My Lean In Story

Below is a story that I wrote to share at tomorrow’s Lean In networking tea at China House Cafe.

Emi and I are planning to announce the book project at this tea.

We plan to create a role model book of sorts – a first for Penang anyway – to document our own personal Lean In stories inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name.

One of the things that’s startlingly obvious is that we don’t have a book of local women heroes and trailblazers (yes we have a lot on famous women and celebrity women but what about local women, local heroines, the everyday woman?).

In the last couple of months, I have met some super smart women and I believe it is high time we recorded our own Malaysian history – of incredibly accomplished yet virtually unknown local women who are doing excellently in their own fields.

If you’d like to contribute a personal story to our Lean In book (and we’re still sourcing for sponsors!) please do.  In the meantime, let me know what you think of this story of mine.

===============

I used to work before I joined my husband in the business. I always tell people that if I didn’t run my business, I would be just as happy out there in the corporate world, having worked for 7 years before I took a break to do my Masters in Linguistics.

I thought I was quite a self-aware individual. 

Until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book. 

I thought I knew what I knew about myself and the world. And here I was, nodding vigorously as I read her book. It felt like someone you know is telling you how she viewed the world and you find yourself going, “Ohmygawd, me too!”

Suddenly women didn’t feel so alone and ridiculous with their thoughts. 

It felt very emotional at times too because Lean In addresses issues which are close to women – it doesn’t matter if you’re single or married, working or not. Of course her book is targeted at women who work but I chose to look at it as a universal message for all women. 

While some lambasted her for the book, I believe she opened a door to discussions – discussions that most women would not have engaged in if she had not put those messages out in the open.

With her book, we realise that women have stop underestimating their abilities. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are or how high you are on the corporate ladder. Most women have insecurities. 

We’re often not good enough, not clever enough, not confident enough. 

Over the years, I have learnt to focus on my strengths. Never believe it when books tell you to work on your weaknesses. You can but it will be so de-motivating. Work on your strengths instead – and I find that I am more energetic and enthusiastic when I am doing things I am best at, for instance, writing. And work on the messages that your brain tells you. Many of the messages are negative and throw you into a spiral of, you guessed it, underestimation of abilities!

I was once at an event where I watched a smart, articulate corporate woman give a good presentation. When I finally caught up with her after the event, she turned to me worriedly and asked, “How did I do? Was I OK?” 

Another friend always starts apologizing for her inability to park her car each time she tries to park her car. She doesn’t believe she can park her car properly and she doesn’t. Some people believe they’re always unlucky and guess what, they’ll end up having episodes that reinforce their bad luck! 

I think we need to be aware of these negative self-talk. This negative self-talk is dangerous and allows women to underestimate themselves, even when they’re excellent at what they do.

This reminds me of my own childhood. 

I was a very shy child. 

In school I used to watch my best friend go right up to the front of the class and animatedly launch into fantastic storytelling. She was unafraid of standing in front of 40 pairs of eyes and telling her story complete with gestures and facial expressions.

I wanted to be just like her! She was good at storytelling and everyone envied her skills. I didn’t know how she did it but all the same, I wanted to be just like her. 

Despite my fears of public speaking, I decided to raise my hand the next time our teacher asked if any of us wanted to join an inter-class storytelling competition. 

I decided to do what I feared most. 

Did I know what I was getting into? Nope.

Did I know it involved days of committing the story to heart and having to re-tell the story with all the enthusiasm and passion I could muster?

Did I win? 

No.

But did I learn something? Yes, I learnt that I could try and trying is better than sitting at the sidelines, watching others live life. 

Of course I wasn’t as magnificent as my best friend in storytelling – she had a natural flair. However I went on to join school debates and a whole lot more because I knew I could not underestimate myself if I wanted to reach out for what I wanted.

I would always give myself a chance to work things out.

That one tiny step – of braving myself to take part in storytelling – allowed me to move a little more out of my shell. It made me a little more sure of myself. It gave me the courage to try things, one step at a time. 

And once I read Lean In, it all fell into place for me. 

Women need to sit at the table, to welcome unexplored opportunities and to stop giving excuses.

We can all succeed if we stopped holding ourselves back from that project, that opportunity, that promotion especially if we really wanted to jump in and get going. We can all succeed if we stopped worrying about the future that’s 5 or 10 years away because we’re deciding to live life to the fullest today. 

I wish I read this book when I was just starting out after graduating.

It would have been such an inspiration and confidence-booster. To take heart that we all have abilities and we don’t need to underestimate ourselves but to just have fun and gun for it. 

No one gets anything if they don’t think they deserve their success. 

No one gets anywhere if they don’t think they’re good enough. 

Sheryl says, believe in yourself, negotiate for yourself, own your own success. 

It does take time and experience for each of us to feel truly comfortable in our own skin before we can truly own our own success. We will make many mistakes before we can be cool enough to admit we’re fine the way we are.

But we also need friends who support us. Or encouraging stories of women who have been there, done that and that road is not as rocky as it seems.

Or women who are kind enough to mentor us and teach us how to ask for a raise, how to say no firmly and how to evaluate if something is worth doing. No one teaches these things in school or university and we’re left grappling with issues and trying to find our way in this world. 

That’s why I look at Lean In as a leadership manual. It has given me permission to give myself an opportunity to try. That is how I got involved with facilitating at the Lean In Forum at Hard Rock Hotel. That is how I got involved with this book. That is how I am writing a non-fiction book on my own. 

A year ago, I would never have thought I’d write a book. Not because I couldn’t write. I majored in Journalism and I have been writing ferociously since I was 9 years old. Everyone tells me that if anyone were to write a book, it’d be me. 

I knew I had the skills. 

But deep inside, I asked myself, “Who am I to write a book, and a non-fiction one at that too?” 

It was a fear that gnawed at me and that monstrous fear kept pawing me, pulling me back. I didn’t feel I was worthy enough to write a book despite having the skills!

I have to say that Lean In gave me the courage to ask, “Why not?”  

Why should I not share my message with the world? Everyone has opinions and perspectives to share and mine is just as valid as the others out there. Why shouldn’t I be proud to talk about what I am passionate about? 

Every girl and woman should keep asking “Why not?” over and over because frankly, there is only one life to live. We might as well live large, exceptional fulfilling lives!