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Transcending The Bamboo Ceiling

With David Tran

When you reach the peak of your career, the last thing you would want to do is retire. However, guest, David Tran, believes that retiring at the peak of your career should be the norm and not the exception. In this episode, he sits down with host, Kimchi Chow, to discuss why he left the position of Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at PAC and never regrets it. At the heart of this episode, is finding your life’s purpose, living it every day, and achieving happiness early on. David shares his journey and insights as a retired corporate executive with us and how he is continually transcending the bamboo ceiling. He also provides the two questions we should ask ourselves when deciding to retire, tapping into the importance of financial independence and loving what we do. What stops people from deciding to leave their careers? What do you need to prepare? David answers these questions and more and then sheds some light on the challenges of Asian-Americans in the workplace and how they can overcome them.

Transcending The Bamboo Ceiling With David Tran

This episode will focus on the purpose of life and how we can achieve happiness early on. Our guest will share his journey and insight as a retired corporate executive and how he found his life purpose and lives it every day. Let me introduce David Tran. David came to America for his study in 1972. He graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, Business Administration and Finance at MIT. He retired at the peak of his career as the Vice President of marketing and product management at PAC and never regretted it. Let’s find out David’s secrets by helping me welcome David Tran.

Thank you, Kimchi, for your kind words. I’m glad to be with you.

You have been in America for many years. What do you remember from your childhood before you went to study abroad in America?

I was born in Vietnam and spent my first eighteen years in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam at that time. I would describe our life as that of an upper-middle-class family. Saigon was the last bastion of the war. It was well protected and defended. We were pretty much cloistered. We were very fortunate to live a peaceful life when the war was raging on around us. I went to school. I went to see movies. I went swimming at the country club and being a kid at that time I was a little bit oblivious to the war that was going on around me.

My father was the general manager of an import-export company. He loved us very much. He was not much of a small talk person. Whenever he engaged in a conversation with the kids, very quickly he would talk about some very profound, fundamental purpose. As little kids, we dreaded those sessions, but as we grew up, we appreciated it very much. What he taught us became the guiding lights for our lives. My mom passed away last year.  She was a typical Asian mom. Her life’s purpose was solely and completely to support her husband and to nurture the children. She loved us. She never raised her voice. I know that every person says that their mom is the best. It’s hard for me to be objective but I got the say that she was wonderful. She never raised her voice. She never spanked us, but somehow we grew up to be okay.

Their expectations for us were never explicit. They never said that you got to become this or that, but somehow it was implicit. I don’t think they meant it to be implicit either. It was natural. We understood what the expectation was. We never talked about if we would go to college, but it was a matter of when we would do that. It was something that we took naturally. It didn’t mean that it was not difficult, but it was not like an undue pressure on us. I was in Vietnam until ‘72. I graduated from high school. At that point, I came to the US to attend college.

You have ideal parents growing up. How many siblings do you have?

We’re eight altogether. We came from a big family and I am number six.

When you came to America and study abroad, did you experience any discrimination? Did you have any struggles during that time?

Being an analytical person, I’m going to categorize these incidents into three classes. The first one I would call the very overt discrimination, hostile discrimination, and I consider myself to be pure lucky. In my lifetime, I experienced that only once or twice. I remember the first time when I was at school. Late at night, I was walking home and a bunch of kids stopped their car on the street. One guy stepped up and said, “Chink, come here.” In situations like that, these people usually are troubled people themselves. They have problems in their lives. They’ve got nothing to lose and you have a lot to lose in your life. To me, that’s not the place to compete. I’d like to compete in school or to get into the C-Suite. That’s not where you choose to do your battles. In situations like that, I would recommend that if you feel threatened, if you feel that your safety is at stake, call 911 or use your phone to record what’s happening or if you could get out of this situation, do so. It’s not worth engaging in those situations. It could endanger your life. The same thing applies to road rage. That’s not where you want to compete. You want to compete in a company or in other situations. That’s the first category.

The second category is tougher. It’s covert discrimination. These people discriminate intentionally. They know what they are doing, but they cover their tracks so that you cannot blame them easily. I remember in 1975 when my family came here and the first house that we rented was for the summer. After the summer, the owners came back and from the get-go, we knew we got to rent another house. We called this place and they said, “Sure, we have the house available.” Ten minutes later, we came with our family. Not all ten of us, but my parents and a couple of us. As soon as they saw us being Asian, they look flustered.  They immediately said that the house got rented. It was obvious what happened. They didn’t say they discriminated, but they said that the house was rented. At that time, there were a lot of other houses available. We didn’t feel we wanted to waste time pursuing that particular house, which didn’t look like a very nice house once we saw that. This category is a very tough case and it requires different solutions. If it’s not worth it, if you have other choices, then deny those people of your businesses and go somewhere else. If that is something that is extremely important to you, then you have to pursue it. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer for this category, at least I don’t have it.

The third category, this is something that we all encounter a lot, and that is subconscious biases. That is people are being biased, but even they themselves don’t realize that they are being biased. I have a number of examples, but for the interest of time, I will tell one. That is, I was a mid-level manager at that time. It was in the ‘80s. Myself and one of my subordinates, a white man, a nice guy, the two of us went to a restaurant to meet with a sales manager. The three of us were sitting there. The sales manager of this company was a white guy. He focused on my subordinate and talked to him as if I was not there. At that time, I knew what was going on. I didn’t think that he meant anything bad other than thinking that my subordinate was my manager.

At that time, I was consumed with the interest of the company. I didn’t think about myself, but I got strategic questions, important questions I needed to ask him. I focused on what he was saying and began to ask him questions that my subordinate didn’t have the same high-level view to ask. After I began to do that, fifteen minutes later, the direction of his look began to change. He began to have a conversation with me. For this category, my advice would be don’t get angry, but focus on the big things. When you conduct yourself with authority, with a sense of empowerment, you know where you are, you know your position, the power of your mind, the power of your authority will win out because these are not bad people, they are just acting according to their subconscious biases and their paradigm that they grew up with.

I already got three big nuggets from your answer: overt discrimination, covert discrimination, and subconscious bias. Subconscious bias happened a lot. We experience that a lot even in our Asian communities. When did you become an American citizen?

I don’t remember exactly. It was in the early ‘80s. Maybe ‘82, ‘83 in that timeframe.

Was it the time you changed your name to David Tran?

It’s a good guess, exactly.

What was your name before and why it led you to make that decision to change the Vietnamese name to David?

My name at birth was Hung. It means to prosper, to rise up. That’s a common name for Vietnamese. That name is perfectly fine. I got to tell you a funny story. I was working for Texaco at the time. There was this admin assistant. At that time, they were called secretaries as you know. She was on the first floor. I worked on the fourth floor. One day I called her. Let’s just say, her name is Jacqueline. I said, “Jacqueline, I’m Hung on the fourth floor.” She began to laugh and I did not know why. At that time, in the ‘80s, there were not a lot of Asians or non-Caucasians, at least not as much as there are now. My name was harder for people to remember and even harder to pronounce to some.

When I made that decision, it was completely from a practical standpoint. There was nothing fundamental or psychological about it. To me, it was a strict translation. For example, you look at a table, in the Vietnamese language, we call it cai ban. If you work in a company with English speaking people and you insist on calling it cai ban, no one would know what you’re talking about. When you say a desk or table, they immediately understand. At that time, I made a practical decision to do what amounted to a translation of my name into English. Fundamentally, I was still the same person. Among Vietnamese speaking people, I was still Hung. I got a clear sense of who I was. I had a clear knowledge of my identity. That part was rock solid. The name change again was completely a practical decision.

The Bamboo Ceiling: Whether you decide to change your name or not, it should not be a desire to remake yourself in the mold of someone you are not.

You asked about the timing and you made a very good guess. I don’t think we ever talked about it before. If out of the blue, you want to change your name. You’ve got to fill out a form. You’ve got to go to the courthouse. You’ve got to pay hundreds of dollars to have your name changed. I don’t know whether they’re still doing the same now but at that time, on the back of the certificate of citizenship, they stamped something with some blank lines and you put the name that you wanted on that line. The officer signed his or her name and that was it. It’s free. I thought that it was an opportune time to do that.

Did you put your first name Hung to become your middle name now as David Hung Tran or you omit it?

It’s just David Tran.

No middle name?


I saw a post and this observation or assessment came up quite often that Asian-American. We all think that if we use our birth names in our resume, that would cause us to have less chance of getting into the door of companies. HR, they looked at the name and say, “You are Asian, forget about Asian,” or if they carry that name, even though they get inside the company and work for a corporation, they will have less chance of moving up to C-Suite. Do you agree with this assessment?

It was more of that case back in the ‘80s or ‘90s than it is now because in my opinion, two reasons. Number one is that we become more globalized. People deal with people with different surnames and first names a lot more than they did back many years ago. Another reason is thanks to the high-tech industry. We have a lot of Asians. People are used to seeing Asians in the high-tech industry. I went to visit my younger brother who worked for Google in San Jose. When I walked into the dining rooms and I visited 2 or 3 different dining rooms at Google, I saw a lot of Asians walking around with a swagger. They are in the mainstream of Google. In the dining room next to the station with forks and knives, you see chopsticks, sriracha hot sauce and you see the fish sauce. Asians are now a part of the fabric of our Corporate America. It is more prevalent now than before. Another factor is the type of industry. If you talk about some older industries, it’s more of a problem than high tech, like we talked about. And then localities as well. If you work in San Francisco or New York, it’s less of an issue than if you work in some small towns when many people for years have not seen any non-Caucasians, for example. Whether you make the decision to change your name or not, my personal advice is don’t do it for any reason other than practical reasons. It should not be a desire to remake yourself in the mold of someone that you are not. I strongly recommend against that.

I also believe in numerology. Each character has a number value. We add up the name, the birthday and it gave us a number. That number represents our personality and the direction of our life. I believe in that. I agree with what you say, don’t change it for the sake of pleasing other people or make other people’s life easier. Do it for yourself, not for anybody else. 

Your name is David Tran. David is not a Vietnamese name. Tran is a Vietnamese root. Do you consider yourself Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, or American?

I consider my roots, my heritage to be 100% Vietnamese. I consider my citizenship 100% American. There’s no conflict there. It is like if someone asks me, “Are you a father or a husband,” I would answer that I’m 100% a father and I’m 100% a husband. I don’t have to take away anything from one side to enhance the other. There’s no conflict in my mind. I love my Vietnamese heritage. I’m proud to be 100% American.

Your citizenship is American?

I took the Oath of Allegiance and I’m full-blown American, but I love my heritage 100%.

Let’s talk about Asian-Americans’ challenges in the workplace. What do you think prevents Asian-Americans from rising in the corporate world?

It’s a vicious circle. On the one hand, there is this stereotype, at least in some quarters of the corporate executives that Asians are all the things we have heard many times that we are technical, but not management materials. We don’t speak up. We are not assertive. We are not aggressive. Some of us don’t speak English well, all those things. From our side, some of us know that is the expectation or that is the mindset. Subconsciously, we tend to conform to that mindset. I’m not a psychologist, but I heard of that psychological phenomenon. When you do that, it accentuates and reinforces that view. The stereotype becomes stronger and that’s what I call a vicious circle.

In my view, first of all, what we have to start out is to have a supreme sense of confidence that we can compete. If you do not start with that core belief, all the techniques that we sometimes hear about like speak up more at meetings would be like building castles on quicksand.

I’d like to talk about that solid foundation first before I would approach some of these techniques that we heard so many times. Why should you feel supremely confident? Because we compete in life based on our totality, not one factor. Think about it as a card game. You have ten cards in your hand. One of them has a lower number and that card represents being a minority in a society where the majority is a different race.  It doesn’t say anything negative about the Asian race in an absolute sense, which I am proud of. It only talks about the disadvantage of being in a minority group among the majority. But what about the other nine cards in your hand, your management skills, your leadership skills, your sense of vision, your presentation skill, your physical presence, your people skill, or your technical skill. When you add up all the ten cards, who’s to say who is better? Don’t start out by saying that discrimination, “I give up. No way I can compete.”

We often have this view of white male privilege, which is true. I’m not saying it’s not true. But our white male friends would tell us that they have their cross to bear too. No one is born perfect. You look around and all of us, whether we are black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, some of us suffer stuttering since we were young. We have an anxiety attack, suffer from depression or we have drug problems. We all have our cross to bear. Don’t think that we cannot compete because we have this disadvantage of being in a minority group. Be supremely confident and look at the totality that we have. If you develop that sense of core confidence in you, we can talk about the solutions to the individual problems.

I’d like to add a little bit of a new slant or my take on each of these in terms of what we can do about it. Let’s talk about the first thing, people often say that we don’t self-promote our self. We don’t talk about our accomplishments. We don’t toot our horns. That’s why we don’t have enough visibility. It’s not anything inherently inadequate among Asians. It’s a different culture. You look at the CEO of Toyota. He is subdued but who would say that Toyota makes worse cars than Detroit? The extrovert characteristics are overrated. It’s not like there’s anything inherently inadequate about that characteristic of not tooting your horn.

The Bamboo Ceiling: If there are things that you enjoy even more than your work that you would rather do, then you should retire. But if the work you are doing is what gives you the most joy, the most happiness in life, then, by all means, continue to work.

However, we know that’s part of what it takes in Corporate America. Many Asian-Americans say, “We heard that,” but it’s not easy. I don’t feel comfortable. It’s not part of my nature.” My contribution to this is to not think about that as tooting your horn but think about it as serving the best interests of the organization. If you do something good, if there’s a success story, the organization needs to know so that it could scale that success and make the whole organization better. You don’t do anybody any favor by not talking about it. I have a couple of examples I’d like to tell you.

One is early in my career, I was an advanced process control engineer. Back in the early ‘80s, people controlled plants in a very rudimentary way. The plants ran far away from the optimum point. Even prior to that time, there were methodologies or technologies to optimize the plant, but there was not enough computing power. In the early days of the ‘80s, you began to have computers with strong computing power. Between the methodology and computer power, now you could do it. I was excited when I worked at an oil refinery. We could do it easily. Spending like $20,000 to do an application and we could save say $800,000 a year on fuel gas consumption savings. I was excited and we did that. The first application worked well.

I asked my boss to give me some time on the agenda of the refinery leadership team meeting to present that. When I did, people got excited and I asked for more money to do more, which I got. In the end, we implemented several applications that saved millions of dollars for the refinery. My heart was in the good for the company, but I was not born yesterday. I knew that by doing so, I also helped my visibility. Three years later, I got promoted to become the manager of process control, not for one refinery but for all the company, which consists of five refineries. What I did was with my heart and soul for the interest of the company. At the same time, I consciously knew that it also helped me.  If we Asian-Americans would get into that mindset, that we are not tooting our horn, but we are helping the company to know about what works so that they could scale that up and make it more successful. At the same time, you know that doing so will also help your career. That may help you to overcome the feeling of, “I don’t want to toot my own horn.”

The example above was where I was very young, but this next story was when I was already the VP of this company. In order for many people in the company to know what was going on in a marketing area, I started what I called the marketing newsletter that every month I would put bullet points about the main things that happened for the past 30 days.  If someone was very busy, that person could glance through that newsletter in 5 or 10 minutes and felt very confident that he or she got an overview of what had been going on. At the beginning of that newsletter, I would have “A Message From David”.  I would have some words to talk about the biggest highlights for the month. That’s tremendous for the interest of the company to keep everybody informed. I knew that for several people to see this coming every month with “A Message From David” at the beginning would also help my visibility.  When I travel to different countries to visit people in my company, many people would come to say, “David.” They never saw me, but because they saw my message months before, it was like, they already knew me. That’s another example. That is what I have to say about increasing your visibility.

The second advice is related. That’s why I’d like to mention this right after the first thing about self-promotion and increasing visibility. That is to ask for promotions or jobs with a broader responsibility. It’s very similar to the first point. Many of us Asians, from a sense of modesty, also don’t feel comfortable doing it. I’m sure we have heard that before. My slant to this is similar to the first advice and that is companies need good people to fill those positions. I was a hiring manager for years. We were desperate to find good people. If you have the skill to do that and you hide it, there’s nothing modest about it. It is being selfish. When you do that, you are doing it for the interest of the company, too. It’s like a room full of people being thirsty and you have 40 bottles of water and you are hiding them. You are not telling anybody about that. When I worked for this company where I was a director and I knew of this position of VP in the new company. When I studied about the new company, I found out that the company I was working at was probably 3 or 4 years ahead in terms of all the good practices, policies, and marketing methodologies, (though nothing proprietary). I felt so excited. I felt like if I joined this new company, I would be like this character, Biff, in the movie, Back to the Future. He would go to the future. He got the Sports Almanac and he went back to the present time. He got all the answers for these games. I felt like I got a lot of these things I could contribute to. I got excited and that was why I went after that job. It turned out to be a win-win for both me and the new company. My mindset at the time was I got something to contribute. If we look at it from that standpoint, it’s no longer the promotion or asking for more money, which is something that a lot of us shy away from.

A third point that we heard a lot is we don’t speak up at meetings even when we have good ideas. A lot of us say, “We heard that before, but it’s not easy. I’m sitting there and all these alpha male white guys would talk all over me. I couldn’t get a word in.” My contribution to this familiar subject is if you sit around with 5 or 6 guys that you knew from high school, you would let your hair down and you feel more comfortable talking than if you are forced into a conversation with 5 or 6 people that you never met me before. You would feel more comfortable with the people you know. I learned a little bit belatedly because in the first maybe 3 or 4 years of my career, I felt that way. I would sit quietly in a meeting. A few minutes later, a guy would have an idea that I had been thinking about and I wanted to say, and he would say that. Everybody would say, “Great idea. Let’s do that.” I would feel like kicking myself for not speaking up.

My tip to you is to establish one-on-one relationships with the people that you often sit in the same meetings. Once they become someone close to you, at the meeting, you will find out, like I did, that you feel a lot more comfortable to speak up because now they are your friends at work. You know that some of them or all of them even support the idea that you are about to say, and it will become so much easier. I speak from personal experience. It was life-changing. It was wonderful. All of a sudden, I knew Terry. I knew Jane. I knew Jay. You feel more comfortable speaking up. That’s my take on that point.

The next one is in our culture, I have to be clear that I’m not saying which culture is better or worse. They’re different. In our culture, when we deal with people of authority or elders, we want to show deference. When I was a kid when I met with my father’s friends, I would deliberately appear a little bit flustered and maybe a little bit jittery. I would bow a few times quickly to show my respect and that’s a wonderful tradition. That’s perfectly fine. However, when you operate in Corporate America, the culture is different.  Even if you deal with a CEO, keep your back straight, keep your look straight, shake hands with a firm hand, speak assertively, speak clearly. Every one of us carries little subconscious antennas that we measure up other people. When you do things like appearing not very confident, that subconsciously registers with the people you deal with. Even though it’s a tactical point, but I thought I would mention that.

Another tip that I could give to Asian-Americans, as a way of promoting yourself, but not feeling uncomfortable because of your upbringing or your culture. That is to leverage the performance review time. Most managers and most employees dread doing this, but use it to your advantage. That is throughout the year and I don’t know whether they are still doing annual reviews or they do it every 6 or 3 months, but in my time, it was done only once a year.  By that time, you would forget what you had done and your boss would forget what you had done, which is to your disadvantage. Throughout the year, whenever you do something good, make a quick note. Nowadays, you don’t even have to do it on paper. You could do it on your smartphone easily. Keep track of those things. At the end of the year, write up a good performance review so that your boss would not forget what you did. I did that with a good effect. At one time, I got a good laugh out of this because my boss, this was back in the ‘90s he must have agreed totally with what I wrote that he copy-and-paste it into his performance review of me to send it up upward. I got my own check. That is another tip I’d like to give to Asian-Americans. I’m sure there are other things, but in the confines of the program, I would share those from my personal experience.

That’s a valid and precious suggestion. I was not thinking of that before, but what you mentioned is good. I would highly recommend people who are still working for a corporation, take note on your input and suggestion here. If they learn how to do this early on, they would have a smoother and easier career. They get along well with everybody that they’re working with so that they can enjoy the working environment more.

These things are not from academic consultants. This is from blood and sweats down in the trenches. The thing about not speaking up at meetings. I suffered that in the first 3, 4 years of my career. It was real to me. The solution was also very real and very effective. I hope they help.

It’s that insight that you say, “The reason we don’t speak up because we don’t know all the people in a meeting.” Why not make friends with them? You say, “I know you. Here’s my point of view.” That’s a good point.

Think about yourself. When you sit with the 5 or 6 friends that you have known for a long time, don’t you find it so easy to speak up compared to, if you walked into a group of people that you never met before. It’s common sense.

From your experience, you probably have people with different backgrounds, different types of Asian ethnicity reported to you before. Do you notice the difference between a typical like Chinese-Vietnamese, Asian-American versus the Indian-American? Why is it that it seems that more Indian-American were able to get to the more C-Suite positions?

The Bamboo Ceiling: Just like everything in life, you have to make decisions based on incomplete data, but you do the best you can.

One thing that you already noted when we talked and that is absolutely true. Many of them speak English since they’re still very young. They are very comfortable when they speak English. Whereas for many of us, including myself, English is not our native language. They don’t have that reservation as we do. That’s one thing. Another thing is that I noticed that they practice a lot of the things that we talked about, speaking at meetings, tooting their horns, all those things. Because I didn’t need to do research in that area, I didn’t look closely into it. When I watched the episode that you had with Buck Gee that you recommended, he confirmed my suspicion that there are organizations that help Indian-Americans advance in corporations. (When I used the word, suspicion, I didn’t mean any negative connotation.  It’s a positive connotation.) Buck mentioned a group called TiE that did that.  If my memory serves me right, maybe there are other organizations. I applaud them for it. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t know when they started doing it. I can tell you that I started to see those changes several years ago. Being an analytical guy, I thought that it happened about the same time with so many different of my wonderful Indian colleagues that didn’t know each other and yet somehow it was like they began to walk in lockstep. They did the same things, and now we know why. At least I strongly suspect that’s because they have organizations that train the Indian-Americans about the right ways to advance in the corporate world. Those are the three things that I could think of. The third thing is the networking organization within the Indian-American professional community.

What about Asian-American women? What can we as Asian-American women do to advance in the workplace?

I would like to talk about this, but I need to make a big disclaimer. I don’t have expertise in this area of Asian-American women’s advancement. I can only speak from the narrow perspective of my experience working with or managing Asian-American women. What I will share with you is anecdotal from my experience and not something that is generic across all Asian-American women.

With that disclaimer, I will say that my view is that back in the hunter-gatherer days, thousands of years ago, the men with muscles dominated because they were better at doing those things. That culture perpetuates until this day but now it’s nonsensical because a lot of the things we do require brainpower not big muscles.  Women are as good if not better than men in many of these areas. It is to men’s detriment not to see that and not to leverage the wealth of expertise and skills from the women. First of all, that’s their loss. Asian-American women or all women have got nothing to apologize for. This is something that is incumbent upon the male managers to recognize and to change. That’s something I just wanted to get off my chest. In my management career, I have had some women working for me. I got Caucasian women as well as one lady from Greece and some Asian American women.

Like the Asian men, women also have some of these hurdles that we all share. One of them is speaking up at meetings. I have been at meetings where all these alpha males will talk. One Asian woman in the room couldn’t get her words in. Even when she did that, they would talk all over her. The worst thing is they didn’t even realize they were talking over her. They didn’t know that, which is even worse than doing it deliberately. By not knowing it, it seemed to say that she was invisible to them. In my working relationship with these Asian-American women, I knew that they were strategic, I knew that they were good. The way that I did that at meetings was I would make sure to give them an opportunity to speak. Most managers would be oblivious to that need of Asian-American women, which is to forget about it. The woman may go through the whole meeting without one single word.  On the other extreme, some managers may do it very clumsily and would say something like “Jane, you have been sitting here for the whole time, not saying a word, do you have anything to say?” To me, both of those approaches are wrong. I knew this one Asian lady. Let’s call this lady, Jane. I would say something like if we were talking about the topic of, let’s say strategic pricing, I would say, “Jane, the other day, you told me that you develop this methodology for strategic pricing and maybe it can apply to this product that we are about to launch. Would you share that with the group?”  At these meetings, I would do that 1 or 2 times to train the group and to train her as well to get used to the specter of the whole group sitting there and her talking. After a few times, they all got trained and they saw her now as a very credible, very intelligent, very strategic person in a group. By the way, this is not theory, this happened. In my mind, I was still thinking about those meetings and this particular Asian-American woman that I was talking about. To make a long story short, a few years after I left the company, I heard that she’s now a director. I may play no part in it. I don’t know. But if what I did played a small part in making her feel more empowered, feel like she deserved it and that helped her become a director, I’d feel gratified for that.

If you don’t have a boss who would give you that mandate, and this is my additional contribution on this topic, do this. Go to the manager before the meeting and say, “Boss, I would like five minutes from your meeting to talk about this topic that people would be interested in hearing.” Unless the boss is a jerk, 99% of the bosses would say, “Jane, do that.” That way you don’t have to break in, but you have that mandate to do it. If you do it a few times, it would happen like the scenario I described. The group would get trained into sitting there and listening to something that the Asian-American women have to say.

About the only other thing that I could share, totally anecdotal. For this particular person that reported to me, she was a product manager. She came to me and talked about some very petty conflicts that she got with another sales manager. They were so petty that I don’t even remember what they are. I felt rather exasperated. My guidance to her, let’s call her Sheila, “Sheila, your product line is struggling. It should be selling $20 million a year. Right now, it’s selling only $3 million. Why don’t you think about it and develop a strategic plan for your product line? Forget about Bob,” and Bob is this sales manager. That’s not his name, but let’s call him Bob. “If your product line grew to $10 million to $15 million, Bob would walk into your office with his tail between his legs and then you wouldn’t have any of these problems with him.” In her case, my advice is to lift your vision above these little petty conflicts, steamroll over it. Think about the big picture. Thinking about the interest of the company and operate at that level. If you do so, you would crush all of these petty problems, they will solve themselves. To the extent that some Asian American women may find embroiled in these things, then maybe my tip would help. This is from one isolated incident. It doesn’t say anything about women across the board. I got to have the disclaimer clearly.

One more thing that I could say is similar to Asian-American men, you’ve got to do all the things that we talked about. A lot of male managers got the stereotype that Asian-American women could only be analysts or assistants. I have dealt with the most intelligent women ever. You need to let the company know all those are the things you can do. That’s not tooting your horn, but that is to serve the interests of the company. Coming back to the analogy, people are thirsty, you have the water. Make sure that you provide that benefit to the company. You are not doing anyone any favor by holding yourself back. I know that I can only make limited contributions in this area because I’m not an expert in terms of Asian-American women’s advancement.

Your suggestion and insight are beneficial. The phrase that you use lifts your vision above the petty problems. Focus on the important thing rather than personality conflicts. The best revenge is success. Show the other person that you are capable of doing things by demonstrating rather than keep complaining and debating who’s better.

When they coat the roads with asphalt, they use steam rollers. It’s rolling on top of the asphalt. You see those big machines. That’s the image I have in mind. Think big and crush on these petty things. When you do big things and you achieve big things, then you crush these petty things under you.

The quote that you share with me is, “The purpose of my life is simple. Be happy from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed every single day.” Why is happiness your purpose in life?

I have discovered the simple truth. I reinvented the wheel many years ago. It was much later that I saw a very similar quote from the Dalai Lama. He says that “the purpose of our lives is to be happy.” Everything else is derivative because if someone says that “the purpose of my life is to do charity”, then I would ask if doing charity makes you agitated, angry, and miserable, would you do that? Probably that person wouldn’t do that if it made them angry, agitated, and miserable. You find happiness when you do charity, then you should do charity. In the end, the ultimate is to be happy. Or you want to work at your job for the rest of your life because it makes you happy. The purpose is to be happy and the working is the means, not the end.

The Bamboo Ceiling: You are not doing anyone any favor by holding yourself back.

To me, the goal is simple, whatever you do, do it so that you feel happy. I know that this is a subject that we could talk all day about. Even if I don’t claim to be an expert on happiness by any stretch of the imagination, but when I say happiness, I mean in a sustainable state of wellbeing, not these bursts of joy. I enjoy these bursts of joy, a good glass of red wine or a new car. I enjoy them like the next guy and I would not deny that. But in addition to that, I would like to have a sustainable state of wellbeing that is perennial. I don’t know if you heard of the term hedonic treadmill and they talk about this phenomenon that when you have these bursts of joy, like a new car or a raise, it never lasts. In fact, they even did an experiment, a study to see how many days happiness would last for the people who won a lottery ticket. It’s an area that is well-researched. The reason that people don’t find this sustainable state of happiness is that things don’t happen the way that they want things to happen. When you think about it, that’s the concept of suffering that Buddha talked about thousands of years ago, that you want things to be a certain way, and they are not that way. That’s why you suffer.

That is such a greedy, arrogant, unrealistic way of thinking. Think about the scale of a human being, how small we are, and the small realm of control that we have. Think about the zillions of factors in this universe that are outside of your control.  If we had not experienced real life to know how it is like and if someone asked me hypothetically that even how small you are and your small realm of control, and about the vastness of this universe and the zillions of factors outside of your control, how often you think that things will go your way? I would probably say maybe 0.0002%. If we had not experienced life, we would probably say something like that. You look at your life. Most of the days, you don’t get hit by a car or you don’t get sick. You don’t get robbed. Most of the time things are going well. Every three years, you have a fender bender and you’ve got all bent up about it. You insist on life having to go 100% or 99% your way. Whereas the way that this university is set up, I am shocked that things don’t go the other way, 99.9998% of the time.

If we have that recognition, then we should be grateful for how much life goes our way. I’ll have to hasten to add because I don’t want people to misunderstand me that we should be passive and we let whatever happened. On the contrary, that’s not what I say at all. Do everything, you can be active, be proactive to mitigate risks, to improve. But after you have done it, be very grateful that life happens to the extent that it does in our favor. When I came to that recognition, then I was overwhelmed with gratefulness overwhelmed with how lucky we are. I don’t take things for granted.

Another piece of this I’d like to mention is to switch your mindset. This is something practical, and everybody can do. It came to me back in the timeframe of the late ‘80s. One day, I rushed from my company to the airport to catch a flight. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon. I got to the airport. The flight was delayed for two hours. I was so upset. I was pissed off and I slammed myself into a chair. After a while, I began to think. It was 3:00 in the afternoon. My coworkers were toiling in the office working, and here I was sitting in a chair reading a novel.  I said, “If I was sitting at home doing it, I would feel joyful.” Why is it that I’m so upset? The exact same circumstance, but if you shift your mindset, then all of a sudden, it becomes a joy. I spent those two hours reading a good novel. I arrived at my destination a little bit later in the evening. My business meeting was not until the next day and so that was fine. Because of COVID-19 we got to stay at home. I took advantage of this time to do the videos on YouTube. I just did a second one on Father’s Day and put it on YouTube. I’m doing this wonderful interview with you. I feel happy.

As a coach, I teach people how to reframe it. We call it reframing, so instead of looking at things from a negative side, look at it from a positive side.  You look at it from a different view. You reframe your mind. I know that you are fluent in Vietnamese, as well as in English. Tell me, do you notice the difference when you respond in English versus when you respond in Vietnamese?

I don’t see it at all. It comes from a deeper place because I have a very clear sense of my identity. There’s only one and it is a solid anchor. Everything else circles around that fixed core. Whether I speak in English or Vietnamese, they both come from the same place. I didn’t see any difference. One thing I could say is that I have been here for 48 years. I was in Vietnam for 18 years. There are times when I don’t know certain terms in Vietnamese either because I never knew those terms or that I knew them, but I forgot. I did a video for YouTube and I needed to say First Amendment in Vietnamese. I had no idea what amendment was in Vietnamese. I got to do some research on that. That’s a technicality, but from the standpoint of my soul behind the words that I say, it’s the same heart, soul, and mind, it’s no difference.

Do you feel comfortable, direct, and freely, no matter what language you speak, either in English or in Vietnamese?

Exactly the same, yes.

How do you want others to reach out to you?

I’m on LinkedIn. That’s the best way to get in touch with me.

Thank you, David, for being here with us and for giving us so much valuable life lessons from your life, as well as from your corporate world. 

To our listeners, we hope that you get a lot out of this interview and that it gives you a different perspective in life. If you enjoy this interview, please subscribe, rate, review, and share with your families and friends. Until next time, LIVE LIFE LOUD. Goodbye.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes

"You have to have the supreme sense of confidence."
"We compete in life in terms of totality"
"Lift your vision above the petty problems."
"The purpose of life is happiness; everything else is derivatives."
"Life happens in our favor."


About David Tran

DAVID TRAN migrated to the US from Vietnam in 1972. Graduated from MIT with an MS in Chemical Engineering and attended the Business Administration & Finance Program at the MIT Sloan School of Management. David’s last position was Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at PAC (Petroleum Analyzer Company, LP, a Division of Roper Technologies, Inc.) Prior to that, David was a Director of Marketing at Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Business Director, Oil & Gas at Emerson. David is currently retired and lives with his wife near Houston, Texas.

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