Advice for "Next Gen" Asian Americans on How to Break Through the "Glass Ceiling"

Frank Wu

Originally published by Frank Wu on LinkedIn: Advice for "Next Gen" Asian Americans on How to Break Through the "Glass Ceiling"

Next week in San Francisco, I will be moderating a panel at a conference for Asian Americans (and others) striving to break through the "glass ceiling." I am honored that young Asian Americans ask me for advice. They suppose I am successful. I have to admit, when I was their age I was not eager to receive advice. Then again, I had no role models either: virtually every place I went, especially when I was selected for a leadership role, I was the first person who looked like me to be in such an exalted position. I won’t quarrel with the “next gen” folks who regard me as old. Once you start to say, “when I was your age,” that signals you are not young. 

I have been lucky. But I believe my favorite quote: "Chance favors the prepared." It’s impossible for any of us to replicate the series of events that produced a positive outcome, but at least we can hope to avoid the opposite series of events that led to a negative outcome.

The most important statement I can make to any who would aspire to a similar course, however, is about humility. I have been able to do what I have done, only by being humble about my own talent. My message is: if I can do it, you can do it. All of my skills are learned, and I am dedicated to improvement. This new iteration of me is better than the junior lawyer of half a lifetime ago. No doubt the next version of me will recognize character flaws invisible now (but already apparent to those around me!).

That’s my point. I have emphasized my weaknesses. If I had followed convention, I would have been an engineer or scientist. My standardized test scores would not have counseled making a living with words. But I have been an author, teacher, lawyer, and media commentator.

And I have made mistakes — many mistakes. More than once, I have been the youngest person to hold the job I have had. People would ask how I made it so early. The answer is I make mistakes quickly. I’m not better. I’m faster in erring.

Yet I have been compelled to bounce back. We underestimate some traits that turn out to be much more significant than obvious expertise. Among them are the ability to adapt and remain resilient. I would not be useful in the world if I had stayed still or been crushed by setbacks.

To do so, I have had to be more confident than I deserve to be. I set out to change the world. 

In concrete terms, here are practices I have cultivated. Saying hello, making eye contact, working a room. Most people are loathe to show up someplace where they know nobody. Once you have forced yourself to do it, you develop the knack for introducing yourself. If you refuse, you likely will not advance for the simple reason that you will have met far fewer people.

Proceeding from there, you have to start showing up more places — unusual, out of reach places, even those you might perceive as hostile. 

After that, it’s all about following up. For years, until the numbers exceeded what I could handle, I sent a handwritten card to everyone with whom I had had meaningful contact. Since hardly anybody bothers to write and send hardcopy mail, that invariably made an impression.

What was said to me by a distinguished lawyer who recently passed away, a bit of wisdom that I have heard from others who serve as advocates, was invaluable for my particular profession — it has led from volunteering to being paid handsomely: whenever someone asks you to give a speech, say yes. It doesn’t matter if it’s your mother’s garden club. 

My sense from those to whom I repeat that suggestion is that it is more difficult to acquire the attitude “I could give a speech” than the aptitude on, say, raising roses. Most people fear public speaking more than death. That doesn’t mean we can or should fake it, that substance doesn’t matter. It always does. My point is that substance by itself isn’t enough. 

It’s secret knowledge if it remains locked in your own head. The world benefits not at all. You can read up on how to raise roses. You can try your hand at it. Then give a speech. Show others.

Added up, that transformed me into an organizer. I am the person who puts together the group for dinner at a conference. It doesn’t seem like much. But it is unusual to take initiative.

I also am a contrarian. I have taken my own path, without regrets. That might be what unites everything else I have described. If I could travel back in time to speak to myself, I would urge not less but more risk taking, much more. I never really had much of a mentor, though some colleagues guided me. I have had to figure it out for myself.

In the spirit of cultivating controversy, I will add that being Asian American has helped though not as might be imagined — an Asian American network has not been a boon even after it came into existence (a problem to be addressed another day). I have benefited from favorable stereotyping, the assumption I have innate abilities in technical areas I am ignorant of. But — and here is what others might disagree with, including me at the moment of the humiliations — being bullied might well have made me not only stronger but also more sympathetic to strangers.

I have realized that Asian Americans are held back by factors external and internal. We overestimate the value of being smart and underestimate the necessity of "people skills." I see it in others, because I have seen it in myself.

The external factors include egregious discrimination and implicit bias, from rejection on the basis of race to the subtle signals of “where are you really from?” to “my, your English is so good.” 

The internal factors should be easier to address, but ironically might be harder. They are about our deference to authority, fidelity to tradition, and, in sum, our conformity to stereotypes.

My closing comment might seem the opposite of my opening observation about the importance of humility. Asian Americans, many of them — not all, since I am deliberately generalizing mindful of the risks, and trends have changed — are too humble. They have been trained to be reserved and self-effacing. The consequence is that they are easy to take advantage of. It is no wonder they populate, disproportionately, the ranks below management.

The balance is not easy to strike; balance never is. Asian Americans who behave the same as their non-Asian peers will not consistently draw the same response. When we diverge from expectations, the surprise is like other surprises; it can be pleasant or not. Our ambition can appear excessive relative to the social station we would be assigned.

For what it is worth, that is what I share with Asian Americans coming up in their careers. I am sure I will be exceeded soon enough, in every endeavor for which I have been admired.

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