(Part II) Immigration: compassion and logic are not mutually exclusive

Political dialog often goes hyperbolic, either using blatantly made-up scenarios or blowing things out of proportion. For example, there is no crime wave perpetrated by immigrants; neither is it sensible to abolish the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agency. The former is a trumped up fear-mongering tactic that doesn’t jibe with facts, and the latter is a reactionary posture to the current brutal treatment (not always, but often) of the asylum seekers at the border.


As I mentioned in the last post, Mr. Trump stokes the fears of some Americans against South American immigrants, legal and otherwise. During the 2016 campaign, his proposal to build a wall across the southern border was wildly popular among his supporters who seem to have a very short-term memory. Trump famously bragged that he was going to build a “beautiful” wall, and “Mexican will pay for it.” But nowadays, he essentially holds children, separated from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum, as bargaining chips to bring the Democrats in the Congress into the negotiation of a bill that would give him the money to build this wall. Really?! Seriously?! And his supporters cheer on.


Is building a wall across our southern border a wise way of spending money? It bears repeating what I once wrote: Rome tried that on its northern border in Britain, China tried that on its northern border in Asia, Russia tried it on its western border in Berlin, France on its eastern border with Germany. Admittedly, nobody seems to have tried it on its southern border, so maybe that will work better. (Addendum: The wall built by Israel on, and often beyond, its western border, has brought lasting peace and prosperity to the region and generations’ worth of security for Israel. Yeah.)   Strangely, these days, it seems the comedians have a better grasp of the nuances of public policy. For another perspective on building this wall, please take some time to view John Oliver’s delivery on the topic; he provides comprehensive estimates, logistics, and pragmatic considerations.

National Security

However, objection to building this wall is not equivalent to “open border”…yet another hyperbole/lie. How we want to secure our border is a topic worthy of intelligent conversation, which seems to be in severe shortage in today’s political environment. More importantly, though, is the fact that while we are obsessed with spending money on this useless symbol, China is building its 21st Century empire by not focusing on border walls (perhaps they learned from their own history?) but instead investing in technological domination on several fronts. One of the major reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed was that they were weighted down by the arms race. Money that could help build the country and feed the people largely went into building military armaments that went unused. The Soviet leaders also discovered, belatedly, that holding onto Afghanistan was futile, money and lives poured down the drain without desired effect. So we took over pouring money into Afghanistan, 17 years later with no end in sight.


The argument for building this wall is to stem the tide of immigrant flow; also, by implication, it would reduce the crimes committed by the immigrants. Elevating the influx immigrant to “national security” threat is simply laughable. It’s very doubtful that immigration would make it to the list of top 10 threats to our national security, not by DOD, DHS, CIA, or NSA. And here are some more hard and cold facts, curtsey of a New York Times reader:

Number of convicted terrorists (number of deaths) by country, since 1975 (from The Atlantic):

Saudi Arabia: 19 (2,369)
UAE: 2 (314)
Egypt: 11 (162)
Lebanon: 4 (159)
Cuba: 11 (3)
Pakistan 14 (3)
Trinidad & Tobago: 2 (1)
UK: 3 (0)

Iran: 6 (0)
Iraq: 2 (0)
Libya: 0 (0)
Somalia: 2 (0)
Sudan: 6 (0)
Syria: 0 (0)
Yemen: 1 (0)
North Korea: 0 (0) – No Data
Venezuela: 0 (0) – No Data
Chad: 0 (0) – No Data

Please note that none of the countries on Mr. Trump’s ban has caused any deaths. Here is an interesting read from a conservative columnist, Bret Stephen.  And for comparison:

Gun Deaths in the US 2005-2015 (Politico): 301,797.

School Shooting Victims Post-Sandy Hook 2012-Feb 18 (NYTimes): 438 (138 killed).

Right-Wing Terrorist Attacks 1993-2017 (ADL): 150 attacks, 255 killed.

Finally, just for perspective, lynchings in the US 1882-1968 (Tuskeegee Institute): 4,743.


Several of our southern border towns have seen an increase in border patrols and national guard members; their presence has created more tension and fear in these towns than what the desperate immigrants and their families have brought. For one Texas border town, even a study from the CATO Institute, a conservative think tank, ranks the town way down on crime statistics: “The Cato Institute’s research consistently shows that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are markedly less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

Not only has Mr. Trump used imaginary numbers and contrived narratives to paint immigrants as “rapists and murders,” he has also sensationalized some of the crimes in Germany. What’s more, Germany’s crime problems are not brought about by immigrants or refugees; if anything, Germany is currently experiencing one of their lowest crime rates. This doesn’t excuse the reported 8,000 or so sexual assault in Germany, but that has nothing to do with immigrants. I learned from one reader: In US, we had almost 432,000 sexual assaults in 2015 according to the 2016 National Crime Victimization Survey. Should we not allow any American male past US borders? Of course that is ridiculous. The majority of sex tourism involves men from wealthy nations, preying on children and vulnerable women and using them as amusement. Should men from wealthy nations be banned from travel? We can sensationalize anything to promote fear and hatred.


good friends…95lbs & 10lb…it can work


For those who regularly use the Bible as guidance, does Jesus’ teaching stop at national borders? Are “the least of my bretheren” only US citizens?

What can be done about the undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers? For those who complain that it’d be unfair for them to jump the queue ahead of those who have been patiently, and legally, waiting their turn, we can speed up the process for those already waiting, and we certainly can also process the asylum seekers’ requests with more humane treatment. (And it would cost less than a wall.) When the desperate need help, kindness would go a long way to win their hearts and souls. Most refugees and asylum seekers are desperate women, children, and families. This is the demographic that is most likely to succeed and put down strong roots. The US travesty at the Mexico border is doing just the opposite; it is victimizing the most vulnerable. It is a fascistic response by a deliberately cruel and ignorant administration. Of course, rejecting asylum seekers is within our national prerogative, but dehumanizing them is sowing the seeds of resentment, building yet another reason for future generations of foreigners to wish – and do – us harm. How is that a winning strategy?

And oh, by the way, a few thoughtful politicians from John McCain to former President Obama had proposed and supported guest work permits, biometric ID, and other saner and safer initiatives. It was ALL Republicans blocking these publically approved measures every step of the way.

We need to be reminded of George Washington’s words on “tolerance:”

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…”

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.



Immigration: compassion and logic are not mutually exclusive

Americans like to say: This country was founded on immigrants; immigration is the bedrock of American democracy. Yet, throughout our history, we’ve repeatedly, without seemingly learning a lesson, used various immigrant groups as scapegoats for whatever collective insecurity we feel at the time. Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, and now Mexicans. And of course there are the equally suspicious people from certain Islamic countries.

What was said about the Jews fleeing Europe in the late 1930s are the same complaints we lay against the current influx of South Americans: “We can’t afford them.” “They bring problems here.” “They won’t assimilate.” During WWII, without some of those Jews, we’d not have made the atomic bombs (whether that’s good or bad is a different topic). So now we demand “high skill” for the latest immigrants. Is practicing humanity based on hierarchy of skills? When we finally allowed the fleeing Jews to immigrate into this country, we didn’t know that some of their backgrounds and skills could have become important assets. Many of the descendants of the Chinese coolies are now scientists, doctors, lawyers, professors, etc. Desperate people don’t usually dress properly, speak our language fluently, or score high on SAT.


Mr. Trump won the presidency largely by stoking some Americans’ fears of immigrants and then amplifying these fears to encompass all refugees. Mr. Trump is not one for nuances, intelligent analysis, or facts; nor is he known for compassion. His policy – and yes, the separation of the asylum seekers’ families is ALL his – of taking children away from parents at the border is the apogee of 21st Century ugly Americanism. Compounding this was his lie that Democrats started this “policy.” During the short period of separating families at the border, the officials defending this policy changed positions/stories 14 times!

“We are not taking children from their families.”

“We are doing it, but the Democrats made us do it.”

“We don’t want to do this, but the law makes us do it, we cannot stop it.”

“We are doing it, and it’s ok because of what the Bible says.”

“When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away,” (Trump).

“I want to stop this but the Democrats aren’t letting me, it’s their fault.” (Trump).

Remember when Trump said that he knows the best and he “alone can fix the problem?” For those who support him and like his “telling like it is,” accept his words at the face value. Now, explain why he can’t fix this problem…

In the end, magically, Trump found power to sign an executive order to stop the separation. But because of the lack of forethought, or any thoughts, the families that are scattered all over the country are not likely to be reunited anytime soon, despite a judge’s order. This chaos stems from the lack of coordination and procedures among agencies involved in this operation. Staff members or advocates have been severely strained to trace and connect these broken souls. Read Jonathan Blitzer’s first-encounter reporting in the New Yorker, or, listen to the interview on Fresh Air.

indian painting brush 1According to the latest survey commissioned by CNN, two-thirds of the Americans overall object to the policy of family separation while the majority of Republicans supports it. Let. That. Sink. In. Even the outgoing Republican senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker said, “This is cultlike.” Once again, New York Times’ Charles Blow’s eloquence speaks to me: “Not even the sight of devastated families could move the party that once called itself the party of family values. Not even the idea of ‘tender age’ internment camps for babies could move the party built on the protection of ‘unborn babies.’”

Why do immigration issues feel so raw for so many people? It’s scapegoating combined with fear-based assertions; it appeals to people’s emotions rather than reasons. I would like to unpack some of the tangled web using facts and logic.

First and foremost are the issues of jobs and economy.

The jobs typically filled by “unskilled” immigrants include farm labor (formerly called “stoop labor”), cleaning, or odd jobs for construction. So far, some of the farms that have relied on low wage labor have experienced damaged produce owing to lack of laborers.  Have we seen a rush of Americans filling these jobs?

There is a severe shortage of truck drivers, and companies even offer higher wages, often with sign-up bonus, and/or other perks, yet cannot fill the openings. Of course, no illegal immigrants can apply without a valid driver’s license, so where are the Americans crying for better-paying jobs?

Some tech industries are looking for skilled workers, but most Americans don’t seem to possess the required skills. Whose fault is that? (Related question: “How is Trump’s Department of Education driving improvements in the skill set of our future workforce?” Answer: “Gutting our public school system.”)

goat haunt trail 1

In a “true” market, to attract Americans to their jobs, companies would adjust their wages – i.e. raise them high enough to be attractive. To use either “illegal” or “e-verify” is a strategy to suppress wages. From another perspective, why do we allow companies to cross the border to seek low-cost production means but cry foul if people try to cross border to seek better economic opportunities? This is simply “corporate welfare” to which we’ve been blind.

Once again, it’s much easier to scapegoat “others/outsiders” than to confront the big corporations who happen to have much more control over our social narratives through their political beneficiaries, i.e. local and national politicians, and media. The illegals just want to work, and they have to remain silent.

As for how immigration affects the greater economy: An internal government report, commissioned by the Trump administration, states that refuges brought $63 billion more tax revenue over the past decade than they cost the government. I wonder why that report hasn’t been tweeted about? or, widely circulated? Previous economic studies all point out that immigrants may cost more during their first year in the States, but they contribute significantly to the economic growth during the subsequent years.

In the next post, I will touch upon issues of: Border (including walls), National Security, Crimes, and Moral Standards/Humanity. Till then,

May the 4th of July bring you peace and joy.

On “Doubt”…This time, doubt was addressed with evidence

The second crime story of the “Anatomy of Doubt”  of This American Life took place in Colorado in 2011, two years after the crime against Marie of Lynwood, a suburb of Seattle (see previous post). In Colorado, there was a series of three rapes, which took place in three locations in close proximity. The lead detectives of at least two of the three cases were female and a crime analyst providing one piece of key (in retrospect) information was also a female.

I highlight the female part because I think it’s relevant in rape cases. In addition, one of these two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith, had handled at least 50 rape cases by the time of this story.


The latest victim of Galbraith’s case was unusual; the young graduate student didn’t show much emotion while being interviewed right after the assault. She also managed to notice quite a few striking features of the perpetrator, partly because she chatted up with him afterwards: He traveled a lot; he spoke at least four languages; he talked about math, he had no problem finding girlfriends but disliked the consensual relationships; and most importantly, he has a birthmark of a size and shape of an egg on his leg. In addition, she noticed his height and weight, the pink Sony camera, and described him “gentleman, calm, and mannered,” even though she was raped at gunpoint, and was told to take a shower afterwards to wash off the DNA.

Detective Galbraith didn’t always understand her rape victims, some were more hysterical than others. However, the victims’ manner was never part of her investigation. When she discussed the case with her husband, a policeman, he mentioned the similarity to another case in his district. So, Galbraith contacted the other detective, also female, and their comparison of the cases revealed a large degree of overlap, with one notable difference, the other detective’s case had a theft component: A pink camera was stolen. Further, the other detective mentioned yet another similar case, in a neighboring county.  huntington 2

Five weeks into Galbraith’s latest rape case, there was a meeting of lead detectives of recent rape cases, officials from Federal, state, and local levels, and a crime analyst who presented information of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attempted rape. When she showed a picture of a Mazda pickup, it caught Galbraith’s attention. Galbraith had seen only a fuzzy image of a pickup truck in a surveillance tape some time ago, but the coincidence struck her. Since this analyst had the pickup’s license plate — it belonged to a Marc O’Leary – it was their first break in the cases.

With FBI’s assistance, agents were sent to trail O’Leary while others went to his apartment to collect a DNA sample. What the team didn’t realize was that they had been trailing Marc’s brother, of similar build and appearance. When they thought Marc was out of the apartment, they knocked on the door before going in. The agents were taken aback by the person answering the door, the very Marc O’Leary who was supposed to be out. The agents quickly made up a convincing story: They were canvassing the neighborhood for a suspect, and even produced a photo of the person of interest.

In the meantime, the agents who were following Marc’s brother managed to collect the brother’s DNA from his meal at a diner. The DNA results showed that one of the two brothers committed these crimes, but was not conclusive. The birthmark would help.

Two days later, Galbraith and her team went to O’Leary’s place again, with a search warrant. While inside the apartment, she patted down Marc, and it just so happened that he was wearing a cargo pants. She could lift up his pant legs, and saw the egg-size birthmark.

Afterwards, Galbraith processed the gathered evidence; she encountered many images of his victims on a thumb drive. Most of these victims were from Colorado. And then, Galbraith saw a woman, gagged and bound, with a Washington driver’s license on her chest. It was Marie.

Marc O’Leary was convicted of five rapes, including the one in Washington, 2 months after Marie’s case, and 20 other felonies, and was sentenced to 300 years in prison.

Lynwood’s police chief personally went to visit Marie and apologized. Marie described,” They were just like, we’re sorry. We’re deeply sorry, you know, about what had happened to you. But it didn’t mean much to me at all.” Marie demanded a personal apology from her case investigator and she received it. She was reimbursed the $500 court fee (no interest?) and her record was wiped clean. She sued the Lynwood police and settled for $150,000. No one at the Lynwood police was disciplined.

Her apartment management? “Our hearts go out to Marie and her family. We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client [Marie].” Wow. They were also sued and settled out of court.

Marie forgave both Shannon and Peggy, her foster parents, and remains friends with them. Shannon still cannot quite forgive herself. After the case was closed for Marie, Peggy, the one who reported her “doubt” to the lead detective in Marie’s case, said, “OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she [Marie] was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.” Wow!


When doubt becomes certainty, it shouldn’t be considered “doubt” any more. By the time Peggy called Marie’s case detective, she was hoping someone could confirm her doubt. Voicing her “doubt” to someone, especially a figure of authority was a strong symbol for her; the doubt was off her chest and now became real. When the detective pursued Marie based on Peggy’s statement, he had no doubt in his mind about Marie’s guilt, and proceeded accordingly. When all hell broke loose on Marie, there did not seem to be any trace of doubt left in Peggy’s mind…hence her last words still put the onerous burden on Marie.

Doubt, a form of uncertainty, makes us uneasy and uncomfortable. It’s in our nature to minimize or erase doubt. There are gaps of information associated with doubt and uncertainty. In those moments, we tend to fill in the gaps with certain assumptions to generate a more-or-less complete story to ease our doubt. Since the assumptions come from our own worldview, lens, or logic, we usually are satisfied with the story we come up with, and feel little need to check those assumptions. What’s more interesting is that even when we want to check our assumptions, we tend to check with a third party rather than with the source of our doubt. So, Peggy called Shannon and they two commiserated with each other’s doubt; Peggy never checked with Marie directly.

I will get into a more full-bodied analysis next time. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Using Self As An Instrument

In my brief bio, I mentioned an important keystone of my methodology: that I see myself as “part of the instrument from which to gain quality data.” A few readers have found the statement puzzling. Let me explain. What I presented last week on my immigrant’s view of inter-racial issues was an example. I wasn’t going to just write a personal journey; there is purpose in such a seemingly self-indulgent method. The “using self as an instrument” is particularly crucial for conducting qualitative studies in social science. And it also has a bearing on management.

For my PhD dissertation, I started with a different topic on cross-cultural issues, and considered the usual questionnaire-survey for data collection. In the end, my desire for deep knowledge won over statistical breadth of cross-cultural comparisons, and I ended up doing a case study on “The Role of Culture in Business Networking,” focusing on entrepreneurs. I paired Americans and immigrant Chinese in two industries, cafes and fashion design.

The main driver for doing the case study was my thirst for understanding how culture influences the cross-cultural interactions in business decisions and operations. While many cross-cultural studies have taught me the importance of different cultural values, I found captures of the interaction between people of different cultures wanting. Memorizing all the cultural dos and don’ts feels limiting and exhausting. Knowing that Chinese are more collectively oriented than Americans, who are more individualistic, doesn’t address how to work with these differences. So, into the deep I went.

sky on fire

The traditional survey questionnaire provides a veneer of “objectivity;” researchers keep the subjects at arm’s length for fear of the intrusion of biases, from both the researchers and the subjects. But as my friend and professor, Kewyn Smith, pointed out, the very term “subject” is denigrating. It’s as if the subjects are some simple vessels from which we, the researchers, just extract needed information. To really understand the perspectives of the researched, or the respondents, the researchers need to first establish relationships, where there is give and take. Otherwise, why would perfect strangers reveal their deeper reflections?

My first lesson on cross-cultural differences between American entrepreneurs and Chinese entrepreneurs (who had been in the States anywhere from less than 10 years to more than 20 years…I interviewed some 20 people in my pre-case study phase) was that that Americans were a lot more willing to participate in my study than Chinese. Americans were also more ready to reveal their business operations and principles than Chinese. With Americans, the quality of my relationship with them was an important factor in but not necessary for the case studies, while with Chinese, the nature and the quality of my relationship with them were both important and essential for case study access.

I was also keenly aware that I was a lot more comfortable with interacting with Americans than with Chinese, having been in this country for more than a decade by then.ElenaY_003

Knowing my own “biases” helped me understand how to better approach the potential Chinese respondents as their levels of comfort with American (and Chinese) cultures varied widely. Some found my American-ness refreshing, and others were wary of my relative indifference to the Chinese norms. To navigate through these cross-cultural currents, I had to be sharply and constantly aware of my own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

If I found my American interviewee/respondent too “chatty and revealing,” I asked myself if my judgment came from my Chinese tendency to be reserved or whether I should be suspicious of the interviewee “spinning” the information. If my Chinese respondent seemed hesitant or to put up a wall, I wondered if being more American on my part would make it better or worse. Doing this qualitative study was a lot more challenging than designing questionnaires, inputting the numbers, and conducting statistical analysis –by which, I am not implying that doing quantitative study is easy; it’s just that by then, I had done plenty such quantitative surveys in my career.   (This is one of the reasons why I have written frequently in this space arguing the difficulties of handling “soft” dimensions at workplace, and the relative ease with which to absorb measurable features.)

In addition to use of “self as an instrument,” an equally important tool to minimize the biases in gathering and analyzing qualitative data is triangulation. As a researcher, when I interview a respondent, I am bound to have some internal emotional reactions, whether it’s about culture, educational background, gender, or any other topics. If I find myself siding with one particular respondent’s point of view, I need to keep finding other respondents with different perspectives till I no longer feel more vested in one particular respondent’s view than in another’s. That’s as objective as I can get.

How does this relate to management? In a sense, it’s what I have always argued: That each manager needs to be highly self-aware in his relationship with each and every one of his direct report, colleagues, and higher-ups. A manager cannot assume that she is always fair and objective to everyone around her. Robots can; humans can’t.


So, how can managers develop self-awareness?

For example, of all the management  education courses I have been involved in (teaching and/or observing), I think the experiential type is generally the most powerful and sustaining in the lessons learned. So, I would propose a course in which participating managers are required to conduct interviews on a certain topic, say, “performance evaluation.” Have them collect data on people’s reactions on this topic, and record their own emotions, reactions, and judgment… I’ll bet that the data on the topic would be enlightening, and the data on “self” would be revealing.

I hope this essay has clarified my methodology. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Color Codes Should Be Used Only For Sorting Materials

At this time of the year – the anniversary of my coming to the States — I am particularly reflective of my immigrant experience, an exercise that’s made more poignant lately. I came to the States decades ago to join my family, to finish my undergraduate degree, and to begin my journey of becoming a “Chinese-American.“ But I always feel more like a citizen of the world. And ironically, the root for the feeling lies in the conflict between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese-Chinese in the little island of Taiwan.

I embody that turmoil because my father was a Taiwanese and my mother was a mainland Chinese. This difference was the seed of a horrendous and convoluted family saga, which taught me the art of occupying two, sometimes diametrically, different worlds simultaneously. Later, the need to straddle separate identity worlds has included not just Chinese-American but also business-academician, qualitative-quantitative methodologist, social scientist-artist, introvert-extrovert, etc. These all have contributed to my spurning the simplistic either-or worldview.

From childhood on, I have been keen on holding multiple perspectives, understanding opposing sides. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own strong opinions or affiliations, but I have always thought that our loyalty to only our villages, provinces, states, schools, (extended) family tribes, or nations can become a huge stumbling block to reaching out, understanding “the others,” or working with differences. Of course, there have been many lessons, missteps, blunders, in my development and I expect them to continue for the rest of my life.

taking fly

I go into this long-winded introduction to relate the following story.

During my first semester at the Western Michigan University – two months after immigrating to this country — I was lucky to encounter a sympathetic professor in my communication course. He often invited me to his office to “just talk.” It was much later that I realized that those “talks” were probably akin to psychoanalytical sessions. He was helpful; those hours were a great outlet for my confusion, frustration, uncertainties, and connections. But one day, he put me on the spot: He asked me to share with the class my experience as an immigrant. I don’t remember much of what I said, but probably indicated a degree of loneliness, despite living with one of my sisters and her roommates (they were her friends but were friendly to me).

Before my soliloquy, a classmate had approached me once to invite me to join him at a club where he played jazz piano. I was confronted with two obstacles, one being my unfamiliarity with jazz at that time, but greater was his being an African-American. In addition, at that point in my life, I had hardly dated, and had little knowledge about black Americans (unless you count TV and movies). I had no clue of how to handle his invitation. I only thought, “Oh, boy, how would my family react to my hanging out with a black guy?” So I demurred and turned down his invite. After my small outpouring in the class, the very same friendly African-American young man came to me, and mildly accused me of dishonesty; after all, he had extended his gesture of friendliness and I had turned him down. Again, I don’t remember my response. I only remember my deep mortification afterwards, and shame even years later. It simply didn’t matter whether my excuses were valid; I screwed up.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Sometimes, black & white can be intriguing as well.

Here is an aspect of cross-cultural and inter-racial conflict that Asians rarely openly admit. A great many Asians, mostly older generation, have a profound bias against black Americans. I use “black Americans” because that’s how we still refer them in Chinese. And over the decades, I have often overheard Chinese use a Chinese epitaph to describe this population, or witnessed not-all-that-subtle disdainful expressions on their faces toward the few black people on the streets, in the malls, or other public domains. The fact that younger generations (particularly those born in the States), from Gen Y forward, have forsworn such racist attitude brings me only small comfort. The fact that I have since made quite a few close friends with African-Americans, men and women, still doesn’t mitigate my shame every time I remember that exchange at WMU.

After one year at WMU, I transferred to Michigan State University. Being on my own opened my eyes even more.

Fast forward. At one Academy of Management (AOM) annual meeting in the mid- 90s, where I attended a special symposium on diversity, the focus was the usual black-and-white interactions and conflicts. During a momentary lull – which was rare, being the only Asian in the room I piped up: “From my perspective, at least the black and white populations are talking with each other. The conversations may be unpleasant and downright hostile at times, but there are interactions. I don’t ever encounter such discussions between Asians and African-Americans.” The room went very quiet for a second or two. Then the chair of the symposium, my dear professor-friend at Wharton, semi-teased, “As usual, Elena’s wisdom brings us a different perspective.” I wanted to dig a hole and drop myself in it, but I was heartened to note that the tone of the conversation after that moment became more relaxed and more constructively animated.

That moment at the AOM reminded me of “The Functions of Social Conflict,” by Lewis Coser. When two groups are in deep conflicts, sometimes, introducing a superoridnate goal toward which both groups can find common ground to work would temporarily unite the groups. Or, the presence of a third group can often divert the two original groups’ tensions so that they may see possibilities for meaningful interactions.

santa ana b&w

The recent racial tension and anti-immigrant sentiment in this country as well as in Europe have saddened me profoundly. I don’t know how I would have coped if I had been in the States during WWII (you know, all Asians look alike, even though Japanese were the mortal enemies of Chinese in that war). I sometimes wonder if we, the collective, will ever learn. So, at times like this, I tend to be more inward-looking than usual and hope in my small ways to offer different perspectives.

To my old classmate at WMU: I am so sorry to have misread your kind intention and rejected your friendly gesture. And I thank you for being honest and thereby teaching me a valuable lesson.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Gritting Your Way…Toward What?

Growing for the sake of growing is a mindless exercise.

Most human beings are complex, capable of holding several ideas at the same time. Yet, many of us are also keen on catchy phrases and regard a few bumper stickers as profound philosophies. Nothing wrong, just is. Still, it behooves those of us who yearn for deeper meaning and lively discussion to be more aware of the pitfalls of attractive one-liners or descriptors.

I am coming to the main point.

Grit” has been the buzzword in the education field for quite a few years by now. The researcher, Angela Duckworth, who coined the term in her years of study was granted a MacArthur Fellowship award in 2013. That further bolstered the attractiveness of the concept. Students possessing grit, the ability to sustain interests and meet challenges over a long period of time, do better academically than those who give up more easily. You want the workplace staffed with adults who had this trait developed during childhood. I wonder how that applies to hedge fund managers… Anyway, the majority of the parents would say, “But of course,” and wish their children to acquire more grit.

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Understandably, children with grit are likely to carry that attitude and habit into adulthood. On the other hand, it would take much longer and more effort for adults to develop grit. I can just see some HR (human resources) departments requiring interviewees to submit their “grit” scores from 2nd grade. I am betraying my bias, and I will explain it after I introduce another concept, “growth mindset.”

The term “growth mindset” is usually presented as the contrast to “fixed mindset.” In the former, a person holds a dynamic view of the world and of herself, and so she would always strive to improve herself regardless of her endowed talent and intelligence. The “fixed mindset” sees the person’s talent as a be-all-end-all attribute; if he doesn’t have talent in a particular area, hard work alone isn’t going to lead to significant achievement. People with “growth mindset” regard failures as the inevitable byproduct of improvement; people with “fixed mindset” regard failing to meet standards as a profound blow. I described these differences more closely some time ago. At first glance, this seems to make sense. On looking closer, the wording of these concepts reveals underlying biases: Who wants to be labeled as “fixed” and not desiring “growth?” Not surprisingly, growth mindset overlaps with grit; both entail working hard to better oneself.

How can anyone argue against instilling resilience and bettering ourselves? Having the grit to grow one’s mind is admirable. But there is a key ingredient missing in these equations: Toward what end?

This is similar to the critique of “goal” by a prominent scholar, James March: Being goal-oriented or having goals is fine, but how do we evaluate the content of goals? For instance, is pushing for 100% safety record a good goal for an R&D entity? Would 93% be acceptable? Would 80% be considered a failure? Should diversity for, say a 5,000-employee organization, perfectly reflect the society’s racial composition?

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

In perpetuating some of these catchy concepts or phrases, we often pay too much attention to their potential benefits and neglect what it is we hope to achieve and more importantly, why. In the education arena, adopting “grit” and “growth mindset” has lead us to emphasize “praising the students’ efforts” while overlooking the content of their learning, and abandon the hope that learning itself is an exciting enterprise. Our sole goal seems to be that our students strive to test well. Good signals? I grew up in an all-grit educational environment; it was grueling at some times and pointless at most times.

These days, when kids hear “You’ve tried really hard, don’t worry about the outcomes yet,” they can’t help but think “Oh, I am really not good enough.” Students hear “trying/working hard” as code for “not very smart in the first place.” Put it differently: If we ask 100 kids picked at random to practice the violin with all the grit they can muster, how many do you think you’d enjoy listening to? If 10 students perform well, what should we do with the other 90? Tell them to develop more grit? Instead, how about we try harder to discover what would really make the other 90 kids excited, for which they would be “happy” to generate more grit, without being asked to? Applying this same principle to organizations: Wouldn’t it be more productive to task people with the activities they are naturally good at, and for which they would willingly “grit” their way to accomplish more than expected? Wouldn’t this be the win-win we truly desire?

But the way things are practiced in schools and organizations, the message is still that we need external definition of what we ought to do and external rewards for our “improvement” at it. Remember, intrinsic motivation is a whole lot more effective than extrinsic rewards. This notion has been robustly proven and resonates with almost everyone; however, it is largely ignored in organization (and school) life. People, of all ages, see empty praise and compliments for the manipulative moves they are. As Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar and a proponent of progressive education, puts it succinctly, “…the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging.”  Positive judgment may tickle us for a little while, but only fleetingly.

This doesn’t mean that we should forego all compliments and praise, but offer them with concrete evidence and useful feedback. People, again, of all ages, welcome specific information; they can better grow their minds knowing what, how, and why.

more like devil here, thanks to photoshop!

Another missed dimension in typical self-help promotional materials is the assumption that if only individuals did their part… In other words, adjust yourself to adapt to the changes. This is the fundamental flaw in the “Who Moved My Cheese?” which I wrote about before: You don’t get to question the content of the changes; you just need to adjust your own attitude and behavior. So, one of my favorite examples concerns the low rate of young women studying science (and I include math and engineering under that umbrella). Applying the “growth mindset” and “grit” concepts, we only need to focus on telling women that it’s all in their own minds. There is no institutional sexism in society; organizations really welcome all talent. Right, and I’ll win the next lottery.

My final point is this. There are valuable aspects of “grit” and “growth mindset.” But let us please grow our minds to go beyond the either-or mindset. Let’s develop our individual minds so that we can better evaluate our environment and question the structures of our schools, work organizations, governing entities, “smartphones” (maybe rename them “effortphones!”), the internet of things, etc. Let’s honor people’s desire to be autonomous, master their desired skills, and locate their own sense of purpose. Sometimes, it isn’t about us; sometimes, we need to strive for changing our environments and systems.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Follow-up on Introvert-Extrovert

Introverts aren’t automatically shy; shy people aren’t always introverts. And there are shy extroverts, truly.

My articles on introversion-extraversion* seemed to have struck a nerve with many readers, particularly the introverts. Not a surprise, since by definition, introverts generally wouldn’t be compelled to speak up themselves. However, from various comments and conversations, I feel the need to clarify and distinguish between introversion and shyness. Of course, these two concepts overlap, but they are fundamentally different. In Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which has provided much of the material for my articles, she explains the differences, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.” Her distinction is further articulated by a neuroscientist, “Shyness is a behavior; it is being fearful in a situation. Whereas introversion is a motivation; it is how much you want and need to be in those social interactions.”


Many people seem to have equated their feeling of inadequacy and awkwardness in social situations during their teenage years with introversion. As teenagers, about to enter into the adult social world — wholly different from anything they have known – it’s natural to feel uncomfortable interacting with adults. To further complicate the teens’ internal struggle for their nascent identity, the social codes of peers can also make them feel like outcasts, sometimes even among those “popular” ones. All this can overlap with true introversion. However, ultimately, it’s the feeling of joy in a solitary environment that partly defines introversion. If a teen feels that she has to adapt to solitude, that alone isn’t sufficient to establish that she must be an introvert.

Our struggles through our teen years sometimes can lead us to label ourselves erroneously. For the longest time, I would tell people that I have a very bad temper. It wasn’t till I was in my 30s, working on my PhD, when a fellow graduate student – a good friend – looked at me with exasperation in his voice, and asked, “Where in the world did you get that idea about yourself?” I paused, and answered, “My family.” From that “aha” moment, I have never since allowed that image to define myself.

My point is that there are always many nuances behind social concepts, labels, or principles.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School, demystifies “5 Myths About Introverts And Extroverts.” They are:

  1. “Extroverts are better salespeople than introverts
  2. Extroverts are better networkers than introverts
  3. Extroverts are better leaders than introverts
  4. Introverts are plagued by public speaking anxiety
  5. Extroverts get energy from social interaction, whereas introverts get energy from privately reflecting on their thoughts and feelings.”

All but one of Grant’s explanations resonates with me; it’s the last one and I’ll come to it later.

Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

I have written about ambiverts being the best salespeople, and how the quieter and more understated level-5 leaders are more effective than charismatic or flamboyant ones; therefore, I need little convincing to accept that introverts can be quite effective in any social situations when they choose to. An introvert’s network may not be as extensive as an extrovert’s – and even this is debatable — yet the network offers diversity and quality connections, which are necessary for effective networking.

Feeling anxious in public speaking is more related to shyness than to introversion-extraversion. Susan Cain offers the example of Barbara Streisand as a shy extrovert and Bill Gates and a calm (or, non-shy) introvert. We can’t always tell the difference from appearances. A shy person may not feel comfortable speaking up in a meeting; an introvert simply may not feel compelled to speak in a meeting. Similar behaviors, but from different sources of being. I learned that the recently deceased David Bowie, whose groundbreaking stage performance was the equal part of his success as a rock star, for the longest time abhorred going on stage. His preference was to do the design and song writing but have someone else sing and perform. Who’d have thought?! Of course, there are countless examples of performers who have used performance to overcome their shyness.

The Quiet author, Susan Cain herself is both an introvert and a shy person, but you wouldn’t know from her TED talk – one of the top five most viewed. To overcome her anxiety for the TED talk, she employed a performance coach ahead of her scheduled talk, to teach her how to control her breathing, and critique her numerous trial runs. Now she’s one of the most engaged public speakers, traveling all over the world. And each presentation has helped her desensitize her fear and make her more at ease. So, one can overcome anxiety but one does not need to overcome and compensate one’s introversion.

The myth that I struggle with is the one where introverts recharge by being alone while extroverts rely on social interactions. What Grant points out is that we are all social beings, and introverts can gain energy from social interactions as well. Grant elaborates further:

  • “Introverts spend about the same amount of time with other people as extroverts, and enjoy it just as much.
  • When people are randomly assigned to act extroverted or introverted, extroverts and introverts alike experience greater energy when they walk more.
  • Extroverts report the most energy when they’re being talkative and assertive–but so do introverts.”
It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Social beings need social interactions. True enough, then, what distinguish between introverts and extroverts? It’s the sensitivity to stimulation. So, all things being equal, introverts would get exhausted more quickly than extroverts in social interactions. Well…that negates all the points listed above. No? Personally, I question the application of the premise that “we are all social beings; we all fundamentally need to belong.” While the premise may be valid as a general principle, it does not necessarily hold for everyone, nor to the same extent.

Ultimately, regardless of one’s “types”– everyone possesses several — we aim to be at peace with ourselves.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

* According to Scott Barry Kaufman, “extrAversion” is more appropriate than “extrOversion” and accurate, most likely what Carl Jung would have intended. In principle, I probably should have used extravert, but that usage is almost non-existent, and so I will continue using extrovert. Academics!