We are excited to present a new interview series, PAY IT FORWARD, in partnership with the Lily. The Lily, published by The Washington Post, elevates issues critical to women by fostering important conversations and empowering stories. We spoke with women who we collectively admire to hear what mentorship means to them, the advice that has been most meaningful, and the importance of uplifting the women around you.
Next in our series is Jenny Yang, Stand-Up Comedian & Writer. We spoke with Jenny about where she has found mentorship and her most important relationship (with herself). Our favorite OKREAL quote: “Most of the world is actually not as competent, attentive or as badass as us women.” Check back next week for our next interview in this series or read our previous interview with Savannah James.
Do you have a female mentor or leader you respect? Who is she?
Grace Lee Boggs is a civil rights activist and Asian American leader who has taught me that love is at the center of everything we create and that building community is a worthy and life-long project. Learn about her via the gorgeous documentary ‘American Revolutionary.’
What qualities make a good mentor or leader?
A good mentor shares wisdom, tells you the truth with compassion when you need to hear it, but also shows their own vulnerability and process.
Mentors come in all different forms, and are not always people who we expect. What is your experience with this?
I grew up in a mostly Asian American and Latino community in Southern California. In college and beyond, time and time again I’ve had brilliant Black women and men mentor me in my political thinking and in handling myself as a person of color who cares about social justice.
One instance of mentorship that was most unexpected happened in my first political job. Before working in comedy and entertainment, I cut my teeth in politics. My job included government relations (aka lobbying) in the Hall of Administration at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. I was a young twenty-something wearing ill-fitting power suits and talking with policy staff of elected officials.
One day while watching a long Board of Supervisors public meeting, one of the staffers, an African-American woman less than a decade older than me, broke the drone of the polite proceedings with a simple question: What do you want to be doing in five years, Jenny? I didn’t expect this from her. Up until that point, all I saw was her poker face and we were all business.
‘Um, I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it that much. I’ve only had this job for a year and just want to focus on being good at what I’m doing now.’ I wasn’t trying for a politically correct answer, just the honest one.
She reacted with a hint of disappointment in her eyes. She took a moment and said: ‘Well you should definitely think about it now. It’s never too early. Don’t get comfortable. You need to think about these jobs as strategic places for you to learn your skills and build your connections so you can move forward in your career.’
‘Wait. Doesn’t that mean I’m not really committing to what I’m doing now if that’s my frame of mind?’ I replied. ‘No. Do a great job at what you do. Just always keep an eye out for how this can help you move forward into what you want to do. Take what you need and go. Don’t get locked in.’
Don’t get locked in. I didn’t quite understand her words because I was so new to the job and career. In a way, I did get locked in, spending a number of years moving up in my organization, to the detriment of my mental health and creative growth. When I was burnt out and finally had the courage to leave that workplace, I remembered her words and realized how unprepared I was to receive the wisdom she gifted me.
That was the only time she and I ever had a conversation of the sort. Little did she know how her tiny moment of mentorship would lay a foundation for my shift from day-jobber to self-employment.
What is something a woman mentor or leader did for you, that you now try and do for other women?
I come from robust tribe of recovering overachievers. I got great grades at a rigorous small liberal arts college and was super active in campus life. I was struggling to finish my work one semester and frequently sought counsel from my political science advisor.
During one of our regular check-ins she got serious with me. She said that at the risk of being presumptuous, she thought I was similar to many other student leaders she has observed over the years. She said that it was clear I was a well-respected campus leader and helpful to other students, but I was also failing to take care of my own needs. She suggested I do some real reflecting on why I keep so busy, implying there was some nefarious motivation behind it all. I believe she said, ‘There may be something else going on that you need to think about.’ My immediate reaction was straight up ‘How dare you?’ (at least in my mind). But what she did was disrupt my thinking and agitate me just enough for me to realize a few key things. I was a workaholic and like any addiction I was ignoring my own needs in order to feed a compulsion to achieve and please others. That was the first time someone gave me this gift of self-awareness. She was also the first person to tell me that it was OK if I didn’t do everything ‘perfectly’ and meet super-high expectations. No one had said to me, ‘Jenny. It’s OK if it doesn’t happen. You will live. In fact, it may be better for you because you should choose your well-being and happiness over this external goal.’
That was a lesson I’ve been learning to practice every day since. It is also the kind of attitude I offer other women when their achievements may be too closely tied to their self-esteem and might happen at the expense of their health or well-being.
How did that experience (of what your mentor did for you) change your career/life?
I have learned to be kinder to myself, to nurture myself and to slow down. It is a life-long process but it is at the core of how I’ve been able to lead the most meaningful, happy and joyful life than I’ve ever experienced before.
I meet so many exceptional, outstanding and talented young women. I think what many of us don’t realize, especially when we are just finding ourselves as young go-getters, is that most of the world is actually not as competent, attentive or as badass as us. I know that sounds harsh. But I know so many incredible, hard-working women who pay so much attention to doing excellent work it comes at the expense of their own self-care.
I think what surprises them is that the world is actually not a meritocracy. That people who are not nearly as talented as they are will get more promotions and opportunities. And sometimes, being really good at something means you get more work than others, and, often, without the commensurate praise or compensation. This is a tough reality to accept and I try to impart this on my interns and others I mentor.
Ultimately, knowing this is freeing because it means that as kickass women, we can see things more clearly and be strategic about how we spend our efforts in our careers and projects. Of course, be excellent always. But also consider how you can strategically deploy your excellence to get the credit and opportunities you deserve.
What’s one piece of advice that you struggle to put into practice (even though you know you should).
Done is better than perfect. Anyone who knows me would call me a ‘doer’ and ‘go-getter’ but I still struggle with this, especially when it comes to my writing and creative work. I’ve done a little project called #FiveDaysOfFail with some of my closest friends and creative collaborators. It’s where each of us chooses one creative piece to make each day for five straight days. Some chose writing a song a day or a comedy sketch a day. Others took photos or wrote poetry. It culminated in day six on a Saturday, when we met together to share our favorite ‘fails.’ The goal was to ruthlessly fail every single day. I’ve used these types of exercises to overcome my inner critic and editor so that I get to the creating much faster.
Where and when do you do your best work?
I do my best work when I’m collaborating with talented and positive people in service of a vision much bigger than all of us combined.
This has been true with the viral comedy videos I make and the events I produce. For example, the annual A Comedy Festival has been so rewarding. Our leadership team of fifteen produced this Los Angeles festival for the last three years. 30 volunteers, 16 events, 14 shows in four days, 150 comedic artists, 20 sponsors, 2,000 tickets sold. Our aim has been to create a platform for Asian American comedic talent, to organize comedians to strengthen our craft and recruit audiences to support our work. And it’s been working.
Have you had a recent ‘Aha!’ moment or breakthrough?
When good things happen to you in your life and career, they can also come with new headaches and problems. It’s OK to vent about these problems with trusted people even though it’s about the ‘good’ things. You don’t need to feel like a jerk for complaining. Find people you trust who can hear these things. It happens. You’re not weird. Biggie said it himself, ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems.’
What is once piece of advice that someone can put into action today?
List the names of the people who are in your tribe, aka your colleagues, peers and creative collaborators. List the names of your mentors or the people in your life that you admire and aspire to be. List the names of people and organizations who are consistent supporters. Set a schedule for thanking them in the form of written notes or cards, lunches, drinks, or social hangs. Make expressing gratitude a part of your regular schedule.
On a related note: List the names of people you want to be in these lists as future mentors, future tribe, and future supporters. Figure out ways to make contact with them, make yourself useful to them and build your relationship with them. I have done this ever since I became self-employed and decided to switch careers and pursue entertainment. I call them my ‘friend’ targets. Obviously, it only works if you add value to their life, find a real connection, and they reciprocate. Don’t be weird! Consent is sexy.
What is one thing you want women to keep in mind as they go through life?
Your relationship with yourself is the most important relationship.
The process of self-awareness, and knowing what makes you happy and what you value is everything. Make deep reflection and gratitude a regular part of your life. Give yourself more of a chance to be at peace with your choices.
Also, make life more fun, always.
Stand-Up Comedian & Writer
Photo courtesy of Mai Linh Nguyen