This is How We Rise: Reach Your Highest Potential, Empower Women, Lead Change in the World
I believe our world is not operating at its full potential because human beings are not operating at theirs. I wrote this book to provide you with a new perspective of your life and what it might mean for the world. It is a call-to-arms for every woman and man to rise to a new definition of leadership and create change in the world. It is important to read the book in chronological sequence, starting with the Introduction, which sets the context for the rest of the chapters.
Please also note that I wrote this book based on my personal journey, which has taught me that creating social change is weak without leadership development. Leadership development is weak without personal growth. Personal growth is weak without spiritual growth. I have learned that humanity needs a far greater motivation that transcends our limited, precious time on earth to truly contribute our best while we are here. In the last year of writing this book, during which I’ve experienced both the death and loss of father and the birth of my second child and daughter, this has become more apparent than ever. The diagram on the next page illustrates the life journey that each of us must go on in order to fulfill our highest destiny.
Therefore, I will be alluding to a higher power throughout the book as the source that powers our existence and the existence of humanity. Because my higher power and ultimate source is God, I often refer to God. But because every person has their own beliefs and stance on spirituality, please replace God with whatever you define as your life source—some popular ones I have heard include spirit, the universe, destiny, consciousness, and nature.
I also want to call attention to the fact that our modern understanding of gender is radically different from that of previous generations. We no longer view gender as a biological reality but instead as a social construct. More important, not everyone identifies with the binary categories of female and male, which is why a multitude of sexual identities have been embraced under the umbrella of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, asexual).
Additionally, as someone who identifies as a heterosexual woman and has a partner who identifies as a heterosexual man, most of the examples in this book look at intimate relationships through that lens. I chose to use these examples not to exclude other identities and experiences, but simply to stay true to my own lived experiences. Feel free to reimagine these scenarios to fit your specific set of circumstances.
I stood in the ladies’ room of our West Soho office and tried to catch my breath. It was 2009, the market had tanked, and my business was beginning to follow suit. I had just come out of another frustrating executive meeting with my business partner, Chris, where we spent several hours finger pointing and arguing childishly to the point where I lost track of what we were even talking about. I’m sure our voices reverberated through the sterile, white-walled office; the rest of our team likely heard it and probably thought, There they go again. The ladies’ room was the only place I could escape to, so I washed my hands and threw water on my face. But the person I saw in the mirror was nearly unrecognizable. My constant negativity about work was infecting everyone in my personal life and wearing down my soul. When I looked in the mirror I felt disappointed with the person staring back at me. I don’t like you, I thought. I don’t like who you’ve become. That was the moment when I knew something in my life had to change, and it sent me on a journey of personal learning and leadership development that has completely altered the trajectory of my life. Deep inside I also knew that I had to embark on this radical change for a greater purpose that could help other people. I didn’t know what that purpose was yet, but when I did realize it, I felt like I finally began to live the life I was meant to. Let me explain.
WE’VE HAD IT BACKWARD
Most of us go through life in a rather reactionary manner. In the beginning of our lives childhood circumstances and parents shape our perceptions of success and failure. As we get older, additional factors like school, friends, bullies, media, wins, losses, and other events influence the development of our beliefs—our core belief systems as well as what we believe about ourselves. And these beliefs influence who we become: the choices we make, the careers we pursue, the relationships we invest in, and the quality of self-worth we nurture. We journey through life thinking we know who we are based on these beliefs.
The problem with this reactionary journey is that we are living in a constant state of lack or negativity characterized by one—or more than one—of these:
A when/then mindset: “When X happens, then I will be happy.”
Self-doubt: “What if I can’t do this or I am not good enough?”
Self-consciousness: “What will others think about me?”
Comparison: “They have it better than me.”
Scarcity: “I have limited money, time, peace, joy, stuff.”
Overwhelmed: “I have too much pressure and responsibility.”
Guilt: “I should have been better at X or done more for Y.”
In this reactionary model we never obtain a consistent, unwavering sense of personal worth and peace. After investing fifteen years in various kinds of personal work, leadership development, and spiritual growth, I have come to learn that we never get to this permanent state of fulfillment when we live our lives guided by serving ourselves first before anyone or anything else. We go about every day centered in the self. A more straightforward way to say this is that our natural human tendency is a “me over we” mindset rooted in the ego that subconsciously traps us in a self-obsessed way of living. Think about it: if life were a theatrical stage and the spotlight was always on you, everything attached to your sense of self-worth—like money, appearance, popularity, job title, accolades, love from or being seen by others, what others think about you, and so forth—becomes your subconscious idol and obsession. In this way of living you will always be concerned with what other people think.
“Our natural human tendency is a ‘me over we’ mindset rooted in the ego that subconsciously traps us in a self-obsessed way of living.”
My own wake-up call didn’t come until I was thirty-five years old, when I finally made the change to the “me for we” mindset and made a commitment to serve something bigger than myself. Prior to that, I lived in a reactionary, self-centric manner because I was naturally shaped by the circumstances I had been born into. My parents embody the classic immigrant story: they came to America with next to nothing in the 1960s after surviving the war in China and growing up in Taiwan. They scrimped, saved, and worked themselves to the bone to provide the best quality of life and education for my brother and me. They succeeded in giving us the opportunities they didn’t have. They became the owners of several successful Chinese restaurants, which afforded us a very comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. The struggles they overcame and the success they created with limited education and broken English humble me every time I think about it. And though I am forever grateful for and immensely respectful of my parents for their provisions, this upbringing ingrained in me somewhat of a survival mode and scarcity mentality that naturally valued self-centric securities like making enough money to have a good life and dressing the part to be accepted by the white, upper-class networks. Because my parents had been discriminated against as Chinese immigrants, this is what my brother and I needed to do in order to “make it in America,” and looking back they were not wrong.
Fast forward to ages twenty-five to thirty-five, when I found myself at the pinnacle of this dream: president of Shecky’s, a women’s entertainment company that I had spent the last ten years building into a multi-million-dollar business. It was the era of Sex and the City. Chick lit and chick flicks were all the rage. In the wake of the dot-com crash and 9/11, which still had New York City reeling, people retreated into a world of frivolous, cheap thrills. For women it was all about living fabulously—meeting Mr. Big, wearing Jimmy Choos, and jet-setting around the world in style. Shecky’s capitalized on this trend by launching Girls Night Out, ticketed events where women could discover new fashion brands and beauty products all while sipping cosmos with their girlfriends. Thousands of women showed up to our first couple of events and waited in long lines that wrapped around city blocks. At the company’s height we were running eighty event days a year across fifteen cities with 150,000 annual attendees.
Shecky’s was a huge success. On paper I was the ultimate success story, the triumphant child of hard-working immigrants. I had money, public esteem as the female face of Shecky’s, and the material accoutrements that come with living the glamourous life, yet I was the living embodiment of exactly the kind of self-centric mentality I’ve talked about. I was so caught up in achieving a superficial image of success measured by the savings in my bank account, the brand names I dressed in, and the VIP forums I was invited to—I thought this meant “I made it.”
Yet even with all these things, I wasn’t happy. Throughout my ten years at Shecky’s I co-led the business with a partner whom I never fully agreed with when it came to our business’s vision and culture. Our business soared in the early years because we were at the right place at the right time, but toward my later years at the company our arguments became more public, our innovations more stagnant, and our incompatibilities more detrimental to the business and culture. My worth was so tied to the business that my fear of losing everything I had worked to accomplish—reputation, social status, financial stability—overwhelmed me. It became all about me and my fears as opposed to worrying about something more meaningful and purposeful. As the business declined, so did my integrity. I found myself always putting Chris down, placing all the blame on him, and propping myself on a pedestal in defense of his attacks on me. Then in the summer of 2010 I hit rock bottom. I was on the phone with him, having the same argument we’d had a hundred times before, but this one did me in. I felt completely depleted, desperate, and miserable with negativity and exhaustion. Reaching this low point was the trigger that sent me out into the world searching for more meaning and kicked off what has now been a seven-year journey of spiritual discovery, personal growth, leadership development, and social impact.
The deep unhappiness and misery I felt led me down a path where I would discover one of my life’s greatest ahas: our natural, “self-centric” way of living as human beings is totally backward, and it is only when we lead a life guided by something so much bigger than ourselves that greater peace, satisfaction, sufficiency, and self-love start to become more permanent feelings. Instead of a “me over we” mindset, we must learn to cultivate a “me for we” mindset that conveys our existence in the context and support of the greater society and planet. When we focus on serving and contributing to something much bigger than just me, myself, and I—our innate habits of self-judgment, comparison with others, caring about what others think, and when/then mentality start to disappear, and life can become more relaxed and fulfilling. If we can replace our own self-centric goals on our life’s grand stage with a greater purpose that impacts a larger part of humanity, then all the worth we spend our lives trying to validate actually starts to become a reality in the most miraculous way. I will explain this more in upcoming chapters; be patient with me.
Now if you’ve done the work of personal growth, therapy, or coaching, the idea of serving others before serving yourself may sound ludicrous. We’ve been taught that we need to put ourselves and our self-care first in order to bring our best selves to our careers, families, and causes. I believe and preach this message too. But there is a difference between self-love and being self-centric. Self-love is keeping your bucket replenished and full so you can bring your most fit self to the external realms of your life like family, workplace, community, and neighbors. It is optimizing the health of your physical, mental, and financial state so you can best serve your life’s purpose. Conversely, being self-centric is investing in all of these areas but for the sole purpose of serving yourself. Self-centric people mainly put themselves front and center on their own stage and spend their lives consumed in establishing their image, as defined by the societal clichés of making more money, being more popular, having more social media likes, wearing the right brands, living in the fancier house, and so on. In reality, the more we chase these superficial things, the further away we get from having sufficiency and peace. The satisfaction that comes from gaining the material is always temporary.
VIEW YOUR LIFE FROM AN OUTSIDE-IN PERSPECTIVE
The self-centric and “me over we” mindset is a result of an inside-out view of life where we see the world and understand its events entirely from our personal perspective. Our opinions are formed based on our personal experiences, characteristics, and belief systems and no one else’s. It is no surprise that we human beings get absorbed in our small perspectives because we go about every day forgetting that our human existence and the planet we reside on were created by a higher power that no human can ever fully understand. As I mentioned in the Author’s Note, I refer to this higher power as God. Whether or not you are a believer of God or spirituality, please replace my mentions of God with a word that best describes your life source as you read this book, whether that’s the universe, destiny, nature, karma, or another force.
Now allow me to stretch your perspectives and replace your inside-out view of life with an outside-in lens. Envision seeing your life from the viewpoint of this larger force: looking down on this planet and seeing yourself as one of the 7.3 billion people that were created to inhabit, share, and nurture the earth for your limited time here. Can you imagine that before you were even born, God or the universe had a vision for the greatest version of your life? That you were born with the birthright to be extraordinary and that your time and presence on earth would mean extraordinary achievements beyond your wildest dreams? That you would move mountains, leave a dent on the universe, and even change the world in a very specific way? And that the key to this success would be discovering not your purpose for yourself but the big-picture purpose for you beyond your day-to-day life?
“Every gene, every naturalborn skill, every positive and negative experience, every relationship, every thought and feeling in your life has happened for you, not to you, to bring you closer to this purpose.”
So that your purpose will be fulfilled, two people came together to conceive and create you and give you the genetics you have. Every gene, every natural-born skill, every positive and negative experience, every relationship, every thought and feeling in your life has happened for you, not to you, to bring you closer to this purpose. Imagine if this source of power was watching your every move and listening to your every thought, sending you clues or signs in the form of visions, gut feelings, literature, people, and circumstances to see if you would take the bait to draw you to see this greater purpose. Sometimes challenges are thrown your way not to stop you but to direct you, protect you, or mature you in order to prepare you for your tremendous destiny and to build your integrity, strength, intellect, and character. For example, when conflict arises it is human nature to understand it solely from our personal perspective and to react with frustration, defensiveness, or disappointment. But if we see it from the outside-in perspective (what are the circumstances of the person that is upsetting me or what might this challenge be trying to tell me?), then we give that conflict more compassion and flexibility. If you think about it, the two most profound life experiences are birth and death. We start off as crying babies who are completely dependent on others and lack maturity and wisdom. It is our human journey to continually grow, learn, and develop throughout every life stage until we reach the end of life.
Having an outside-in lens on life shifts how we see ourselves, putting our individual identity in the context of the whole world so we can then be more considerate and conscious of what our being means for the whole world. If you can believe that you were created for a specific contribution to this world, then you’re able to start thinking of your dreams, goals, actions, careers, and choices with not a self-centric mindset but a purpose-centric one. You shift away from your natural-born “me over we” instinct to a “me for we” one, and it is this way of living that provides the greatest form of fulfillment and self-worthiness that you can ever have. Just think of how good you feel when one person or a larger group of people tells you how profoundly you have helped them. There is zero insecurity, judgment, or lack in that feeling because it wasn’t about you; it was about the other person or people you made a difference for. Instead, that feeling comes with abundance, power, sufficiency, worthiness, and pride—and you can have a life filled with these everlasting securities if you switch to a “me for we” mindset. The greatest lesson of my life was when I realized that only the purpose-centric path can lift us to that massive potential.
In fact, I believe the problems we face in today’s world culture (violence, economic instability, terrorism, discrimination, sexism, poverty, divisive politics) exist as a result of people acting out of a self-centric, “me over we” mentality. I love using an organization as an example to convey this point. Imagine the planet is an organization. In order for the organization to thrive, it is the individuals, not the entity, who determine its success. These individuals who make up the organization must show up and put in the effort that ultimately enables the whole entity to thrive, and the better they are at doing this, the more each individual thrives inside of the organization. The more individuals thrive, the more their personal families and local communities thrive. Thus, everyone’s success is a result of the quality of everyone’s contribution to the whole organization. Similarly, if the entity functions poorly, then leadership at all levels is weak and morale is low. We need individuals at all levels, from the most junior to senior, caring and working to solve problems.
BEGIN WITH A “ME FOR WE” MINDSET
My true transformation began in 2010 when I started to learn about the “me for we” path driven by purpose and contribution to the greater good. But what would my purpose be? All of my discoveries pointed toward the global need for women’s equality and empowerment:
Leadership and business conferences I attended lacked women on stage and in the audience.
Women’s mentorship programs I attended limited their agendas to topics of work-life balance and networking.
The women’s forums that I did see focused on innovation, disruption, leadership, and gender equality and were either too elite and expensive for the average woman or too siloed and scattered to reflect the more mainstream set of modern women I fell into (too pink, too old-school women-in-suits, too feminist, too industry or topic specific).
Mainstream female publications and outlets focused primarily on what makes women look good superficially (fashion, beauty, trendy places to shop and party), not on the substance that actually makes up women.
I had attended all-girls schools growing up as well as Smith College, so the feminist within me reawakened as I immersed myself in everything I could about the state of women. Reading Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, in 2010 opened my eyes to the devastating global oppression of women and girls, especially those in the developing world, and how they have been subjugated, enslaved, and killed for the simple fact of being female. The authors argue that if the abolition of slavery was the defining movement of the nineteenth century and the defeat of totalitarianism the struggle of the twentieth, then ending the oppression of women and girls globally is the fight that will define this century.
Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech at Barnard’s Class of 2011 sobered me to the stalling statistics of women’s status:
But the promise of equality is not equality. As we sit here looking at this magnificent blue-robed class, we have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world. Of 190 heads of state, 9 are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13 percent of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs, 15 percent are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only 24 percent are women.1
So I left my role at leading a women’s entertainment company to build a women’s empowerment company, S.H.E. Globl Media, which officially launched in 2012. Today it is a leadership organization devoted to inspiring a new generation of thriving change agents. Through an annual experience of connection, education, and activation, we develop and empower female and male leaders to rise to their highest potential and lift others in the process so that gender equality is accelerated and achieved by 2030.
“I deeply asked myself, “‘What do I want in and for my life?’”
At the heart of my work today is taking individuals on a leadership growth journey, the same one I put myself through when I left Shecky’s. First of all, I deeply asked myself, “What do I want in and for my life?” By this point I was already committed to getting it and most importantly, believed in myself that I could get it no matter what. So when I defined what I wanted, I realized that the “what” required a purpose, service, or positive impact greater than me. This, obviously, became empowering women, but empowerment in the very specific way that I had experienced it and with my professional knowledge of how to create and market event programming for women. Then I got brutally honest with myself about the internal and external factors, people, and habits that didn’t serve this greater vision, and I took action to remove, distance myself, or forgive them. I invested my time in reading, coaching, conferences, yoga, and meditation as well as in a faith practice and attending church on Sundays. All of this strengthened my natural instincts to discern which lessons to keep and which to discard. Through these actions I developed a value system to live by and a mission statement to guide me; these continue to evolve and form as I continue to grow as a leader. I promised myself to always stretch instead of settle and choose courage over comfort because the glass ceiling is thicker in our minds than it is in the outside world. I journaled incessantly as a tool to manage my mind and better empower myself.
The life I’m leading today is so much different from the one I led seven years ago. The incredible transformation I have gone through has brought me the greatest joy, confidence, empowerment, freedom, and abundance that I have ever known. But that doesn’t mean things are easy for me now or that this kind of transformation happens overnight. Consciousness is only the first step. I struggled—and still struggle—with many of the negative feelings, self-imposed limitations, and self-centric habits that we’re going to tackle in this book. I write this book far from being the perfect model at living this way but instead as a handbook on life and leadership for myself and for all of you. I’m here on the journey with you so that together we can help each other get better at this thing called life.
STOP LIVING YOUR LIFE IN THE WORLD; START LEADING YOUR LIFE FOR THE WORLD
This is a call to every single living person with basic means to step up their actions and improve the shared society we live and raise our families in. We must stop living our lives in the world (me over we) and instead lead our lives for the world (me for we). Otherwise, problems will continue to catch up with us like they already are. If we don’t learn how to do this, we will continue to live in a lose-lose scenario where neither the external society nor the individual person can ever realize their fullest potential. We will never rise to the extraordinary purpose and glory that God (or your higher power) has destined for us.
People sometimes ask, “If there really is a God, why doesn’t God simply put an end to conflict, suffering, violence, hunger, or poverty?” Well, guess what? I believe that God created a solution called people to do that. It’s so easy for our self-centric, reactive, inside-out thinking minds to sit on the sidelines moaning about the issues, expecting others with powerful titles to improve our situations when we actually are and have the power. If we all saw the issues through an outside-in lens and operated from a “me for we” mindset, perhaps we would see that we are on this earth for a short period of time to use our extraordinary power to fix issues that we were created to fix (remember that you were created with a unique set of skills, experiences, blessings, and problems for specific reasons).
This book is a wake-up call to inform you that you are the leader you’ve been waiting for. The chapters that follow are divided into three parts. Part 1 focuses on how we got here and why we need people like you to lead. Leadership is not just politicians and CEOs; it’s ordinary people seeing a problem they can help solve and doing something about it by becoming an agent for change. We’ll discuss how personal issues become political issues and vice versa, why what happens everywhere else in the world affects and matters to you, and what the current state of feminism and masculinity looks like today. We also look at how empowering women and embracing feminine traits can help bring positive change and improve the world by orders of magnitude. And most importantly, we define the macro-movement, the collection of causes, campaigns, and organizations that are each contributing to the greater good.