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EDGE: Turning Adversity into Advantage :-Laura Huang

When Hard Work Alone Is Not Enough, Find Your Edge

This book is about grit, self-awareness and how to overcome adversity and turn them into an advantage. The author lays out the case that hard work itself may not be adequate all the time. It's "smart, hard work" which counts and by illustrating some of her own painful racist experiences she endured, she lays out a convincing case for avoiding self-pity. Some counter-intuitive thoughts go against the conventional wisdom which we are taught from our childhood. Even though counter-intuitive, most nuggets of knowledge in this book apply to our adult life. This book tries to transcend simplistic fables of childhood, which we're always taught and have heard like "Work hard and destiny will take its course" or "Be good, and doors will open". Instead, it provides a more nuanced mental model to realize ones potential.

About the Author:

Laura Huang comes from an academic background and is an associate professor at Harvard Business school (at least the last time I checked). Her areas of interests and research are entrepreneurship, investor behaviour and venture capital. Kauffman Foundation has awarded her a fellowship, and she was included in the “40 Under 40 Most Outstanding MBA Professors” list by Poets & Quants.

Harvard profile can be accessed by following this link.

Couple of her published papers are worth reading and acquiring :

About the Book:

So the title "Edge" relates to the ability of an individual to flip adversity into an advantageous edge. At first, this might sound cliched until the author conveys stories about her own experience and travails. We can group people into three categories when adversity occurs first: the brave ones who get on with it and face the obstacles; the second type are those who wallow in self-pity and ask the query "Why me?".The last ones are brave, but the adversity is far more significant than them, and they become broken spirit.

It would be pretty rich of me to thump my chest and say everyone should get on with it when I am sitting in a first world country. Those words rang hollow to a rural migrant worker in India who would have just walked for 14 days(over a thousand kilometres) to return to his village due to pandemic shutdown in 40+ degree Celsius heat. The other option for him/ her was being starved to death in a city with no work under lockdown.

So who is the book addressing? My recollection and understanding are that Laura is trying to convey her trials and tribulation which she endured as a child of immigrants. Some anecdotes are about racism, which ethnic minorities like her and myself face in a new country or an outsider to an establishment may face. The cure to which Laura is alluding in this book is to deal with these adversities by first avoiding self-pity, secondly looking at racism or prejudice of others as a problem-solving exercise. The antidote to these problems, according to her, is that one should be adaptive and flexible to challenges. So succinctly avoid self-pity and be self-aware, look at obstacles as problems to be solved and adapt to new challenges. Since the author has a background in academics (business and entrepreneurial science), it has some examples where these mental model are drawn from entrepreneurial & venture capitalism faculties. However, I might want to emphasize that this book is worth it due to the applied nature of the examples and anecdotes listed.

"The Big Elephant in the room".

Even though Laura ascribes racial attitudes, actions, or outcomes faced by individuals in her stories to some prejudice or preconceived notion, she avoids the "Word". The word with a slow drum roll is implicit in "Racism". On this topic, my views are less woke and align with Laura's viewpoint is summarized as per below.

You and I need to deal with the world as it is, not as it ought to be. Like Christopher Hitchens, one of the great public intellectuals, said:- " To the dumb question "Why me?". The cosmos barely bothers to reply: Why not?".

Though I can't help asking myself the question, "Do I want to live in a society where a certain race has the scale tipped in their favour due to the colour of their skin? Or do I want to live in a more equitable and meritocratic society?". The answer to my queries is more nuanced. Every race has it's own implicit biases, e.g. the Indian subcontinent has implicit racism towards its citizen who belongs to northeastern states. There is also discrimination based on the caste-based hierarchical society (where even your name can make you an outcast and treated like slaves). Unfortunately, the first caste-based discrimination case was recently brought to American courts by a Cisco employee and then by the Californian state against Cisco. Link to Washington post article.

So rather than claiming "holier than thou" or becoming an apologist and defending one bad thing by pointing the finger at another equally bad or worse thing. I instead state that " I am in favour of equitable, meritocratic and empathetic society".

Returning to the book, Laura draws our attention to few examples which point to implicit racism. One of the stories was about Mirai Nagasu, an American Olympian and figure skater, which made me squirm and seethe. Mirai was discriminated against and not given the spot in the 2014 Olympic team even though she had come third in the national championships; instead, the figure skating association gave Ashley Wagner, who came in fourth in the national championship. You may ask why? It's because the US figure skating association had the discretion to pick, and they deemed Wagner a better chance of fitting in or perhaps winning gold (open to speculation). Though you may ask why again, as Mirai came in third? The answer to that may be because Mirai didn't fit into the mould of a fair-skinned, blonde American figure skater. Mirai was robbed of four precious years if one thinks of the limited time an Olympian has at peak performance! Eventually, she qualified for the 2018 Olympics by performing triple axel, the first American woman Olympian.

The USA 2014 woman figure skating Olympic team.
Mirai Nagasu and her performing the triple axel.
For your information, the real irony is this: blue-eyed, blonde Wagner was born in Heidelberg, Germany. Nagasu, meanwhile, was born in Montebello, California.

Some of you might have read articles or heard how ethnic minorities whitened their resume or changed names. How anglicized name lands more interviews than an Asian name. The bad news is that this is not just headline-grabbing articles or heresy, but based on a concrete research paper: Whitened Resumes Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market by Sonia K. Kang, Katherine A. DeCelles, Andra´s Tilcsik, and Sora Jun.

The paper found that 40% of ethnic minorities in the USA anglicized their names, downplay their race and whiten their experiences to get a foot in the door (at least an interview).

Well, like Shirley Chisholm, the first black major-party candidate and first democratic party's woman candidate to run for President of America, alludes to us above, "What's the solution?". So we know the issue and the prejudice and biases are not going away as there are no laws against them; what's the solution (the folding chair)? The poignant query which Laura poses is, "Why let someone else derive assumption and judgement about you? Why can't the individual go above and beyond these prejudices and write his narrative about oneself." Can we give the reason of racism and bias for every failure of ours? When does that reason become an excuse for us not to persevere and persist?

The solution which Laura proposes is "Hard Work plus+", which she explains in four parts Enrich, Delight, Guide and the last Effort. Through these guiding principles, the author brings to light the uncomfortable notion that :

"Sometimes hard work doesn't speak for itself. Sometimes you have to speak for your hard work".

Part 1: Enrich

This part entails learning to realize whether we bring value to the table. If the answer is yes, do other people believe that you do so (bring value and enrich). The prior is open to our confirmatory and cognitive biases; everyone thinks that what they do is valuable. Though many a time we try too hard at everything rather than focusing on essential goods. Laura points to the gap between what we think we know and what we know and the danger of overextending ourselves and our efforts. (Shown in the graph below from Farnam Street blog)

So the mantra is to trust in your basic goods; as Laura's puts it humorously, both Spider-Man and Super Man are super-heroes, even though spider-sense is no match for the X-ray vision of Super Man. She encourages us to embrace our constraints and hone our gut feel through practice and varied experiences. A great example of embracing rules was when Laura gave her students a task to start an enterprise with $5. The teams which did best were those which employed zero dollars and focused on experiences and out of box thinking. In my opinion, when we make constraints on the central object, then reasonable solutions are hard to come by. I have made this mistake numerous time, and thinking about limitations has often constrained my thought process. As the mantra of my blog post is "Doing is Learning", failures hone our intuition, and when you overcome adversity, there is an aftertaste of triumphant confidence.

There are many other great stories in this chapter, which is why I would encourage you to buy and read this book.

The chapter highlights the power of exponential growth Vs. Aiming for linear growth and identifying incongruity( discrepancy), and exploiting it for our development.

Part 2: Delight

The first chapter of this part starts with a brilliant quote from Albert Einstein or anonymous:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree. It will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

This part may sometimes be misconstrued as preaching sycophancy (schmoozing), but I go back to our topic of racism and prejudices. The query Laura poses is if you ask people to form a judgement and scale your work, maybe you are asking way too much of them. The safe bet is to provide a narrative yourself which delights the viewers and facilitate the knowing your phase. For example, I love statistics, but I find myself nodding and dozing off during a lengthy 30-page presentation. In contrast, I assimilate more knowledge when the presentation is humorous and uses colloquial terms to explain complex statistical complexity. Simplicity is the output of hard work and proper understanding. (Alternatively, simplicity is demanded by people who don't want to go through the pain of experience concepts.)

Also, this chapter reminds us that delighting people is about improvisation, more so reflective improvisation. I won't spoil the author's good work, and the space on this blog is too short to explain the concept and what Laura explains in her book. In short, "Reflective improvisation" is a two and fro process through which you can engage and delight others. If you remember that scene from "Pursuit of Happyness" where Will Smith turns up to an Interview in ragged clothes covered in paint? The scene goes as per below:

Martin Frohm: "What would you say if a man walked in here with no shirt, and I hired him? What would you say?"
Chris Gardner(Will Smith): "He must have had on, some really nice pants"

A complete delight!

If you want to learn about effective engagement, presentation, and winning over people, then this is a must-read chapter.

Part 3: Guide

So we delight people who are the gatekeepers, which opens the door slightly and then we show them some value and enrich them. Though for Laura, the task remains unfinished. You or I might be working diligently hard at it, but still, the narrative for others might not be what you seek. Hence it's important to guide people to the value and worth of your work as you perceive it. (not let others tell the story but rather define your narrative)

According to her, it starts with self-awareness and knowing oneself and how others see us. You should guide the process of how people see you, or else the preconceived notions and prejudices will guide them instead.

Self-awareness can be the latest buzzword, and yours truly has unashamedly tried the Myers-Briggs type indicator and, yes, felt smug about it. For those who do not know it and have not read Ray Dalio's "Principles", MBTI tries to predict and place you in 16 personality types. I am "IITJ", meaning an introvert with long term vision, but before I come out with a swollen breast with pride, I can distinctly remember when I was a mere follower.

Here is where Laura makes a million-dollar statement:

"We use tests like MBTI and often take them as gospel. But this popular conception of self-awareness doesn't account for contextual and interpersonal differences. This is detrimental to truly gain a sense of self-awareness because personality is a continuum rather than a series of binaries."

We are an evolving species, and our personality evolves and sometimes changes consciously and sometimes subconsciously. I am an ambivert, meaning I can be boisterous, pleasant and sometimes reserved depending on the company and circumstances, though I am primarily outspoken. (doesn't sound like introversion)

The chapter illustrates how we have to guide others to our future trajectory and not just what we did in the past. It's similar to sitting on our past achievement and expecting people to know and fault them if they don't. "Don't they know what I have done?" Well, actually, no, everyone has limited time, and it's a hell lot better if one makes it easier for others to know you by introducing oneself. If I don't narrate to people my name is "Sameer", not "Smear", and delight them by telling it means "cool breeze", they will keep on calling me "Smear".

This quote encompasses our own biases from unknown in the book:

People hear me through their eyes first.

So it's always handy to know how others perceive you and then work on altering that perception. Also, the chapter showed a folly within me; sometimes, we take self-pride in what we have been and done. For a third person, it means nothing; they are more interested in what's your future trajectory of life would be, what's on your distant horizon.

As Laura beautifully quotes:

It's not where you've been; it's where you're going. Guide how others see your trajectory.

Part 4 : Effort

The last chapter briefly talks about effort. The author believes that everyone knows "Working hard matters"; it's like stating the obvious and waiting for applause. However, action needs to be directed, vigorous and should enhance your edge. Maybe I am good at coding but bad at presenting and conveying the idea as I get nervous and self-conscious. Where should my conscientious effort be? Are the options either writing more code or learning presentation skills and joining the toastmasters series? I let you be the judge.

I had a mixed feeling about the book as it chipped away at some of my preconceived notions. However, I could relate to the hard work plus no self-pity philosophy. The book may first come across as being against the effort, but on my second read, what I could retain is that it's about efficiency.

How do I make my effort more efficient ?

Do I keep doing the same thing and put in more effort, and expect different results?

Am I thinking linearly and not seeing the absurdity and ignoring the opportunity for exponential growth?

Am I looking at the rearview mirror way too much and not utilizing the present to have a better future trajectory?

Maybe you will come to the same conclusions once you have read the book I highly recommend. It's easy to learn reading with tons of wisdom in each chapter.


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