep good thoughts to yourself. If someone did something remarkable, you should tell them! “Way to get into grad school Susan! Just steer clear of predatory lenders and you’ll be just fine.” Even if someone did something mediocre, you should still affirm them. “Way to get into grad school Susan! Just steer clear of other Asian students and you’ll be just fine.” I don’t know how we’ve come to this point in society, but we rarely share our positive thoughts directly to our friends, family and colleagues; choosing to silently post updates on Facebook instead. Look, if someone did something awesome, you should let them know.

As a quick reference, here are a few scenarios you and your friends may have encountered in life and the appropriate responses for each.

A Beginners Guide to Celebrating Success

Scenario Appropriate response
Got a B on your O-Chem test? High five!!!
Applied to ten different jobs and only one called you back. You are deserving of a gold star.
Talked to a random stranger in the bar because you can tell from across the room that they are glimmering with inner beauty and has a 75% chance of sharing your passion for social justice and racial equity? Next round is on me, champ 😉
Started a career in community development. Here’s a lucky red envelope full of money. You’ll need it!
30 years old and still unmarried? I know someone. They’re an artist, will make your life beautiful.
Recently discovered that you want to marry an artist? More red envelopes!!!
Failed your first driving test? Don’t worry, paralleling parking got me too.
Your Executive Director just left to start a new organization. Karaoke party!!!
Never mastered the piano? Here’s a subscription to Pandora!
Scored a goal in soccer? Aww, so proud of you! Now you must practice 10 hours a day and score every time.

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.


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.

Why all Asians are eventually going to fail (and what you can do to prepare)

Last week I wrote about a new definition of success, one that “doesn’t try to avoid failure, but embraces and learns from it. In order words, we need to become more successful at failing.” But I feel like whenever we hear the word failure, it sends a shiver down our spine, as if a hipster had just winked at you. It’s a chilly, terrifying feeling.

We have generally viewed success and failure as two mutually exclusive outcomes, and we’re stuck in the middle.

Success – You – Failure

This doesn’t have to be the case though; failure can lead to success. Try on this new paradigm.

You – Failure – Success

Sweet! It actually works out pretty well. Here’s an example from my own life. I became an honors student beginning in the fifth grade. I transferred schools in order to take accelerated classes. This lasted up to the 8th grade, when I took Honors English. It was a challenging class. The teacher, Mrs. Pearson, was really smart but strict. When I received my report card at the end of the quarter, I learned that Mrs. Pearson gave me a C+.

I was freaking out and thought my parents were going to kill me. I imagined all of the horrible things that would happen. My parents would toss me down a hole with a copy of Beowulf until I had memorized all of the lines and metaphors. If I didn’t, they would spray me. “It gets an A or else it gets the hose.”

“Mom! This is ridiculous. I’m tired, wet and hungry. Let me out of here!” My C+ got me kicked out of honors. I was kicked out! I don’t know if any Asian-American, in the history of Asian America, has ever been kicked out of honors. It was a nightmare.

Which brings me to my point this week; failure cannot be avoided. We all fail, it is inevitable. But rather than view failure as a weakness that must be avoided at all costs, we need to turn it into a stepping stone on our path toward success.

Here are five ways you can turn failure into success (and not fail in the process).

1. It’s a challenge, not a weakness: About a month ago our Executive Director left the organization after nine wonderful years. If you had asked me my opinion a year ago, I would have freaked out and thought the zombie apocalypse was coming. “Quick! Make sure we have extra arrows and bullets. We need to survive!!!” Losing an influential, experienced, and vegan leader can be a terrible setback for some organization or companies. But rather than see this as a weakness that we should hide, our board of directors reached out for support, advice and took their time to conduct a thorough assessment of our organization’s needs. It’s been a month now and we expect to hire a new ED in October…ish, which means I can go shoeless for a couple more months.

2. Positive thinking: Being busy has become the de facto conversation starter in America. “How are you doing?” “I’m busy.” I absolutely can’t stand this. Every time we do this we actually normalize busyness; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same applies to success and failure. Small changes in the way we think about failure will lead to big changes in the way we act. “So what if our vegan-munching Executive Director left; no big deal. Our organization is now 100% carnivorous!” Other ways you can utilize positive thinking are:

  • “Taxes! An easy way to serve my country.”
  • “Immigrants! Save money on vacationing abroad. They bring really amazing culture and delicious food to us!”
  • “Student loans! I just spent 4-10 years receiving an world class education and partying in my spare time, all without the responsibilities of a 9-5 job. Nice, I like.”
  • “Car accident! Summer is a great time to get the bike out.”

3. Celebrate Failure: I once described how I was invited to meet with a funder about a grant that we applied for. When we arrived, they told us we didn’t get the grant and proceeded to give us feedback. It was awful; I wasted my entire morning when a phone call or email would have sufficed. Plus, they didn’t even validate my parking. Downtown is expensive! Afterward my colleagues and I went to happy hour to commiserate. We decided if this ever happens again, someone is going to get punched in the gut. It never happened again. Sometimes things don’t go your way. And sometimes the news you get feels terrible. Even when it catches you off guard, it’s important not to let it ruin your day. Besides, we would have never enjoyed $3 mimosas if we had gotten the grant.

4. Quit lying to yourself: After undergrad, I applied to many phd programs and was rejected by five different universities. I felt like a total failure and thought my parents would surely throw me in a hole for this: “It gets it’s phd or else it gets the hose.” I should have taken the hint then and there. Instead, a few years later I applied again, this time to four schools and, once again, didn’t get accepted. I took this as a sign; the universe doesn’t want me to go to grad school. Either that, or I’m not as smart as I thought I was (this is the likelier explanation). Rather than seeing this as a failure, take a step back and treat it like a new opportunity. Now I work in for a community organization and my life couldn’t be better! See what I did there? Use strategy 2, positive thinking.

5. Stop taking advice from successful people: As human beings, we’re always trying to emulate other people. When David Beckham drank Pepsi, I wanted to drink Pepsi. When Oprah reads a book, I want to read it too. When Emma Stone used Revlon Colorburst Crayon lipstick on her lips, so did I. And I looked great. But we need to stop asking for advice, and start asking feedback. Taking advice from other “successful” people helps you become more like them. Getting feedback about your failures helps you become more like you. Feedback is important; it allows you to get a different perspective and learn from your mistakes.


To summarize, I remember watching an episode in the last season of Lost. One of the characters, Jacob, is having a philosophical discussion about good and evil with his brother, The Man in Black, who turned out to be a giant smoke monster.

Jacob believes that mankind is good and tries to prove this by leading small groups of people to the Island time and again. The Man in Black however thinks that mankind is bad and has to be punished: “They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.”

Jacob responds, “It only ends once. Everything else that happens is just progress.” That scene really resonates with me. I view success the same way. You only need to succeed once. Everything else – failures, challenge, weaknesses, losing – is just progress.

After getting kicked out of Honors English, I worked my butt off an got put into AP Lit by high school. The rest is history; became the most successful Asian American blogger of our time… You see? More positive thinking!

Winning in life: Our success-driven culture is creating a fear of failure

While in high school I wanted to pursue a career in computer software / programming / engineering. I didn’t really know what the difference was but figured all of those jobs would make me lot of money. I would spend hours tinkering with computers and many more playing games like The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers.

So in twelfth grade I took a class on computer repair. It was a very hands-on class and the teacher regularly challenged us by creating hardware problems that we had to solve. “There’s nail polish on the hard drive! How’d that get in there? Cheeky, Mr. Sanders.”

When the quarter ended, I got back my report card and saw that I received a B. “I think you made a mistake Mr. Sanders. It says here I have a B.”

“Nope, B is correct.”

“I beg your pardon, but I’m a model minority. There’s something wrong with you! Not me. Now gimme my A.” I didn’t actually say that to Mr. Sanders.

When I was a child my parents told me that I could grow up to be anything I wanted: President of the United States, a doctor, a computer scientist, even Batman (presumably because Bruce Wayne was rich, and not because the Dark Knight broke bones to make the world a better place). As I got older, their gentle encouragement became increasingly direct, from “Bruce Wayne was an excellent computer programmer” to “Seriously James, be a programmer.”

There are many pressures to be successful both within the Asian American community and in mainstream society. Sometimes the definition of success is prescribed to us, like “get married,” “buy a house,” “compost once a week,” “have kids,” “win your fantasy football league.” Other times, society’s definition of success doesn’t always align with our own.

“James, mommy spilled nail polish on the hard drive again. Can you help fix it?”

“I already told you mom, I got a B in Mr. Sanders’ class.”

“B!? You’re no son of mine…”

By age 30 I had already committed the holy trinity of Asian fails: work at a non-profit, don’t have children, and told my parents they can’t live with me after they retire (but they can visit anytime they want). For Asian Americans children, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

I bring up these examples because they highlight one of the negative consequences of a success-driven culture: a fear of failure. Our society and culture has become so obsessed with success and winning that anything less seems terrifying. We treat everything like it’s a test. Even the simple act of asking someone how they are doing causes anxiety. “I’m good. No wait….I’m really busy. Actually, things are great. I mean….it’s alright. OMG. Um…can we start over?”

We shouldn’t view success and failure as two mutually exclusive outcomes. If I don’t get an A, then my parents don’t love me. If I didn’t get the job I applied for, then I’m stupid (and need to go back to school). If I don’t drink milk, then I’ll always be 5’6″. When this happens, we begin to feel bad about ourselves, lose confidence and self-esteem, want to quit, or sometimes futilely try and try again.

After undergrad I applied to five PHD programs and didn’t get accepted into any of them—although two did tease me with an interview. A few years later, I tried again and applied to four more. I still didn’t get in. That makes me 0/9. Nine consecutive fails! I felt awful–like the German soccer team had just beaten me 7-1.

But it was probably the best thing that ever happened in my life. Not getting accepted into a phd program gave me the opportunity to take a step back and reassess my goals, priorities, strengths and values. It put my life on a much different, but equally rewarding path. Here are a few other examples of failures I’ve committed.

In each of those examples I committed some sort of fail or mistake, and had a chance to learn from it. We need a new definition of success that doesn’t try to avoid failure, but embraces and learns from it. In order words, we need to become more successful at failing.

I’m not saying success isn’t important. Of course it is! Who wants to end up like Brazil. We should always strive to do our best, work hard and push ourselves to the limits. But at the same time, we shouldn’t treat failure like the end of the world—but rather a new opportunity to move forward.

If I had actually gotten into a phd program, I would probably still be locked up in some university basement without sunlight or nourishment, crunching data and numbers and reading research literature (although I would have made my parents very very proud). I would have never stumbled upon the non-profit sector and found a career that aligns with my passion and skills. Best fail ever! No wait…I’m really busy. Actually, things are great. I mean, it’s alright. Um…can we start over?