Having recently read so many wonderful commentaries from fellow Scott AFB leaders, I initially found myself staring down a serious case of writer’s block. What could I possibly offer that hadn’t already been presented? After much deliberation, I decided to share a snippet of my personal story considering its relevance to the ongoing diversity and inclusion conversation. While it’s always unnerving to put yourself out there; I strongly believe that if it touches or inspires just one person then it was all worth it.
As an Asian-American raised by a white family in the rural South (before diversity was a thing), life was tough. In addition to being the only Asian in my community and school, my family also came from a poor socio-economic background. From elementary school until finally leaving home, I was often bullied and called every derogatory name in the book by other kids and believe it or not some adults. Even after 30 years, I can vividly remember the sting of those words, the feeling of a packed gymnasium chanting racial slurs as I ran down the basketball court, and the appalling nickname that I received at summer camp.
Fast forward to high school graduation and I enlisted in the Navy because it was the only option for a better life. Well, there was this really cool movie called “Top Gun” that influenced my branch of service, but that’s a story for another time. I didn’t have the financial resources to attend college and recognized that my opportunities would be extremely limited where I was. Within the first 3 years on active duty, I fell in love with the people, military culture, and the chance to do something extraordinary. I knew that I’d found my home and today I continue serving for very different reasons than when I first joined.
Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to work alongside countless amazing leaders and mentors. As I reflect back over those 18 years, the most interesting thing that I never thought about until now is that none of them look like me…not a single one. Growing up in isolation, I never saw anyone who looked like me and still today there are very few senior leaders who look like me. While I acknowledge and passionately support the need for systematic change and greater diversity throughout our leadership ranks, I have never allowed this to be a limiting factor in my growth, development, or pursuit of goals. Instead, I’ve always sought the company of individuals with character who share my values and perspective as well as those with a different perspective who will engage in “real talk” and challenge my preconceived notions, ideas and yes, biases (conscious and unconscious).
Along with this treasured network of mentors, I’ve also learned to look in the mirror and remind myself that while I may not control my circumstances, I can control how I respond to them. You see, I’m a big believer in the power of positivity which for me encompasses surrounding myself with people who lift me up, reflecting on what I’m grateful for, and keeping my mind geared toward positive thoughts. Most importantly, focusing on others more than myself has been a critical component to maintaining a positive outlook.
So as we continue striving for greater diversity, inclusiveness, and the future Air Force we need — how does this concept of positivity apply to our daily lives, current environment, and overall leadership? I’d say, consider how past struggles become part of your story…use them to inspire and encourage others. Don’t allow detractors and naysayers to limit what you can achieve…get “In the Arena” and prove them wrong. Don’t allow negative circumstances or your past to dictate your future — be the author of your own story. When things don’t go your way, try to find the silver lining and re-channel your energy elsewhere. There’s likely a good reason why Plan A didn’t work out that will be revealed at a later time. Surround yourself with individuals who inspire you, elevate you, and make you better, personally and professionally. Finally, when faced with what seems like insurmountable odds, rise to the occasion. Be the Change!