Friday, October 25, 2013

Work Ethic And Culture - An Initial Exploration

When I work out, or ride my bike, I don't really listen to music... Rock and roll, hip hop or Jazz is usually for appreciation, not really to "shred to". Instead, I choose podcasts from the likes of NPR or TedTalks. The Diane Rhem show is a favorite of mine too! This morning, while working out I listened to a phenomenal story from the Ted Radio hour about "Identities". The main topic of the show: what is an identity, and how are they formed?

One of the commentators was an Vietnam refugee Tan Lee. She escaped the Vietnam war with her Mom at a young age and relocated to Australia. Her story was about the struggle of being Asian, and the discrimination she experienced. On the surface, not a story we haven't heard before, but when you couple her struggle as a refugee and an Asian and someone mainly raised in an English-speaking society then you get a fuller picture, a newer identity. There was one point in the story where she described being her discrimination. Her peers were throwing derogatory remarks at her, her family and culture en masse: slant eye, zipper head, go home Asian. And while Lee heard all of this, she also thought to herself, I'm going to surpass you... And she did (she created an enemy - see below).

Having grown up with relocated Vietnamese, I recognized Lee's story. The Catholic grade school, where I received my 4th - 8th grade education, was 30% Vietnamese and 60% white. However, we didn't really have discrimination at our school, which I find interesting to this day. Perhaps it was because the surrounding community was also Vietnamese. I didn't really care, so I guess we notice only our peers and not racism. But I did witness the Vietnamese work ethic and drive, and how embedded it was in their culture. And this leads me to the main part of my blog post.

I want to examine work ethic and where it comes from... When you consider your work ethic, who taught you to work hard? Did someone teach you at all? Is it a natural thing? What keeps you expanding your work ethic? Is it part of your identity (to people know you to have a strong work ethic)? If we take the Vietnamese culture, we can clearly label it Asian, which I'll equate to: familial sacrifice, humble and very hard working. The German culture: tough, unrelenting, aggressive, communal and hard working. The American culture: creative, entrepreneurial, experimental,entitled, and sometimes hardworking. Yes, I'm throwing around labels, but only to move the post along... Naturally, I'm going to focus on the American culture. I thought about my own work ethic this past weekend and all the questions I just asked at the beginning of this paragraph. So dissecting myself seems most appropriate.

Where does my work ethic come from

My own work ethic comes from my Mother. Raising a son as a single mother is probably the most challenging jobs on the planet! She loved and supported me and my sister, I'd argue, beyond most Mothers (total bias here). Not only that, she tackled becoming a CPA and earning a VP position at an oil and gas firm while at the same time staying slim and fit. That said, one thing that challenges my work ethic is the frustration that it doesn't come easy... Which leads me to my next question. 

My work ethic continues to develop because?

There are two reasons.... The first, my work-life. I've worked for start-ups pretty much my entire career. And there is something about a start up that demands that you work double time! And why is that? Easy answer: self preservation. In the start up world, it is kill or be killed! There is no time for dead weight or lack of excellence. My colleagues have demanded that from me, as have my bosses. But even large companies can create a successful culture, and I think this preso by Netflix showcases how excellence and people with a strong work ethic can drive success!

The second... Enemies. There is a great product strategy mantra: Every Great Product Has An Enemy. If you're a product manager, marketer or engineer, heed these words! As a competitive person, in general, I'm all about finding an enemy (think: main competitor). An enemy is someone you model against and try to surpass with greatness. Yes, an enemy can be seen as negative, and no, we aren't out to fully destroy them, but to find your counter is important to know what you want to be (you only know the sweet because of the sour).

Is my work ethic part of my identity

I'd argue it is, but what about other people? Have you labeled people lazy before? What defines lazy anyway? I don't get called lazy much by other, but I have labeled myself that (especially after too much to drink the night before). I'd say that my identity thrives off of hard work, and accomplishments. Even I were paralyzed, I think I'd still work just as hard. I remember I got a year off to bike race, but I think I worked harder than ever that year on my professional goals, which is weird knowing myself (or not). So yes, my work ethic is part of my identity, and so is my work. However, like Tang Lee, is that a label that defines me? Should it?

A lot of questions about work ethic here, identity and culture but something I'm going to keep thinking... Your thoughts?

And I leave you with a beehive created over three summers - is this the best model of work ethic? 

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