Extra Credit

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One scene from the TV show Friday Night Lights really stuck with me.  For those who don’t watch the show, Jess (pictured above) is the daughter of a former high school football star.  To get closer to the world of football coaching, she washes jerseys and jockstraps for the high school football team (the life!).  There is a poignant scene where after telling one of the assistant coaches her insights on why a play isn’t working, she overhears him repeat her advice (as his own) to the head coach.  The head coach is impressed and delighted.  The camera pans back to Jess who smiles contently as she continues to fold jerseys in the background.

You liked it, you really liked it

At first this scene warmed me – I thought of all the times I have experienced the same exact feeling.  When I hear my boss say something I had said in a public meeting, or when I see a report or document that has been published with bulks of my writing untouched.  I listen, look through, and smile to myself with my own sweet, secret validation.

But as I continued to think about it days later, this scene began to gnaw at me. It seemed less warm, even frustrating.  Why was I so happy with just the validation that I had something worthwhile to say (while others get full credit), rather than actually being heard myself?  I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay dues, and that it isn’t natural and normal that established and successful people employ others to support their work.  I don’t think a company president needs to publically mention each assistant individually for their respective contribution, I’m just saying that moving beyond validation to pushing for my own visibility, voice, and credit is something that doesn’t naturally occur to me.

It’s hard to put yourself out there, you know, in front of everybody

To be honest, I’ve even gone out of my way to purposely conceal my involvement, and instead seek validation through other less public routes.  A former (great!) manager wanted me to present something I had worked on for months at a conference, and I pretty much begged them not to make me.  The idea of turning down an opportunity like that now is absurd, but at the time it just seemed potentially painful. Working under someone who will pick and choose amongst your work behind closed doors can act as a great buffer between your insecurities and the real world, whereas saying something at a conference (or to the head coach) provides a clear opportunity for someone to very publicly tell you you’re wrong.

There’s always a next time

I did end up presenting at that conference (because my boss insisted), and I’ll admit it wasn’t a slam dunk – while some people liked it, the feedback was mixed.  But what surprised me was that it didn’t make me crawl in a hole and swear to never open my mouth in public again.  It was actually quite the opposite – it made me more confident about what I would do better next time.  It made me much happier I did it.  I’ve had similar opportunities since, and I’ve honestly done a world better.

Getting out of the comfort zone

In the real world, you don’t get consistent, structured performance feedback like you do in school.  This is an obvious reason why many Asian Americans are top performers in school, but represent a much smaller share of managers and executives.  Your progress depends on knowing certain people, pushing for ideas that may or may not succeed, and, most importantly, seizing opportunities when you find yourself in the right place at the right time. For me, having a voice for these occasions – one that has been developed by taking risks and getting feedback from audiences out of my comfort zone (like this blog) – is really integral to succeeding in whatever I do.  Insisting on my own voice and credit is an evolving process that progresses through small statements in meetings, or sometimes even random blog posts on the internet.

4 thoughts on “Extra Credit

  1. Congratulations on another impressive post where you have articulated a complicated concept with finesse. I think finding a voice outside your comfort zone is or should be a lifelong goal. I enjoy reading your blog everday. One question, how do you have time to watch tv?! KT

    1. Thanks so much Karen! I am always so flattered that you read my blog, and take time with all your encouragement :). I’ll have to get more writing tips from you in person next time I’m in Seattle (hopefully soon!). And in all honesty, I watched Friday Night Lights last winter in DC, before I started this blog :).

  2. As always, you share some brilliant insights. Here are a couple thoughts. Indira Gandhi once said “There are two kinds of people: Those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group because there is less competition there.” While that is very good advice when trying to accomplish certain things (like building a Nation), it is not the best advice when building your personal brand. Hard work is proprietary. Your ideas are your voice, and it’s essential they be credited appropriately if you are to succeed. Doormats can’t climb an organizational ladder.

    When someone uses your ideas without sharing credit, it’s totally within your rights to meet with them and, in a calm, professional manner, ask this question: “I was really surprised when you took credit for my work. Help me understand why you did that.” If they just forgot (uh-huh…) focus your talking points on making sure it never happens again. If they did it on purpose and don’t show remorse, you are working for a leader without integrity, someone you don’t want to be associated with. Get out as soon as you can, but in the meantime let them know you won’t accept that king of behavior going forward. If you’ve got a mentor, particularly someone higher up in the hierarchy, ask for their advice.

    Although Scott Adams says “Hard work is rewarding. Taking credit for other people’s hard work is rewarding and faster”, when you manage others, remember to always share credit with your team and always accept personal responsibility when things get upside down. That is a hallmark of a highly effective leader.

    1. Bill, I love these quotes, because they are all so true. I used to always feel like the Gandhi quote was how I wanted to live, but in recent years I’ve really seen the power and importance of self-branding, and how it is something I should consistently work on. And thanks for all the tips!!

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