unconscious bias

Keep your eyes open for mentors: Part 8 of live-blogging _The Person You Mean to Be_.

Kyle’s parents were believers, whom Kyle describes as “well-meaning white people.”…Before Kevin [Kyle’s husband], Kyle does not remember talking about race at the family dinner table. Kyle says, “[My parents] had never thought of the systems narrative.” When Kyle and Kevin explained how tailwinds benefit well-meaning white people, moral identity reflexes kicked in….”But I am a good person,” Kyle’s mom, Jodi, protested. “I’m not a racist.”

The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 131

Consider the differences in a world experienced by a young person in 2018 versus 1998 versus 1968 versus 1948. We are each a product of the time and place in which we live. Look for the opportunity to ask someone of a different time and place about his or her perspective. Reverse mentoring sounds very formal, but it can be casual. Start a conversation with a young cashier or a young colleague or a young relative.

The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 141

One thing I really love about Chugh’s book is the way the challenges she sets for us seem to cascade into each other, and the way that her anecdotes eventually build to paint a complete picture of the way that we can apply what we’ve read and the people we met in the pages of her book to our own lives. If you’re reading along with me, or following this series so that you see how I’m applying what Chugh teaches us, I’d love to hear what you’ve gleaned so far.

As I’m diving deep into how each part of this book makes me think or reconsider, I feel, as I heard a guest on newsradio say in the wee hours of the morning after President #45 won the 2016 election, a sense of alertness. “I feel awake,” she said, when asked how seeing a racist and a sexist in the White House made her feel, and although I can’t remember who it was, I still remember the tone of her voice. She sounded surprised, as if she didn’t know what she’d say until the words actually popped out of her mouth.

I feel this way, too—awake, to how I see things, and how events and circumstances make me react. I feel like everywhere there are opportunities for me learn and grow, whereas before I feel like I was scuttling around in the dark, looking for the right verbiage with which to express myself.

The big reveal of the first quote above is that “Jodi” is Jodi Picoult, who’s written a number of best-selling novels that explore a wide variety of social situations. The upshot is that, despite the fact that Picoult is a “good person” who tackles “the hard issues” in some of her books, she hadn’t even been aware to the idea that she might be carrying around some systemic baggage.

And in the verbiage around the second quote, Picoult reveals how much she’s learned from her son and his husband, and how listening to them allows her to be reverse-mentored. (I think this phrasing, which is from Jack Welch, is about the traditional model of mentoring being old-person-to-young-person.)

I haven’t noticed a lot of reverse mentoring in my life. I think this is because I grew up in a household that regularly told kids we don’t know anything. Now, I just assume I know nothing, although in my teens and twenties and probably my early and mid-30s, I was keen to prove I already knew everything.

So yeah, I think I can probably say that it’s just in the last decade that I’ve begun to embrace “I don’t know” as a place of comfort and curiosity, rather than defaulting to a defensive position.

Some of that probably has to do with seeing my parents come late to knowledge. Our family and extended family identifies as Buddhist and Confucist. (I myself practice neither, although elements of each are interesting to me.) In Confucianism, here is no room for anything but respect when it comes to older and younger: the elder is always right. (Further, the wife is always obedient to the husband, but that is a whole ‘nother bag of worms.) So, in my parents’ societal construct, there was never a possibility that they could learn from any younger people. We’ve reached a kind of equilibrium now, and they’re asking about things that I think they should have known ages ago (LGBTQ! The role nonprofits play in society! How readers can tell a poem is a poem!), and this depresses me.

The other part of it has to do with the fact that I’m 45, but I kind of stopped counting at 30, or something. A while ago a younger friend said to me, about a mutual friend, “Mm, she’s more your age,[emphasis mine] and I had to reconfigure my thought process about just how old I was. Part of me takes comfort in the idea that I’ll always be young and stupid, and that there will always be something to learn.

The unintended effect of all of this is that I had to fight my way to seeing that everyone out there can teach us something. It’s a thing I repeated to myself over and over all the way through my twenties until it became quickly proven to me and then just became habit. It keeps me happy, I think, knowing that knowledge, or another perspective, is right around the corner, and that my only job is to be open to it.

And while I think that phrase—”reverse mentoring”—only addresses the idea that traditional mentoring is done older person to younger person, it’s important to me to recognize that we often unconsciously put people in varying strata of experience, skills, and knowledge. Maybe because they don’t speak English as well as we do. Maybe because they’re younger, sure, but maybe because they don’t work in our chosen profession, say, and so don’t have the same knowledge set we do. (Why, for instance, would I expect my doctor father to understand what a poem looks like, and be able to identify it? Would he expect me to be able to identify a rash?) Or maybe because we’re too quick to write off what they do know as irrelevant to the things we care about.

These are all mistakes I’ve made. I’m glad to have been proven otherwise by people who were patient enough with me, and to have had time in this life to rectify those mistakes.


18 years ago, my friend Andrew said to me that he thought kindness was a function of time. (I wrote about this here.) Until very recently (last night!) I thought it meant that *I* needed to give myself the time and space to be kind. But I think now that it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s that we need to be cognizant that change takes time and space. And that it’s not going to happen overnight, but that if you can be aware that time and space are broad, then maybe you will eventually see the breadth of what you don’t know.

And this, eventually, will lead to kindness, too.


I recently had a conversation with my cousin’s daughter. (In Taiwanese she’d call me aunt.) She’s in her mid-twenties. I remember my mid-twenties. A little while ago our conversations started to shift. Before, she was asking me for advice. Now, we talk to each other. Over Thanksgiving dinner, puzzling out a big overarching thing I was struggling with, I asked her if she thought it was more important to be kind or to be right.

“It depends,” she said. “If you think you can help someone to see a different perspective, then I think it’s more important to be right. But with people like our parents? It’s more important to be kind.”

I agree with her. And I also think that I can see how kindness is still the pathway to being “right,” whatever we think that means. Regardless of what our perspective is, we’ll never get someone else to see it if we’re, well, mean.

I’m not sure how to end this post. I just know that I’m so grateful for all the people with different perspectives out there, even if I’m not ready to hear them yet. At some point, I think I’ll have to take the time to listen more carefully.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The people who make up your network, or part 7 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_.

This is part 7 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…When we only perceive what we expect, we create an echo chamber. We do not look for or notice disconfirming information….What makes these psychological echo chambers even more problematic is that we also live in social and media echo chambers. These are more willfully created. These are the ones we choose….
A PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) American Values Survey asked participants to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters….They found that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Hispanics had homogenous networks composed exclusively of people sharing their own race.”

Dolly Chugh, The Person YOU Mean to Be, pp 100-102

You know how the universe sometimes conspires with you? You’ll look at your calendar and see three meetings with varying parties and friends related to one client, say. Or you’ll realize that, on a day you have an appointment for your dog at the vet, you also notice a new bird you haven’t seen before, or make a new friend who’s studying to be a vet.

Some people say that that’s all just your brain being aware of opportunities that “go together.” Another friend likes to say it’s whatever “energy” you’re putting out there when you book the appointment, or the meeting. It might just be sheer, magical coincidence.

I don’t actually care what it is that makes these things group; I just like that they do. And I like all the explanations, actually.

In the past seven days, I have spent quality time with six friends I’ve known since at least high school. I had drinks with one of them last night; drinks with another two Wednesday night, and spent last weekend with three others. All of this time with old friends, people who know you so well that they’ve accepted all of your bumps and warts and expect more, has me re-assessing why it is we go back to some people again and again.

Because the truth is, I’ve been sitting on top of the task that Dolly Chugh sets to us in the quote I posit I above for more than a month. Her work implicitly challenges us to examine our own networks, and the extent of our own echo chambers. It’s much easier for me to feel good about the fact that I have old friends who work in widely varying fields, and who I’m proud of knowing and want to keep forever, than it is to acknowledge that my own networks are really, really homogenous.


But this is where it gets really tricky. Because, see, I’m part of a “model minority.” And in recent years, I’ve read or seen a good number of studies that show that Asians are often lumped in with whites: we have similar income trends for instance. And we have similar educational profiles, as well. I think we tend to disappear. (Read this essay, from Matt Salesses, for another valuable viewpoint.)

More anecdotally, the stereotype of Asians not wanting to rock the boat, of just quietly slotting in, fits neatly into this narrative, as well. And actually, maybe it’s not a stereotype. My parents told me regularly to just be quiet, hunker down and get my work done. While, of course, earning the best grades in school and being popular, or something. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.)

All of this is to explain that most of my friends were–and are–white. Of the friends I met over the course of the last week, my high school friends, only one of them isn’t white; she’s Iranian. So while Chugh comments that whites, blacks, and Hispanics have networks that comprise mostly their own races, well…I don’t have that issue. But it doesn’t make me feel any more diverse, because for a long time I acted like I was white myself.


I don’t really know what to do about this, except to exercise more inclusion in my life. I’m married to a white guy; my parents are Asian, so is my brother. It’s like, although it’s enough for other people to have more than one ethnicity in their social circles, it’s not enough for me to have Asians and whites in the pool of people I share important things with; I have to have more diversity; be more.

And suddenly, I’m back in high school again, with my parents comparing me to the next kid, over and over: Why can’t you be more popular, like her? Why can’t you be smarter, like her? Why can’t you be more obedient, like her? Why can’t you be quieter prettier care more about your family not quite you?

Listen: I’m not complaining. I like, need, value more viewpoints. Hearing what it’s like from someone else’s point of view is like having a light turned on in a dark room. Yesterday I spent some time with some young Hispanic and Black students as part of a conference I participated in. And one of the panels I was on comprised a white woman, an Indian woman, a black woman, and myself. I loved hearing about their creative processes. I got to spend some additional time with one of the volunteers at the conference. Driving her home, I listened to her talk about the pressures she’s under as a young black woman, what her family expectations are, how she thinks her career in the fine arts is going to shape up.

I hope one day I’ll be able to list her, or someone like her, among the group of people I discuss important issues with.


But for now I have to tell you that the seven people I most discuss important issues with are white or Asian.

They are:
My husband
My brother
My friend Amy
My friend Peter
My friends and neighbors Suzanne and/or Aurelia or both together
My friends Dawn and/or Leigh Anne or both together

Actually, discounting the high school friends (Amy is one), these are just the last sevenish people I discussed difficult or serious things with.

Of them, only my brother is a minority. And he wouldn’t count as being diverse, since he shares my race.


I don’t actually know what to do with this. I didn’t think I’d arrive at this conclusion. I think I thought that I’d just add this to my long list of “to do” items-—consult with more diverse people; make a concerted effort to reach out more often for differing viewpoints. I thought this was going to end on a high note, somehow, that I’d feel energized, after yesterday’s amazing conference, to make more friends. But really, I’m just tired now, and a little depressed. The collision between wanting to be good and my cultural heritage has caught up to me today.

And yet. Two, three weeks ago I was walking Huckleberry in the soccer field by my house when I saw another dog in the field. It was bouncing and happy, and its owner was sitting nearby. I went over and introduced myself and let my dog go, and since then, Huckleberry, Nala, Bruce and I have spent three or four mornings together in the field, talking about everything from work to President Number 45 to our siblings and work and code-switching.

Bruce is 60. He’s black. I am putting him on my list. Because I appreciate him, yes. But also because I need more of his type of wisdom. I didn’t actively reach out to him that first time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But maybe being open to those encounters is good, too, even if it’s not “good enough.”


The American entrepreneur Jim Rohn is often quoted as saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If I’m thinking of this as an aspirational exercise, rather than a foregone conclusion, I feel a sense of great responsibility.

I want to be more worldly. I want to know what it was like for you, if you grew up Black. Or poor. Or gay or queer or trans. I am none of these things, and I can never be. So maybe it’s not that I am the average of the five people I spend the most time with, but that I am richer, a better person, if I can learn a little more of your story.

This might feel like a false comparison. Chugh is talking about expanding our circles; making our echo chambers less echoey. Jim Rohn is talking about bettering yourself. He’s talking about finding people you admire and looking for ways to spend more time with them so you can be more like them.

But I don’t think these two are all that far removed from each other. Internalizing someone else’s struggle—knowing about it, shining a light on it for yourself, knowing more about it—this can’t be anything but a good thing, can it?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“Luck” is way bigger than you think it is. Part 5 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 5 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Colleen realized that even if everyone in the community had her family’s work ethic, they still might not be able to overcome all the headwinds they were facing. … “What if I had been born black instead of white?” she wondered. What if her grandparents had been black? Colleen asked herself.
… Because fewer of [Colleen’s] hypothetical black family members could access benefits, homes, places in college, and so on, she saw that there were more opportunities for her real white family. They benefited as black Americans subsidized white Americans, through both tax dollars and forgone opportunities. Regardless of her family’s socioeconomic class, they benefited from the tailwinds at their back and the headwinds slowing down others. … “In other words,” Colleen says, “I am the direct beneficiary of those racist systems.”

Dolly Chugh, _The Person You Mean to Be_, pp 71 & 78

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the phrase “Good luck,” and why I stopped saying it to people. TL;DR: a lot of good luck is preparation, and I want to respect the work that goes into people’s endeavors.

When someone starts off on the first mile of a marathon (or a 5K!), for instance, I don’t tell them “good luck.” I tell them I hope they have all the fun they want to have. These people have worked hard to train. They don’t deserve to think it’s all down to luck.

When I was younger, I demurred a lot when folks complimented me on my success in what they saw as the fickle world of writing and publishing. “Aw,” I’d say, feeling really embarrassed, “I got lucky.”

But then, at some point, I got to believing that it was better to just own it. I had worked hard. And, it made me feel good to believe and say that I had worked hard. I was deserving, dammit.

Enter the bootstrap narrative.

But I did not have to bootstrap; not really. My parents paid for college. (But I worked at the college newspaper and in the public relations office!) We never wanted for anything at home. (But my parents threatened to withhold tuition if I didn’t study what they wanted me to study.) I could afford an apartment my first year living in New York, and I refused support from my family, even when I was eating free Goldfish crackers off bars for dinner and making $18,000 a year.

You must have noticed all the little protests I keep on throwing up there. Those aren’t there for illustration’s sake. They’re completely reflective of what goes through my head, I promise: Every single admission of how easy I had it comes with a knee-jerk response. And I’m not alone, either: Earlier in the book, Chugh refers to psychologists Taylor Phillips’ and Brian Lowery’s work, which reveals what they term the “hard-knock life” effect: respondents answering a question about their relative comfort in life answered one way or another depending on whether or not they heard about another social group’s struggles in comparison to theirs. Put more frankly, white Americans were more likely to report an easier childhood if they weren’t asked to compare their advantages to those of black Americans.


I think this is related to the idea that society is a meritocracy. I’ll sidestep into a field I’m more familiar with. Let’s look at literature, and publishing. So many writers believe that if you’re just good enough, or talented enough, the “right people” will “find you,” and then you’ll be gold. Life will be good. Cue Oprah and Terry Gross and a movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company.

C’mon. You don’t really believe that, do you? As a writer I was communicating with put it, “I realized that an executive from HarperCollins was not going to suddenly appear as I was scribbling in my notebook in a diner.” No. No she’s not. And if she does, she’s more likely to ask you for your salt shaker than she is to ask you if she can see your notebook. And then be able to pull a narrative thread from your ramblings.

Let’s take that a little further. You’re sitting in a diner? It means you can afford to eat there. You have time to write? It means you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’re within vicinity of a HarperCollins editor? You’re probably hanging out in an okay part of town.

Let’s not even talk about the MFAs. I have one myself, and it netted me a gazillion connections. I currently publish a magazine and run a writers’ retreat with four friends from that same MFA. And I got one of my steadiest writing gigs via an editor I met at the MFA. And I’m sending my next novel to an agent I met there.

MFAs are expensive, man. I got in because I got decent grades at a good college and could afford to hone my craft freelancing over fifteen years or so. I graduated because I could afford an unfunded MFA at a low-residency institution. That is some rarified air, indeed.


Denying my privilege—my luck—would be silly and misguided. And blind.

I’ve covered each end of the spectrum now: I went from from not being able to admit I worked hard to prescribing my success to only hard work.

I’ve walked away from my desk seven times while writing this paragraph, so that must mean that what I want to say next is hard: I need to find a way to both recognize my hard work and acknowledge the invisible help I’ve had in getting me to this point.

To wit:

  • My family is well off. This means that I am more likely to take creative risks, since some part of me is aware I’ll always have someplace to turn if things really hit the skids.
  • Both of my parents are college educated, which means they also expected me to get an undergraduate degree, at a minimum. Of course they would pay for it.
  • My parents were able to immigrate to America with no real barriers. My father had a job already set up when he arrived, thanks to his extensive network of doctors who had graduated from the same medical school he did.

Of course I can’t deny that my ethnicity, and that presents a set of barriers.

  • I was expected to marry.
  • I was expected to only become either a doctor or a lawyer.
  • I was expected to demure.
  • I was expected to fade into the background, or I didn’t fit in.

These expectations came from my parents, certainly. But they also come from the American society I wanted to adopt as my own. The number of times I’ve had to hear “Wow, you’re opinionated for an Asian girl.” Oi.

Oi.


Now that I see these things written out, I can better balance what I “came with”—what makes me lucky—with what I actually had to work for. I can see more clearly the things that might be useful for me to address when I look at how to better promote equity in my workplaces and social places.

For instance, I can represent minorities working in publishing and media and work to lift others. The publishing industry is 87% white. Minority narratives have not always been in demand, even if they are earning some share of the market now.


My parents have a strange saying that always rankles. But still, it has a tinge of truth to it: “Don’t try to help others until you’re sure you can help yourself.” They’re not wrong: I can do far less good if I’m destitute or starving. What they haven’t quite internalized, though, is that everyone has their own respective measurements of the levels at which we believe we need help. And, I’m not sure they buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, but I do.

Last fall, when the election result that I didn’t want to happen happened, I had to sit down and have a long conversation with a white family member about the implications for people who might be impacted, including myself. I’ll never forget what she said:

“But they won’t be targeting you, Yi Shun. Asians have such good work ethics.”

To this day, recalling that conversation makes me go lightheaded. I haven’t pinned down what kind of lightheaded. I’m not angry. I’m a little hurt, still, because I have a terrible work ethic, actually, and this family member knows that. Her lumping me in with this stereotype erased my individuality. I think maybe part of the lightheadedness is a direct reaction to the realization of how far apart this family member and I are from each other in our world views: After a beat during which I saw confused blue spots, what I said to her was this:

“Whenever you see or hear the word ‘minority,’ you should think of me. Black, Latino, Asian–we are all targets. And so are the people who value us and spend time with us.”

Or maybe the lightheadedness is due to the recognition of the fact that she was right. I’m not likely to be as targeted as Black Americans, or Latino Americans, or Muslim Americans.

This, too, I have to credit to luck.

very bad drawing of little girl sitting cross-legged below some gigantic clueless smiling shamrocks.
I have no idea what I am doing with markers, FYI.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Work-in-progress, and I’m not talking about my next novel: Live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…If I have a growth mindset about drawing, I believe that I can improve my stick figures with effort, time, and feedback. The alternative, a fixed mindset, is where I see myself as fully formed—either as someone who is terrible at drawing or wonderful at drawing or somewhere in between—and destined to stay that way. The fixed mindset is an “either/or” mindset because it allows no room for being a work-in-progress.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, pg 24

During a group activity I was participating in, one of the group members kept on calling out for his “Cambodian wife.” Earlier, he’d introduced me to our colleagues as his “Korean wife.” When the Cambodian wife line got no answers, he switched to asking for his “Vietnamese wife.”

I am none of these things, but it was apparent he was calling for me: I was the only Asian woman on the course.

Let it be said that my relationship to this person is jovial, and long. It involves banter and beer and a lot of loudness. This had been going on for years before I finally said I’d had enough. “Stop,” I told him. “You’re not saying these things because you think Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese women are to be respected. You’re saying it because you think they’re caricatures. And I’m not any of those things, anyway.”

“I know,” he said, and “I’m sorry. I really thought we were having such a good time.”

“You were,” I said, with a twinge of guilt. “But I’m not. It’s hurtful. You have to stop saying things like that.”


I don’t believe my friend and I have ever really recovered from this exchange. But I’m willing to bet that those of you reading this probably are focused on the fact that I felt guilty telling him these things. “Why?” some of you are saying to the screen. “Why on earth would you feel guilty?”

I’m feeling guilty because I wish I had said something before. I wasn’t ever the kind of person to enjoy a joke like that, but for most of my adult life I just swam with the jokes, believing them to be what I had to work with, to deal with, as a minority in America. I wanted to get along, so I just let them go.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr., I suppose, when he endured being the “Man of the Hour” at Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Oh, you, haven’t seen it? It’s an hour long, but you only have to watch the first eight minutes to be party to jokes about everything from watermelons to lynching:

(As always with YouTube videos, don’t read the comments. They made me nuts.)

“Oh,” you might say, “it’s just a sign of the times.”

It was this kind of thinking that led to my belief that I could only endure. I didn’t think it mattered enough for me to stand up and say something. But then I realized that the people around me weren’t necessarily laughing. And when I brought up the incident and the previous ones to leadership of the event we were at, they said, “Oh. When we first saw it happening, we took cues from you. We saw you were laughing, so we just went along with it.”

Later, they told me that they had mistaken it for something personal to our relationship, which I maybe could have stood for. And then they said, “We thought it might be an American thing.”

When Chugh writes about growth mindset versus fixed mindset, she’s mostly talking about individuals, and the way we see ourselves and each other. But I’m thinking more about society, and the way we see it. I’m thinking about how the way we see ourselves as individuals feeds into the way society is, and whether or not it’s within our power to do anything about it.

I was operating under the assumption that there was nothing I could do to change this. “It is what it is” had become my motto. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had become my lifestyle.


Take, for example, my allergy to math. For a long time, I caricatured myself: “You’re talking to the only Asian ever to have scored a D- in Algebra,” I’d say at cocktail parties, by way of eliciting a laugh, or by way of making myself stand out, maybe.

During a game of Cards Against Humanity, a close friend drew a set of cards that had her nearly choking on her drink. They were so funny–and seemed so apropos–that I took a photo of them. All of my friends know and believe that I am terrible at math. I have told them so. They never let me calculate the tip.

But in another interaction, a friend looked at me curiously when I ran the line about my being a terrible Asian/math person. “Why perpetrate that stereotype?” he asked, quietly, and I went into a corner to sit and Think About What I Had Done.

And in yet another interaction, my friend Roz’s mother, who teaches fifth grade, put on her teacher voice and said, “You’re not bad at math, Yi Shun. You’ve just never made it a priority.”

Hey. I like that. And even if my not making math a priority does lead to my being terrible at math, well…it doesn’t mean I can’t be better at it one day. Everything is a work in progress, even my math skills.


I think seeing systems—and ourselves!—as flexible, and works in progress, has true application beyond our desires to be good. A belief that we can change the systems around us to work more efficiently is a valuable, healthy way forward.

A friend works as a programs director in a small city government. She has inherited what can only be described as a dysfunctional workplace. For instance, when she doesn’t respond to emails within ten minutes, the person or resident who is asking for help or information either calls her directly or comes to her desk, even if she’s specifically asked for that time alone, to work on grant proposals or paperwork or admin. When I told her I had moved to checking e-mail only three times a day, she laughed merrily and told me the system wouldn’t tolerate that.

My friend essentially works every single weekend as a direct result of this system.

I don’t know anything about working in a city government. But I think that there are lots of ways she can challenge the status quo to make it work better for her, even if she’s having to press against many years of doing things one fixed way. And people can change, too. My friend’s claim that the people around her won’t respect her time is a false claim, I believe. I think she can probably encourage them, in her role as programs director, to see that the workplace can produce even better programming than ever before if she can cut down on things like e-mail and interruptions of a more obvious nature, like people opening her closed office door or stepping into her blocked-off calendar.


In another book I read recently, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors write about how important it is to recognize the idea that conversations that feel bad may be affecting us because they threaten our ideas of who we are.

In the case of the first interaction I described, my friend thought he was being jovial. He thinks of himself as being funny, the guy who gets the laughs. I thought of myself as the cool girl, the one who could roll with the punches and “take it,” whatever “it” was.

In the case of my friend and her dysfunctional workplace, she may see herself as the woman who can work with whatever difficulty she’s presented with. She may not want to rock the boat.

I don’t know what’s happening yet, in the case of me and the mathematics thing. It’s probably a combination of wanting to be the cool girl, the girl who can laugh at herself in straight-talk fashion, and the girl who will never rock the boat.


Challenging the system feels like touching a cactus spine, to me. “I wonder if…” and then, the inevitable, ouch! But sometimes, you touch a cactus spine, and you think, Well, hunh. That’s not so bad. If you touch it gently enough, you might even try it again, until you eventually see that cactus as not a terrible Danger Plant (TM), but just as something to be navigated.

In the extended version of this metaphor, and if you’re me, you might find yourself loving cacti, and then saddled with an unhealthy obsession with all things related.

Or you can draw your own metaphors. Whatever way you choose to look at it, the best systems are the flexible ones. And those systems comprise flexible people, with growth mindsets.

smiling cactus wearing a hat made of flowers

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

It’s broke: Love it enough to fix it

When I was in college, eleventy trillion years ago, I was editor-in-chief of the paper which served the five colleges that made up our undergraduate system. I think I did that for a year or so.

Our offices were in the basement of the college bookstore; I had a key and a stipend and there were a few scandals during my tenure on the paper overall, from writer to news editor to editor-in-chief. I really can’t remember what they were about or who they involved, probably because my hippocampus or frontal lobe or amygdala or whatever or maybe all of it wasn’t developed enough to comprehend what was actually happening.

At any rate, all of this led to some indignation and righteousness and then I became editor-in-chief, and this led to a good friend of mine sitting in the living room of one of the dorms we used to hang out in at another college (??? why did we do this? so strange. i know we had friends there, but…anyway), talking about the newspaper.

I remember distinctly telling him I thought it was broken. And I remember Jake being royally pissed off. He was red in the face, even. “How can you say that?” he asked. “This is your thing now. You should be proud of it!”

“I am proud of it,” I said. “There’s just a lot that needs to be fixed about it. It needs a lot of changes.”

Jake wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t comprehend how you can love a thing, respect it, and want it to change. He saw it as the height of disrespect that I would tell him that it needed changes.

But see, for me, loving a thing means wanting to change it. You love a thing despite of all its flaws, or maybe even because of them. You see it for everything it is. You know it so, so well that you are an expert in its weak points, its pain points, its very realness. And yet, you continue to work at it, because you see what it can become.

College was a long-ass time ago. (I graduated in 1996.) But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and it pops up in my memory now and again.

Most recently, I remembered it because of that terrible tweet from our commander-in-chief, saying that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (It’s missing a hyphen, but whatever.) Yes, yes, three of the four women he was addressing are from America already, but I was struck by how intent 45 is on how great this nation is. Lawmakers go into office, as I understand it, to effect change in a place they love, not to sit on their laurels.

But then, probably because I can’t stand to think of 45 very long before my head explodes and I make yet more wrinkles in my lips from unsavory expressions, I pivoted to the conversation I had with Jake, all those years ago: How I feel the way I do because of the way I grew up. And how it’s probably the same with Jake.

I don’t know much about the way Jake grew up, actually. I’ve visited his home town only once, and his family home on the same visit. (On this same visit, Jake ribbed me about being a baseball fan who doesn’t know what a “balk” is. “You know, I think it’s really weird that you call yourself a baseball fan but you don’t know what a balk is,” he said, and I returned that there was so much more to love about baseball than its infuriating intricacies.)

But I do know about the way I grew up. In my household, criticism was a daily pill. No! Pills you take once a day. This was more like windows, peeing, air–criticism was always there. My brother and I were criticized–too fat, too sickly, too loud, too stupid–as a manifestation of our parents’ love. Nothing was good enough, and so nothing would ever be perfect.

This backdrop manifests itself in my adult life in other ways, too. When I am running with my young dog, Huckleberry, I give him grades for how he behaves. If he looks at a dog passing by on the other side of the street and doesn’t lunge or drag me in its direction or bark, that’s 98% good. If he lunges, that’s 73%. If he lunges and barks and drags me, that’s 33% and no cookie.

If he goes right on by, that’s 100%. Perfect.

I actually tell him this. “Good boy, Huckleberry! One hundred percent! I am so impressed!”

Or, “What was that? That was terrible. Sixty-five percent. Not even close to passing.”

What happens in my brain when I run with Huckleberry. Why, why?!

Friends, I hate grades. I hate them with the fire of a thousand flaming Dumpsters.* I hate them because I am bad at them, and because they were used as leverage all my life. I avoid them whenever possible in my teaching, preferring to assess my students qualitatively.

And yet, with the least assuming creature in my life, there they are. Bang. I cannot escape them.

You probably already know where this is going. I am fascinated by the role our upbringings have in who we are as adults. I think I can trace everything I do today to what happened to me and what I was exposed to as a kid. I am fascinated, in short, by unconscious, or implicit, bias.


For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I’ll be working through a live-blog** of Dolly Chugh’s book _The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh is a social psychologist, and I admire her work. I learned a lot from her book, and the posts are meant to be a way for me to illustrate for myself the lessons I’ve learned, and they can also be seen as a way for you to think about some of the issues she raises. Some these issues are: Why we believe what we do; how to broaden our perspectives; how to talk to people who don’t have our perspectives and not go completely batsh*t.

I made a couple annotations, or something.

For anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a good person, for anyone who wants to be a better person, for anyone who feels stymied about how to be a good person when there are so many varying definitions of “good person”–this book is for you. I hope my posts can supplement your reading of it.***

Talk to you soon. And if you’ve read this book and want to discuss with me, drop me a line: yishun@thegooddirt.org

*I used this phrase in a comment to my class awhile ago. They have to cite themselves to avoid self-plagiarizing, so I’ll do the same here: Yi Shun Lai, Brightspace class announcement, 7.22.19, SNHU Online MFA program.

**It’s not technically a live-blog. I’ve already read the thing. But I didn’t know what else to call it.

***I find seeing examples of things helps to cement an understanding of it, so this is also for me.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.