Growing up in a Chinese immigrant household, anything an elder said was taken as the truth. I wasn’t allowed to express my opinions because that meant I was “talking back.” I learned to accept things even if I didn’t agree with them. For a while, this type of behavior served me well. I was a good student and always did as I was told. I got along with people easily, always mediating and avoiding tension.
It wasn’t until I started working at a full-time job that I realized the pitfalls of my conditioning. No one was going to stand up for me the way that I would stand up for myself. It was up to me to be my own advocate, even in situations that make me feel uncomfortable. There were times when I fell short, and there were times when I pushed myself, even when I felt scared. Here’s what I learned from those experiences.
1. The answer will always be no, unless you ask.
I signed a contract to join a consulting firm during my senior year of college. However, I wanted to defer my start date for one year so that I could study abroad. I remember how worried I was to ask for a deferral. I thought to myself: "What if they feel like I’m ungrateful for my job offer? What if they rescind my offer?” Had I not asked, the answer would have been a definite no. Despite my fears, I asked for a deferral, and to my pleasant surprise, it was granted.
When I joined a year later, I discovered that my signing bonus (based on the previous year) was different from that of others in my cohort, by a whopping 66%. If it had been a marginal difference, I would not have given it much thought. However, with a potential 66% increase, I didn’t want to leave money on the table. Again, it was very uncomfortable for me to broach HR as a 23-year-old with zero work experience, without a case to make; however, I was reminded, yet again, that the answer will always be no, unless you ask. So I went and asked HR. They acknowledged the difference in the signing bonuses and increased mine to match that of my peers.
2. Your feelings are valid. It’s just a matter of how you express them.
When I worked in consulting, I was on a project with a client whom I disliked due to his unpleasant demeanor and tendency to micromanage. Even my manager recognized the difficulties in working with this client. On several occasions, my manager asked me for my thoughts on the client and asked if there was any way that he could support me. Rather than being honest with him, I told him that everything was fine.
I didn’t share my grievances with my manager or anyone else in my company because I felt I shouldn’t say anything when I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I felt like I needed to pay my dues first.
I decided to leave my consulting job several months later, partially because my contract got extended with this particular client. I couldn’t bear the thought of working with him for almost another year. When one of my mentors asked why I was leaving, I told her the truth. She asked why I hadn’t said anything sooner. She said that if had she known, maybe there was something that she could’ve done to help me switch to another project—rather than me leaving my job.
I had been so afraid of expressing how I felt because I didn’t want to be perceived as the whiny associate who didn’t know her place. As such, I denied people the opportunity to help me. Had I given more thought as to how to express my grievances respectfully, I wouldn’t have assumed right off the bat that my feelings weren’t valid. I would’ve allowed people to support me. People don’t know how to help you unless you ask for help.
3. There are possibilities that you haven’t even fathomed.
In January 2015, I knew that I wanted to leave my consulting job. I started applying for other opportunities. At the same time, I felt like I was in a pickle because I had landed a short-term stint working at the World’s Fair. My immediate thought was, “Who is going to hire me if they know that I’ll have to leave in six months?” I decided that rather than applying for full-time jobs, I would apply for internships instead. I could complete a six-month internship, then leave for my stint at the World’s Fair.
As I was interviewing for a startup, they were puzzled as to why I was applying for an internship. Although I could have fibbed my answer, I decided to tell the truth. To my complete surprise, they loved that I had this opportunity awaiting me. They offered me a full-time position with the opportunity to take a sabbatical. Had I not shared my real reason for asking for an internship—because I feared that they would feel like I’m not committed because I already had another opportunity lined up—I may have just been offered an internship. Instead, I got over my fear of how they would perceive me and walked away with a much better offer—better than what I could have ever imagined.
Angela Choi is an international Life Purpose & Career Coach who helps driven professionals who feel stuck and unfulfilled to discover their purpose so that they can have both the impact and income that they want. She draws from experiences and lessons learned over a decade of finding her purpose through the corporate, start-up and non-profit worlds across the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe, all whilst juggling self-judgment, familial pressure and societal expectations. Sign up for her FREE guide 6 Steps to Living Your Purpose here.