Treat All People as People First

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I was recently invited to speak to my Global Leadership Initiative cohort about character and leadership in my personal journey, through the lens of business and entrepreneurship. It was a humbling experience to reflect on key inflection points and lessons learned along my journey thus far, which I share here in 6 parts:

1.Have radically different experiences. Some of my experiences have been given while others chosen.

As a first-generation Chinese American, I was born co-existing between two cultural worlds. I grew up playing classical piano, and music helped me develop a richer sense of emotional awareness and intuitive knowledge both on and off the instrument. I moved schools and school districts quite a few times while shuffling through the public education system in California. As the years passed, my interest in public service and governance also blossomed. In middle school, I recall being drawn to the ambition of becoming a Supreme Court Justice one day. In high school, I was active in government-education student organizations such as Junior State of America, Girls State, and programming with the California State Board of Education.

In part lured by the promise of opportunities to reinvent myself on the East Coast, a place where I knew no one, I attended Harvard University. I chose to study Environmental Science and Public Policy, an interdisciplinary degree that spanned departments—dabbling in entrepreneurship, business, and the global food system. It was during my final two years that I felt something was missing. I was learning new skills and frameworks that enhanced my CV and employability, yet this was not bringing me internal satisfaction or peace. Realizing I needed to dedicate as much energy to internal “self-discovery” as I had to positioning myself for “external success”, I chose to take a “gap” year on the Rockefeller Fellowship. In doing so, I resisted institutional and familial pressure to work right after graduation. I learned to speak Indonesian, volunteered for an indigenous peoples’ NGO, and interned for a UN office aiming to combat deforestation. The process of unearthing unexpected connections across geographies, cultures, disciplines, and experiences has been key for encountering and internalizing lessons on character and leadership.

Here is an excerpt from my final report I wrote a few months after completing the Rockefeller:

“I feel that the Rockefeller has made life harder for me, and will continue to make life harder, simply because I am forced to confront many issues that I had always accepted before. Living life in harmony with what is considered culturally or socially acceptable, by one’s friends and family, was what I had been doing, and it would have been so much easier. But the greatest gift that the Rockefeller has given me is courage, in the sense that I am now more confident in facing inconvenient truths, in the sense that I am now more confident in taking risks and veering off traveled paths to do my own thing—because it seems that doing things my own way has always turned out to be way more than just OK.”

2.Balance open-mindedness with conviction for certain values. “Open-mindedness” is often viewed as a leadership virtue, especially in Western culture. However—as with any virtue—we should strive for balance, nuance, and context-specificity in its practice.

In one of the opening songs of the musical Hamilton, a young Alexander Hamilton enters a bar to eagerly introduce himself to Aaron Burr, whom he admired at the time. Burr says, “Let me offer you some free advice: Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” The song continues with banter among friends, after which Hamilton retorts: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”

That final line deeply resonates with me. There is a lot of character temptation in life in general—how we respond to those temptations fundamentally transforms who we are, how we lead, and ultimately, how we impact the world around us. Particularly in business, dominant ideas about what is “success”, what counts as “leadership”, and what is socially and financially rewarded as “good” work can become vortexes for our souls. If we constantly delay or avoid the hard work of searching for and identifying our deepest values, we are more vulnerable to the whims of the cultural trends and institutional forces around us. As such, we are not only more likely to be part of societal problems rather than solutions, but we undermine our own aspirations for a life of happiness, meaning, and freedom.

3.Cultivate the art of noticing. One way to resist such pressures and to enhance our own agency is by doing the necessary “inner work” that our education systems often fail to teach.

I was lucky to have an opportunity after college to do this through the Rockefeller Fellowship, when many of my peers were beginning their high-pressure, high-prestige, and high-paying jobs that allowed no time or mental space for such deep reflection. As a graduating senior, I was craving a chance to jump off of the hamster wheel to do this. My intuition was telling me that there was something fundamentally “wrong” about all the pressure to climb up a certain “ladder of success”, and I wanted to explore, learn, and read to put this intuition to the test. Although I didn’t have the terminology for it at the time, I began practicing the “art of noticing”—my own body, emotions, and thoughts—as well as people and the environment around me.

I cannot encourage this practice enough. Take a break. Slow down. Read different kinds of theory and philosophy, even if it’s hard at first (as it was for me). Notice when you have a strong emotional or defensive reaction to an idea, and make time to question and explore why that might be. Try to sit in, rather than avoid, uncomfortable situations, and learn to appreciate them. Take time to reflect on what you stand for and why, and do the research and work that you need to figure these things out if you haven’t already. Practice patience, with yourself and others along this journey. The first time, it can be a real act of courage to resist the warnings of peers, colleagues, or family that you are “wasting time” if you are not scrambling up some sort of imagined ladder of life—but if you make the time and space to do it seriously, the personal rewards are incomparably greater than what you are “missing” in that time. For me, the Rockefeller year was an inflection point—the year I learned the most by far of all the ones I’ve been alive thus far (including the years at Harvard and Oxford).

4.Treat all people as people first. Business cultures often reframe the importance of emotionally connecting with one another through other stories and incentives—for example, that certain people are “labor” to profit from, that people are self-interested “consumers” rather than caring “citizens”, or that overworking—and overworking those we manage—is immutably a “good” thing.

Empathy can be incredibly difficult to practice with all people, at all times. We are all guilty of selective empathy at a subconscious, pre-cognitive level. The first step to combating this is by cultivating the art of noticing when we—or others—dismiss certain people’s humanity, or problems, just because they don’t look the same, talk the same, share the same educational experiences, or support the same politicians. Though not always automatically recognized by our minds, we all share common hopes and desires with everyone else—even if they are halfway around the globe. Perceived differences should not lessen the humanity we afford one another.

5.Actively seek to understand the power of stories. It can be difficult to discern and question the powerful stories that subconsciously inform our worldviews and actions.

In today’s world, businesses and entrepreneurs have enormous influence in maintaining, dismantling, shaping, and creating the stories that travel into our hearts and minds. Many of them view growth as inevitable and linked to ideas of progress. Some strive for a “triple-bottom-line,” unaware that such framings encourage businesses to do more good, but not necessarily less harm. Other stories idealize equality and generative ways of “living with” rather than seeking to extract from or “manage” “nature.” There is an ethical responsibility in the crafting and sharing of stories by business leaders, and it is time that we take that responsibility seriously.

6.Consider entrepreneurship not as a job, or career, but a way of life. Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be (only) about starting a business. It can also be about finding creative ways to shape new opportunities. Most of the world outside of the formal economy already participates in such activities—for example, through community organizing, freelancing, domestic work, volunteering, and more.

Social and cultural inertias often lead us to make certain choices or believe in certain stories. An entrepreneurial mindset can enable us to resist these forces, or to create different kinds of momentum for ourselves and the world in liberating ways.

Currently, I am trying to do my part in catalyzing systemic change while also becoming the person I want to be—of which work will only be one part. I recently founded Lively Worlds, a social enterprise that helps businesses, organizations, and leaders to skillfully and ethically navigate the intractable problems of our time. Through Lively Worlds, I hope to take many others through a similar journey that I have been through, by translating and communicating uncommon perspectives from the critical social sciences to help leaders broaden their sense of “the possible.”