Category Archives: Growth

My Five-Year Zig Zag Journey

A month ago, I gave up my summer internship team in the Bay Area and decided to join a completely different team in Seattle. It was not an easy decision to make, as both roles equally have their merits. Even though I was only given a couple of days to decide, I did so much thinking that left me reflecting for days. What’s more, Facebook’s “On This Day” feature reminded me that I went through a similar process five years ago – staying in Minnesota headquarters versus moving to a regional office in Houston. As Steve Jobs once said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”, this blog post is my attempt to connect the dots and uncover some learnings professionally and personally.

On Making Decisions

As we progress more in career and life, the decisions we are faced with are no longer easy, especially when you are open to possibilities. As I’ve learned over the years, what makes the decisions so challenging is that it is quite rare to find a winner that checks all the boxes. For example, if I prefer the sunshine in California, I have to pay for the high rent; if I decide to continue working in the US, I might be faced with the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents me from going far in my career.

 It was when deciding which role to take for my first job out of MBA that I truly understood I couldn’t have it all. When I got off the phone with HR about my options, I jumped into making a list of criteria. I first came up with four criteria, but got too greedy and expanded the list to eight. When I was trying to tally up the scores for these eight criteria, it dawned on me that not all eight mattered as much and I was micromanaging. Thus, I refocused and narrowed down the list to three that matter the most to me at this point in my career. 

After telling HR about my decision, I did not have much “buyer’s remorse” compared to my state of being after saying “yes” to Houston five years ago. You can say that I have become more comfortable owning my decision and all the associated consequences. When I was working in Houston, there were times when I wish I stayed put in Minnesota. After a few struggles, I realized that you could never use what you know now to judge the right or wrong of the decision made back then. The best decision is based on what we know at the time, not what we have learned after certain events happen. The unpredictability of life is what makes it so exciting.

On Taking Calculated Risks

Taking risks stretches me, tests my resilience, and allows me to see the possibilities beyond what I had experienced before. Thanks to the move to Houston, I’ve came to see that I learn very fast, enjoy working with people from diverse background, and can hustle. In addition to the professional gains, I found out about what mattered to me the most when picking a city to live in the long term – weather, nature, and diverse community (more on that in “Houston Impression”). Had I stayed in Minnesota, I would have grown content with where I was.

As I am risk-averse, I like to take on calculated risks. I usually have two criteria in terms of judging risks: (1) does the gains in general outweigh the losses; (2) do I have a good exit if the plan was to go south. I’ve learned through my move to Houston that though the change puts me out of the comfort zone, it definitely came at the expenses of losing all the personal and professional network I’ve built for six years and investing time to start all over. Due to this experience, as I later contemplated about a big promotion opportunity in Ecolab China, I turned it down because the move was too costly (not in $ terms) and a lot of uncertainty existed for the job prospect. In addition, before embarking on something brand new, I make sure I have a solution to hedge the risks. Getting my MBA was my hedge against moving to Houston, as I always had plans for the degree but not sure when to go and what to focus on. When picking internship office last summer, knowing most full-timers will end up in Seattle was my hedge to work on a product I was passionate about in a smaller office.

I am not saying what I do is the perfect way. However, taking calculated risks works well for me and you need to find a solution that you are most comfortable with. I am a big proponent of the YOLO philosophy. If you find yourself keep wondering “What if I took that job?”, “What if I went to graduate school?” etc, it is time that you take actions to minimize your regret. If quitting a job to pursue the dream of writing is too bold for you, taking on a blogging gig on the side can be a good first step towards that goal with the stability of a regular paycheck.

On Bouncing Back

I was catching up with a friend who was going through a similar struggle of taking risks. She was happy for me that I was doing well and was a lot closer towards my goal. She told me learning a change turned out amazing for me was exactly what she needed. Then I shared with her that not everything was smooth sailing and I definitely had my share of struggles.

During my first year in Houston, I worked a lot with the “hope” of being promoted early on. However, that “hope” was never communicated to my manager and I found out later on that the team had a different plan for me. When I learned about the team’s expectation, I more than once broke down in tears in front of my manager and my manager’s manager (I know it was not professional but it was hard to control my emotions), only to come home to my roommate and cried even more.

During my second year in Houston, I took on the responsibilities of an interim finance manager of the same team, worked even longer hours, and started applying to business school. At the time, I was quite pessimistic with my career prospect in the company that I saw MBA as my only exit. Thus, I was devasted when I was not accepted by any of the programs I applied to, although looking back now I know my applications were not that admission ready. I was seeking a stamp of approval through MBA acceptance to show that I was smart and competent, as I was not able to get it through a promotion the year before. The admission rejections ended up a bigger strike. I felt I was at rock bottom. With some encouragement and mentoring, I picked myself back up and started looking for other roles internally. I turned down an internal transfer to the Shanghai office, networked and found a business operation role that I always felt would be perfect for me.

During my third year in Houston, I was a lot happier than the first two years as I loved my new role. As a result, I built more confidence that I knew really well my strengths and passion (covered in this post). I attended a local hackathon, which piqued my interest in tech and product management. I researched and decided that business school was still the best way to switch careers. Thus, I applied to business schools again and this time was waitlisted at two top programs at first. I hustled a lot to win over the admission by retaking my GMAT, visiting the campus again to meet with admission, and having alums write letters of recommendation for me. Eventually, I got off the waitlists of both programs and happily picked Michigan Ross. The rest is history.

I shared these detailed account of my past three years because I want to let you know that taking risks definitely comes with expenses. However, these experiences have a profound impact on my journey, as I’ve built resilience, knew what I wanted to get out of my MBA experience, and had a clearer idea of what my priorities are professionally and personally. These are things I will never be able to gain as much, had I stayed in Minnesota or not applied for an MBA program. I’ve also developed a sense of serendipity that things turn out the way they are for a reason. Had I gotten into an MBA program the first year I applied, I would not have ended up at Michigan Ross nor would I have that strong a conviction that tech would be the right career path for me. As Steve Job said “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever”, having this mentality allows me to be less stressed, knowing that things will work out in the end.

 On Getting to Where You Want to Be

I am a big advocate of taking smaller steps towards a goal. It would definitely be ideal to get to where you want to be right away. However, that ideal state rarely happens. It usually requires breaking down an ambitious goal into smaller milestones and working towards each milestone. In business school, I learned that this philosophy is similar to design thinking process of “design, prototype, and iterate based on feedback”.

Take my career switch into tech as an example. After attending the hackathon in Houston, I researched about career in tech by reading lots of medium (where a lot of techies write and share their thoughts) posts on product management and talking to a few product managers. I learned that (1) it is hard to break into with no technical background; (2) MBA program with strong career switch resources can help; (3) Amazon is one tech company that is more forgiving in terms of technical background. With these information in mind, I applied to Michigan Ross MBA program, because its curriculum is heavily geared towards career switchers (especially MAP!) and the school has a huge alumni network in Amazon. Once I started business school, I picked most of my curricular and extracurricular activities with the goal of breaking into tech. I participated in tech case competitions, got involved with the tech club, worked on MAP at a tech company, etc. I am happy to report that now I am working for Amazon in Seattle post MBA graduation!

After coming back from my first Seattle visit in April 2014, I raved to my friend how much I loved the city for its emerald color and the outdoors and how much I wanted to move here. Five years later, it took me a move out west to Houston, a couple of job changes, and an MBA degree to finally make the dream happen. It was also five years ago when I took the risk to start this blog. Apart from rediscovering my passion for writing through blogging, I was able to keep in touch with friends near and far and even made new friends thanks to my blog posts. I am grateful for all the risks and challenges I took on during those five years and beyond excited for the next chapter in life!

Summer and Onward

*I wrote most of this post the end of summer but never finished editing. How time flies and I am at the end of fall semester! Regardless, I want to publish it to remember the remarkable summer on the west coast and to motivate myself to keep writing.*

Today marks the end of my four-month summer break. I am sitting in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor reminiscing about my summer days in China, the west coast, Ann Arbor, and Peru. All of sudden, I found myself getting a bit emotional and overwhelmed with happy tears. My experience not only confirmed that I found the right MBA program and on the right track to switch careers (more of that on “Three Quarters In as MBA1”), but also put all the skills I learned at Ross to test. I have gained more certainty in decision-making and more clarity and confidence of what I am capable of.

For my summer project with Amazon, I opted into a role in California rather than in Seattle HQ. I went back and forth on this decision for a while, because the popular opinion is that being in HQ will give me greater networking opportunities, but the Alexa opportunity (my top choice of team) is only available in California for the summer. In the end, my interest in the product convinced me to listen to my heart. After my internship and looking back at this decision, I was reminded of a similar decision I made four years ago, when I fought for a role in Houston with my previous employer. In both circumstances, the popular opinion was to stay in the HQ for more executive exposure and networking opportunities, but I ended up pursuing the growth projects in the satellite office, which turned out to be a great move for me. Taking these chances allowed me see what matters the most to me and when to trust my own decisions.

Amazon is known for living and breathing its 14 leadership principles at work and I experienced them first hand during my internship. Three principles particularly grew on me. Not in the Amazon leadership principle order, they are ownership, customer obsession and bias for action.

  • Ownership. Since intern orientation, taking full ownership of the work was drilled in our head. We were told to be responsible for setting up review meetings, meeting with managers for check-in meetings, and of course owning the whole project. For my project, I was expected to define the problems to analyze, identify contacts and resources on my own, analyze the data, and make recommendations. It was a lot of responsibilities, since this was a brand new initiative and no one, including my manager, knew exactly what resources existed. Even though I was confident with my ability to handle ownership prior to the internship, such scope and ambiguity took me some time to get used to.
  • Customer obsession. I used customer pain points to define project scope and problems and worked backwards to find relevant data to validate. My mentor at Amazon told me lots of senior executives read one- and two-star reviews on Amazon.com to understand customer pain points. Even though reading the reviews can be time-consuming and Amazon also has a tool that uses natural language processing to gauge customer sentiment, directly reading the reviews still is the most tried-and-true method to understand customer experience. Thus, I poured through 500+ customer reviews to determine the key problems to focus on for my project.
  • Bias for action. During my project, even though I do not have perfect data points, I was encouraged to use them to make decision regardless and to highlight the risks involved. I realized that not until we made a decision to execute would we able to collect better data to generate more insights to improve and iterate. Handling the ambiguity and imperfection of data was what I found to be the most challenging part of my internship. One role I held in my past finance life was to make sure the reporting was 100% accurate. Thus, at the beginning of this internship, the old habit of tying the numbers came back to me and I found myself writing down every question I had with the data. Soon after, I realized it would not work when there were so much data to analyze. I then adjusted the course and only focused on information that would make a difference on the decision.

At the end of my internship, I felt grateful for the experience I had at Michigan Ross that prepared me well for the internship – 2nd Year MBA peer coaches and Tech Club education sessions helped me navigate the recruiting process; hands-on learning experience, such as Amazon case competition, Datathon, and Multi-disciplinary Action Project, gave me plenty of opportunities to practice handling ambiguity; and coffee chats with alumni at Amazon gave me pointers and new perspectives to tackle the project.

After wrapping up my internship, four other MBA2 students and I led a 9-day trip to Peru for 13 MBA1 students. I had a blast, not only because the trip was a perfect mix of history, culture, amazing cuisines, and outdoor, but also because I got to know four other trek leaders a lot better and meet 13 amazing first-year students!

I am quite excited about my second year of MBA experience, because there are so many things I look forward to trying! Now that my first semester of second year is wrapping up, my goals for my last semester of school include the following:

  • Take an English class. Quite a few business classes in my first semester of second year helped me get more comfortable with writing. Thus, I want to take an English class that allows me to write as much as possible and branch out of the business school.
  • Meet more MBA classmates outside my section. During my first year, due to the shared core class experience, I met a lot of impressive section mates. For my second year, I would love to branch out more and make new friends!
  • Continue getting some hands-on learning experience. Michigan Ross is known for action based learning and I certainly benefited a lot from them during my first year of MBA. I am quite excited to work on a Living Business Leadership Experience project and participate in the 2019 Datathon!

Two New Habits

When I celebrated my birthday in 2015, I wrote a post to set the goal of living a more intentional life rather than putting on auto-pilot mode and flying through the days. At the time, I made a list of goals I aspired to reach before the next birthday. However, soon afterwards, I started my preparation/application journey to business school and all other things fell off my priority list. Sadly, that year, I did not accomplish much except for “#1 Finish the Aramco Half Marathon under 2 hours” (ended up with 2hrs 5mins, but at least I tried!) and “#6 Do a better job of staying in touch with friends around the world” (I became pretty good at it via texts, phone calls, and cards!). Earlier this year, I had some spare time on hand after internship recruiting. Thus, I decided to revisit some of those goals set in the past. I tried to tackle goal #4 and goal #11. I can tell you after keeping it up for at least a couple of months, I have grown tremendously.

Goal #4 Write about six books I read on the blog

Before I had to become a fully committed student for all the Chinese test preparation, I loved burying myself in books. When Harry Potter series first came out, I packed the book along with snacks and lunch for a school trip to a zoo. I also remember after school, I would read the Lord of the Rings series in a nearby bookstore for 30 minutes every day before going home. After moving to the States, I got my mind occupied with college, recruiting, work, and other past times, such as TV, Internet, phone, social activities. I fell out of the habit of making time for reading.

Another reason that kept me from reading regularly was that I felt the obligation to read business books, after getting a business degree as an undergrad. I do not associate reading business books with fun, since I have not experienced as much staying up all night reading as with reading fictions. Whenever someone at any social event claimed “I do not read any fictions at all”, I slowly developed the notion that “reading fictions is only your guilty pleasure”. Looking back, how silly of me holding others’ opinion so highly that I abandoned my own interest. Speaking of others’ opinion, I read a blog post from Ellen Chisa on reading that positively influenced me to go back to reading. In her post “How to Read a Lot”, she shared: (1) read what you love (and give up when you don’t); (2) read fiction, as they “can help you develop empathy with a much broader set of people” and “can teach you lessons from the past, and predict the future”. I love Ellen’s writings on tech/product management so much that she is one of my women crushes in tech. If Ellen said reading fictions will help me develop empathy (important quality as a PM), I will buy it! 🙂 In fact, as she said “Fiction is the rare place you can ‘be in someone else’s head.'”, I can relate that strong female characters such as Scarlett O’Hara and Jane Eyre were inspirations to me when I had a setback.

When I I started reading more this February, I decided that rather than writing about books I read, I wanted to focus only on reading regularly, defined as dedicating at least half an hour to reading every day. I tried to read a mix of fiction and non-fictions, selecting books with gripping story lines for both genres. However, to buy books, the dollars will add up. In the past, whenever I had a casual read (books that I will only read once, such as Crazy Rich Asians), I felt guilty of not rereading it later. What’s more, as someone who loves books, you are constantly buying new books before you finish what you have. Thanks to my section mate Jasmine, I found a perfect solution! She told me that Ann Arbor Public Library has an amazing ebook selection, which allows you to borrow online and send the books to your Kindle app. The online audiobook selection is pretty comprehensive too! Thanks to this app, I have already borrowed and read 10 books this year. I highly recommend you checking it out your local library. I no longer need to worry about spending too much money on fun books, or packing away boxes of books every time I move.

Booklist

Some of the books I read this year

Goal #11 Reflect every evening and journal the highlight of each day in a couple of sentences

There were definitely periods in my life that I felt I was so busy doing things every day that I forgot how I spent the time, then all of a sudden, one month flew by! It makes me wonder whether I was devoting time to things that matter to me, or I was simply going through the motion and doing things that others made me do. Thus, I started keeping a daily journal that every evening before going to bed, I would write down my thoughts for the day, in 4-5 sentences. When I started this practice, I set a small goal of consistently doing it for 30 days. In this 30 days, there were a couple of days that I forgot to journal and later on, had a hard time recalling what happened in that day. After 30 days, I found that I could not live without the journal! It was a great way for me to remember every day, to live in the present, and to be more intentional! Prior to this daily reflection, whenever I had highly anticipated events, such as a vacation or a friend coming to visit, I sometimes forgot how to live those days leading up to the event. I always wanted to fast forward to the big day and would not consider the prior days as important. This daily practice taught me to be grounded in every day and be present.

As physicist and writer Alan Lightman was quoted in the TED article “Why we owe it to ourselves to spend quiet time alone every day”, “By not giving ourselves the minutes — or hours — free of devices and distractions, we risk losing our ability to know who we are and what’s important to us”. Know what your priorities are and make time for them. You are never too busy to read or to reflect. Now that we are one week into the second half of 2018, what are your goals for the rest of the year?

On Blogging – the Courage to Start

If you asked the 10-year-old me what I would like to be growing up, I would tell you I would like to be a YA novelist. When I was 11, I  published a couple of articles in the student section of Nanjing local newspaper, from which I received my first paycheck. The one I was most proud of was narrating a school event as a news reporter.

Then Backstreet Boys came along and soon took away all my attention. Gone were the days when I read novels. Instead, I spent most of my spare time learning English, so I could keep up with Backstreet Boys! One thing led to another – I studied the lyrics, I loved learning English, I started reading the Harry Potter series in English, I watched Friends, then one day I was studying at University of Minnesota!

At this point, you might be thinking – naturally you are writing a blog now, because you used to enjoy it as a kid. The truth is the idea of blogging was so intimidating that I had been sitting on it for two years until starting it in late summer of 2015. It was not my interest in writing that motivated me to start, but my passion in mentoring. It was blogging that helped me regain the interest in writing.

How the blogging idea came about

I am always passionate about helping others grow. Thus, after graduating from University of Minnesota, as an international alumna, I am committed to helping my fellow international students succeed. I never turned down any invitation to speak at career workshops or to mentor students one-on-one. I shared both my past student experience and my Ecolab recruiter perspective. I was honest with my experience – the good, the bad, and the ugly, hoping to let students take comfort in knowing they were not the only one who went through the struggle and to motivate that eventually they would be ok. However, repeatedly answering similar questions from the students neither allowed me to cover all ideas nor made efficient use of my time. Thus, I wanted to start a mentoring blog to scale up, covering more topics and expanding the audience beyond my current network.

The Hesitation

It was not easy to leap from idea to execution. As I tended to “go big or go home”, all the possible scenarios that could hinder immediate success held me back:

I worried about the depth of my idea and quality of my writing, “Am I good enough to teach others how to find a job? I don’t work in the most sought-after jobs such as banking or consulting after all” “What if my ideas are too similar to those of the established websites to grant traction?” “What if I could not write convincingly in my second language, English?”

I worried about how others would receive my blog, “What if no one reads my blog?” “Leaving the safety net of my network, what would those who I have never met think about my blog?”

I worried about my willpower to keep writing, “What if I could not keep writing and became that person ‘who gave up midway’?”

FearFailure1

I was shooting for the moon, which at the time meant hundreds of subscribers overnight. I was hesitant to commit to blogging, knowing that the odds of me getting that many subscribers was extremely slim. I wanted perfection and did not want to fail. It was not until I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”, one year after I started blogging, that I realized that even established author like her had anxiety on this creative process. Her acknowledgement of those fears in the book made me feel more comfortable. By the way, I highly recommend this book if you are considering taking up a creative job/interest.

The Turning Point

Due to the fears, I debated many times for two years. However, a couple of events happened in the summer of 2015 that pushed me to jump in. It started with me feeling stuck at work. The group I was in went through critical leadership changes, leading me to conclude the career acceleration I worked so hard to pursue would be delayed. After all, there were factors I could not control. Then I stumbled across an article called “Warren Buffett’s ‘20 Slot’ Rule”. It describes that if we were only allowed to make 20 financial investments in a lifetime (“20 slots”), we would be forced to think more thoroughly and end up making better decisions. The philosophy is to direct all the energy and attention to fewer tasks and focusing on mastering them.

The article was a trigger for me to reflect what my “20 slots” are. I realized two things. One, mentoring is definitely among the “20 slots”. I remembered that during my first year in the US, I was so passionate about leading the undergraduate mentoring program that I ran for the program coordinator and gave a speech to a room full of strangers. I lost the election, but looking back, I am still in awe of the motivation and courage of my younger self. Two, I used to commit a lot time to career, is it worth it? Since I was not 100% satisfied with the role, why don’t I shift some of my attention to other priorities that will make me happy?

Recognizing mentoring as a top priority, I knew blogging was the right way to continue. To ease the nerves, I stopped holding myself to perfection and focused on making an impact one reader at a time. I told myself the blog might never achieve the scale that I wanted, but if I keep writing, the number of readers who will benefit from my blog will be greater than the number of students I spoke to in previous workshops.

The Learnings

Once starting the blog, I relished the process of untangling all my thoughts and finding the right words to express myself. Nearly three years in with 20+ posts published, I grew so much thanks to the blog that it is one of the defining moments of my 20s.

I feel liberated, for the “big hairy monster” I imagined is not that bad after all. I received quite a few emails from students I have never met before, thanking me for the insights shared in the post. The readers’ outpouring support let me see that even though I may not be 100% satisfied with my work, it is still a valuable contribution. Done is better than perfect. As a result, I have developed the optimism that whatever the situation is and whatever the challenges there might be, I always have the power to make a difference, even if it is just making a dent. What’s more, such realization gives me more confidence to embrace the unknown and try things that I don’t think I am 100% ready for. Since then, I participated in the Houston Hackathon and competed in quite a few MBA case competitions, reaping much learning and gaining many valuable connections along the way.

In addition, motivated to be the best writer I could for my readers, I am writing more logically and succinctly. The growth mindset becomes clearer to me that as long as I am committed, my abilities can be developed and the result will evolve in my favor. I am also excited to pick up my interest of writing again. Never had I expected to reconsider the dream of the ten-year old self, but I will keep writing and keep that dream alive. Thanks to this dream, I am very optimistic that I can outlast some blogs in quantity and quality because I truly love writing.

Apart from overcoming fear of imperfection and becoming a better writer, there are other benefits picked up along this journey. First of all, I am able to keep my network informed, whether they are in Minnesota, Texas, China, or spread out around the world. One of my MBA classes “Managing Organization” mentioned that you need to dedicate time to maintaining your growing network, especially those with whom you no longer frequently interact. I am glad the blog serves a great platform. Second, I am more grounded with my values and what matters the most to me. When it comes to making decisions, I have a better idea of how to prioritize. Last but not lease, I see building the blog similar to owning a product. The process of relating to target readers, thinking about product roadmap of the blog, and finding creative tactics to promote my blog gets me excited and eventually leads me down the path of making a career switch to tech and product management.

I hope by sharing with you my story, you will know that you are not the only one who might have things you are afraid to give a shot, due to fear, perfectionism, high expectation, etc. Trust me, once you climb over this mountain, you will discover a brand new land of possibilities.

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The picture was taken at my recent trip at Yading Nature Reserve of Sichuan. At an altitude of 15,700 feet, the 10km trail was quite a strenuous hike (started the climb from 13,500 feet). If you don’t pace yourself, you are at risk of altitude sickness. As one saying usually goes, “The best view comes after the hardest climb!” (P.S. Truth be told, this picture does not do the beauty justice…)