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The Business of Holding Yourself Back in Business

As a Japanese American, are we bound to be nothing more than excellent individual contributors?

Setting boundaries are hard. As the firstborn Asian daughter, a lot of my self-worth and pride have been wrapped up in this notion of being helpful. Going above and beyond. Excelling and over-delivering on expectations. Pleasing people.

“Sugoine, oneechan wa,” my mother would say to me while growing up.

It’s a sentence that encapsulates this idea of being the eldest. "Wow, older sister, you are great." Setting an example. Inspiring awe in my parents.

It’s been the secret to my success and the curse that bound me throughout my childhood and young adult life.

I don’t fault my mother for any of the struggles I faced during my time as a people pleaser, though. Now on the other side of the parent-child relationship, I also find myself marveling at my kids when they outperform my expectations. I don’t necessarily believe that this need to excel is outright a bad thing. Like everything, it’s a complicated and nuanced issue here where one factor can’t be the end all be all cause or solution for it.

After all, we all have different motivations behind our inability to say no. Be it lack of confidence, fear of rejection, or need to please others to name a few—but no matter the cause, one outcome remains true. This lack of setting boundaries will forever bind us (irony, much?) to be nothing more than individual contributors rather than leaders. And this is a problem, especially for women and BIPOC in this age of “seize your spot on the table.”

There’s quite a bit of unconditioning and self-reflection that needs to happen.

We all have different motivations behind our inability to say no.

Whether you’re work for someone else or for yourself, when your existence is that of delivering results that can only be achieved by overexerting, then you are going to burn out. And people who burn out do not have the energy or time to invest in their self-development and career advancement. Nor do they hone the skills necessary to be a successful leader.

Therein lies the rub.

Think of every bad boss you’ve had. Sure, they were super useless and deserved to die every one of the million deaths that you imagined, but I'll bet that they got to their position by doing what people with problems saying "no" have trouble doing.

They said no to things. Simple as that.

I recognize too that part of what makes this so challenging for me is because the "saying no outright" is very un-Japanese. In fact, ever since starting my business 6 years ago I have seen how the creative entrepreneur and freelance space asks of me to do things that bring me discomfort culturally. Selling myself is a big one, talking and boasting about myself. Becoming a jack-of-all trades, wearing many hats as a team of one. Pushing when need be, with no enryo. Fighting the instinct to belittle myself to make other people feel better, as an act of service and kindness.

It's still something I need to practice every day, but I'd say I'm getting there.

Because guess what, no one in the workplace or the industry or the world even, is there for you.

That sounds harsh, but it's true.

In Japanese, you can't say to someone, "I worked hard." That's only a valuation and observation that others can make OF you, not for YOU to say. That's in bad taste.

You need to be your own advocate. You can't just work with your head down and wait for someone to notice that you have been working until midnight and volunteer you a raise and a promotion. If you won't even fight for yourself and your boundaries, who will?

This is again, very un-Japanese.

There's a word gambatta in Japanese, it's the past-tense of ganbaru which is to work hard. It's used as an assessment of your work—with a catch. You don't ever say that about yourself.

You can't say to someone, "I worked hard." That's only a valuation and observation that others can make OF you, not for YOU to say. That's in bad taste.

See the problem here?

This makes someone an amazing individual contributor though, because companies love nothing more than amazing foot soldiers who will bang out the work without complaining. That's not a bad thing, that makes sense. Why wouldn't you want excellent workers at a salary that's below their performance? They're doing their job to run their company smoothly. It's the individual's job to make their own environment and condition what's best for them.

I did not do this in my corporate days. Working in digital marketing, I did all the things I described above—working late, answering emails all hours of the day, making edits and changes after the deadline, all in the name of helping out. All in the name of being a team player. Then I cursed these companies, saying Hulu is too demanding or Disney doesn't care about me—when the truth was, I was too demanding. I didn't care about me.

It was never them. It was me.

Because the same exact thing happened when I started my own company. Here I was, thinking I've escaped a toxic work environment that failed me when in fact I was failing myself (not to let them off the hook entirely, sure they were kind of intense too but I could've done more)—and I let it happen still, but with clients. Giving additional support outside of the scope, creating custom pricing packages to help their budget, and then becoming resentful.

I thought I was helping, but I wasn't doing anyone a favor in the long run because the work experience became draining and I wasn't giving my best, even though I was the one who decided to drive myself to the ground. The client asked, but they couldn't MAKE me. I made that decision myself, yet blamed them for it.

It makes no sense, does it?

Whether you’re work for someone else or for yourself, when your existence is that of delivering results that can only be achieved by overexerting, then you are going to burn out.

This is not to say that I find my tendency to be an amazing individual contributor a crutch. Like many flaws, I do find that your strengths and your weaknesses are two sides of the same coin (if that's not an interview answer I don't know what is). It does, however, force me to self-reflect quite a lot when making decisions about a new project or how to approach a difficult client situation. Sometimes I can only make small changes, like taking out the "sorry" in my emails unless I really fucked up. I no longer say "sorry for the trouble" when asking for someone to do their goddamn job.

While I worry sometimes that I'm being rude, my husband really said it best. If being an asshole is an Olympic sport, there are Usain Bolts and there are—well, me. Even if I start to jog a little on the weekends, I will never out-asshole a true asshole, so may as well ask for what's mine.

Sorry for the trouble.

Article featured in this issue:
April 2022
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