Advice for Asian American Young Professionals

I wrote this blog for someone specific. I recently met Joyce Xi. A brand-new Ivy League graduate, she is working with a civil rights group in San Francisco to bring attention to the racial profiling of Asian Americans. Although she majored in chemistry, she has a personal reason for her interest. She is the daughter of Xiaoxing Xi, a leading physicist, who was accused of passing secret technology to mainland China. Their family is representative of Asian Americans: the elders moved here; the children were born here; all are citizens, whether by naturalization or birthright. The federal government pressed spectacular claims against Dr. Xi, but then dropped all charges -- not before coming close to ruining the scholar's life in a case that looks to be part of a pattern. His daughter and I talked about how difficult it was to organize Asian Americans and to build bridges to others facing similar issues who might be skeptical of the commonality of concerns. Asian immigrants in general do not agitate; they want to do their jobs well in the confidence that that is what it takes to achieve the American Dream. They do not expect that federal agents will arrest them and take them away, with no probable cause for suspicion other than speculation about ethnic affinities with a rival power.

Here is what I told Joyce.

At the Committee of 100 conference this past weekend in Los Angeles, I was asked to offer advice to young Asian Americans. I have always backed independent thinking. Here is what I have to say about professional success: it's about much more than technical skill. Develop the "soft" skills, the "people" skills, emotional intelligence. Assuming you already are good at standardized tests and other academic performance, and putting in more hours than your peers, you will realize it is much more challenging to improve your other capabilities than you suppose. It's easy to scoff at networking, but try it -- sauntering up to a stranger to chit chat is, for most people, a test of their sociability.

So I am not misunderstood, I am not suggesting that substantive competence is of no account or that its lack can be offset by the ability to work a room. On the contrary, expertise -- more accurately, an ability to apply it -- is crucial. My argument is that it is necessary but not sufficient. Ability and diligence are the baseline, pre-requisites. It's "both-and" rather than "either-or:" blend technical skill and "soft" skills, if you wish to be promoted. If you are all substance but too rough on the surface to meet a client much less bring in a new one, you will be relegated to the backroom; if you are all flash and no merit, you will be shown the door. I would guess for most -- not all, but most -- Asian Americans, the former is more likely than the latter.

Here is my counsel in concrete terms. For those who are still in school, my guidance is play a team sport, run for student government, audition for a theatrical role, join the debate team, tutor local kids, usher at church, and so on. Literally being a team player is the best means to become a "team player." Leading is the best means to lead. Performing in a play changes your personality.

Chief Executive Officers have done that. Maybe not all of it all at once. And probably not as the star of the team or the play, possibly as the president of the student body. They rounded out their personal portfolio in that manner. They were an engineer who could give a speech. That's how they became a candidate for CEO.

Asian American parents traditionally discourage what I encourage. They urge their progeny to "hit the books." They are not enthusiastic about what they regard as frivolous. That is why I feel compelled to counter their attitude. Their strategy is not effective. Or it is, unless and until the crisis that calls for standing up and speaking out. Even before then, Asian Americans bump up against that glass ceiling. Stanford has started an executive development program directed to Asian Americans. Its founder saw a need.

There are those who recommend that you do one thing well. I do not disagree. It's a great goal, not at all to be scoffed at. If you do one thing well, people will continue to hire you to do that one thing. There is nothing wrong with that. It's a respectable course to follow. You end up at the top of a specialty. But if you do one thing well and then add a couple of other things that you do competently and consistently, you will surpass those who with deliberately limited their potential. It's a different path.

I look at the people invited to join Committee of 100, of which I was elected Chair. It is a non-profit membership group of Chinese Americans who have achieved the highest level of prominence in their respective fields, dedicated to promoting good US-China relations and the civic engagement of Asian Americans. A surprising number of these individuals, each of whom is extraordinary, were not the valedictorian. Some were. Many were not. None is a slouch, but their talent has proven itself by various modes.

When Joyce and I met for dim sum (Chinese brunch with little plates) to chat about these issues, I said that it is above commendable that Asian immigrants have become so dominant in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. But I wonder if they -- and society -- might benefit from some scientists who know public policy and some policy-makers who know science. A community of only scientists and no advocates, or vice versa, has walled itself off from the fullness of the human experience. Alongside scientists and policy-makers, there could and should be a range of people who break out of the bounds of these categories.

There is a caution though. I have met more than one ambitious Asian American who inquires about the value of extracurricular activities with an ulterior motive. They are earnest, but they are mistaken. They explain that they believe they will be more competitive as an applicant to an elite school, if their resume shows that they volunteered for a charity. That is a bad idea.

The problem with their supposition is that other people are not naive. The exertion needed to compile a record that will be impressive exceeds what anyone is likely to put in, in the absence of genuine commitment. Even if they do not worry about principle, I tell people to volunteer out of intrinsic interest and not an instrumental agenda. If you care about helping the disabled or elderly, that is commendable. But if you help the disabled or elderly primarily expecting to be commended, you do not deserve be commended.

The flip side is that if you are not eager to network, then maybe remaining an engineer is preferable. We often don't want what we believe we want. A CEO networks. It's part of the job. Look at people who have achieved your aspiration. If you don't want to do what they do, then you don't actually want to grow up to be them.

There is a germ of truth to some stereotypes. Asian Americans are portrayed as super-nerds, more comfortable with numbers than with human beings. We are not assertive, or too assertive; shy or diffident; insular and isolated; and so on. That is a caricature. But Asian Americans also have internalized the image. They have cultural traditions that might explain some of the negative generalizations.

I do not discount the threat of racial discrimination, shameless and subtle. That is a real risk. The problem is not altogether outside the control of Asian Americans. Collective action and individual responses can be a preventative and a remedy.

That is why I am sharing my advice for Asian Americans in particular. They appear especially vulnerable to the error of relying exclusively on technical skill. I would be pleased if others also used what I have to say. No doubt others, too, have been dissuaded from what would benefit them.

Asian Americans can do better. It is in our own interest to do so. I suspect Joyce, for example, would have pursued her own direction, even if her family had not endured humiliation. She took time off from her studies, before her father became a target. She had been uncomfortable, coming from a small-town public school background, when she encountered the privilege of her peers, those who went to elite prep schools, Asians among them, so she journeyed to post-apartheid South Africa. She has the makings of an activist. She is finding her voice.

The more I mature, the more I am convinced. Make yourself a complete human being. Address weaknesses, real and perceived. Want to do well for yourself? Do good for others.