Jean Lee Of Exaltitude On How Authenticity and Vulnerability Pay Off and Help You Win Personally and Professionally

An Interview With Maria Angelova
March 15, 2023
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Being vulnerable and authentic are some of today’s popular buzzwords. It may seem counterintuitive to be vulnerable, as many of us have been taught to project an air of confidence, be a boss, and act like we know everything. In Brene Brown’s words, “vulnerability takes courage.” So is vulnerability a strength or a weakness? Can someone be authentic without being vulnerable? How can being authentic and vulnerable help someone grow both personally and professionally? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders, mental health professionals and business and life coaches who can share stories and examples of “How Authenticity and Vulnerability Pay Off and Help You Win Personally and Professionally.” As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Lee.

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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you, Maria, for having me today.

I guess you could say my childhood was an unexpected adventure — I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but I was lucky enough to grow up on multiple continents before settling in San Francisco in high school. Growing up in remote parts of the world created a unique experience for me, and shaped me into the person I am today. Through it all, I developed a sensitivity to new perspectives, the ability to keep going through tough times, and a willingness to try out different things.

I also discovered that the key to building strong relationships lies in being open and honest. When you move around frequently, you quickly learn that authenticity and vulnerability are essential to building new relationships. You learn to take risks, make mistakes and put yourself out there to find your place. It’s a lesson that I’ve carried throughout my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have many favorite quotes, but the one I’d like to share today is, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” by Wayne Gretzky. My Golf coach always told me this when I played for the team in High School. It’s a reminder to take risks, be brave, and try things outside your comfort zone. Take the shots in life that give you the best chance for success and growth, and don’t be afraid to fail. If I hadn’t taken risks like joining WhatsApp as the 19th engineer when it was just a small startup, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Recently, I’ve been applying this same philosophy to my business endeavors to build Exaltitude, career coaching for engineers, and taking on opportunities to help diverse talent in tech grow their careers. Without taking risks, I wouldn’t have been able to build something from scratch and make a difference in other people’s lives. This quote reminds me that it’s okay to take risks and venture out of my comfort zone. Taking calculated risks can pay off in the long term!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve been a fan of books and films that feature strong female characters since I was young. One of my favorites is the Legally Blonde, and I can relate to Elle Woods’s struggle to be taken seriously as a woman in a male-dominated field. Growing up, we had Legally Blonde on videotape, and I watched it over and over again. Elle is an authentic risk-taker and isn’t afraid to show off her true self, looking fabulous in pink. She isn’t afraid to try new things, even if she makes mistakes along the way. That’s why when I resigned from WhatsApp as an Engineering Manager, I took some time off to write a Young Adult fiction called Beauty Queen in Silicon Valley, delivering a Legally Blonde meets The Social Network plot for techy teens. In my book, I explore the struggles of a Korean American pageant queen Emma Park, who is struggling to define her real dream and decide what she’s willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

I’m currently talking to agents for a movie adaptation and looking for a publisher to bring this story alive. I hope that if published, it will inspire future risk-takers in tech to be their true selves and take risks, no matter how scared they might be. Elle Woods and Emma Park show us that authenticity and vulnerability can help you win personally and professionally — and the rewards are worth the risk!

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly does being authentic mean?

Living authentically is about being true to yourself, embracing all your strengths and weaknesses, and standing up for your beliefs. It’s also allowing space for mistakes — because even the most genuine people can get it wrong sometimes!

People often mistake being authentic for being honest 100% of the time. But authenticity is more than just telling the truth — it’s also about owning all of who you are and being comfortable in your skin. It’s about having the courage to express your true thoughts and feelings, but not at a cost to others. We can be authentic while considering the impact of our words and how they can affect those around us.

Authenticity is a form of self-expression that doesn’t always have to be verbal — it can also be expressed through actions. We can demonstrate authenticity when we make decisions that align with our values. When we practice authenticity, it leaves us feeling more confident and empowered.

What does being vulnerable mean? Can you explain?

While it’s scary to let yourself feel emotions like fear, sadness, and insecurity, being vulnerable is all about creating that space for those feelings — not letting them rule us. Vulnerability is often confused with uncertainty, but they are very different. Being vulnerable is not about being unsure of yourself — it’s about having the courage to be open and honest, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Showing vulnerability isn’t easy, but embracing the possibility of being seen with kindness and empathy is incredible courage with limitless potential. By embracing vulnerability, we can foster strong relationships and find true happiness. It may seem intimidating at first, but showing your authentic self is the ultimate show of strength!

What are the positive aspects of being authentic and vulnerable? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Earlier in my career, despite my efforts to appear outwardly composed and professional in the workplace, I struggled inwardly with anxiety and stress to the point of physical manifestations. One particularly intense episode got me to an emergency room. Doctors couldn’t explain why I was so violently ill.

When I shared this news with coworkers, they were ready to offer empathy instead of judgment. One person also shared her own experiences around mental health challenges and postpartum depression, reminding me that no one could be expected to maintain perfect emotional well-being all the time. After all, we’re only human!

That conversation was a turning point for me. As I began talking to more people, I learned many adults suffer from anxiety and stress and that talking about it can be healing. I even spoke about courage and vulnerability at the company-wide conference on Leading With Courage. It was inspiring to gain insight into the experiences of some incredible female leaders from our office. We were all moved by their powerful stories of resilience and determination in overcoming difficult challenges! Showing vulnerability and making myself authentic to my coworkers helped me gain acceptance, understanding, and support from those around me.

Through my coaching work at Exaltitude, I encourage others to be vulnerable and share their struggles with people around them. By being authentic and vulnerable, we can create meaningful connections and help foster a supportive environment for everyone.

Are there negative aspects to authenticity and vulnerability? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

While there are tremendous benefits to being genuine and vulnerable, it can be challenging. Taking risks and being vulnerable in life can have consequences, like rejection or a ‘vulnerability hangover.’

A ‘vulnerability hangover’ is the phrase for what many of us feel in the aftermath — raw, exposed, and exhausted from being vulnerable. It’s not unusual to need time to recuperate after such an experience. But the aftermath of vulnerability doesn’t have to put a damper on our day; Taking some time for self-care is key to giving ourselves space & energy before continuing with life’s journey.

Whether indulging in a luxurious massage, drawing up an oh-so-soothing hot bath, or curling up with a cup of tea and a good book — the idea is to set aside some precious ‘me’ time for yourself. My self-care routines help me stay balanced and better prepared to be open to new experiences and possibilities.

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common barriers that hold someone back from being authentic and vulnerable?

I would credit shame and perfectionism as two of the toughest barriers to authenticity and vulnerability. For me, it’s closely related to the cultural and social norms or expectations of being an Asian American woman. I grew up under a lot of pressure to be perfect, and unfortunately, this often came hand-in-hand with feelings of guilt and shame that were hard to shake off. Seeking perfection can be difficult to navigate — often resulting in overworking ourselves to achieve a certain level of performance. In my case, it was so extreme that my physical health suffered.

At Exaltitude, I come across many people who are tough on themselves, beating themselves up for not doing enough. Shame and insecurity can leave us feeling paralyzed, inadequate, and afraid of letting others in. It can be difficult to connect with others when we fear our imperfections being revealed. But remember, you’re not alone! Many of us feel the same way, and it’s okay not to be okay. When we’re authentic and vulnerable about our imperfections, we can find a safe space to be human and connect with others more deeply.

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are five ways that being authentic and vulnerable pay off, and help you win, both personally and professionally?

1. Build trust and connections: When we open ourselves up to the possibility of vulnerability, even without trust being a guarantee, it creates an opportunity for strong relationships and mutual understanding. Step outside your comfort zone and be vulnerable — you never know what kind of connections await!

2. Stop seeking external approval: When we’re authentic and open about ourselves, we don’t have to seek external approval from others. We can gain confidence and be empowered to make decisions independently instead of relying on others for validation.

3. Boost confidence: Staying true to ourselves gives us the freedom and security to know we’re enough. Being vulnerable and embracing our imperfections can lead to greater self-awareness and self-acceptance. This can help to build our confidence and allow us to become more comfortable in our own skin.

4. Lead by example: As a leader, being authentic and vulnerable can inspire others to do the same, even if you don’t have the authority or title of a leader. When we’re open and honest, it can be contagious! When you demonstrate openness and vulnerability, people will look to you for guidance and advice.

5. Attract opportunities: Showing our true selves to the world can be a big step, but it pays off. Being genuine unlocks doors of opportunity and cultivates strong connections that will help us thrive in life. So take the leap today!

Striving to be real and open with ourselves might seem daunting, but the rewards are absolutely worth it! Discovering our true selves can lead us on a journey of self-development full of potential for trust, confidence, and amazing opportunities.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Our words and actions give us the power to create a brighter future. It’s no secret that being kind and showing gratitude for others makes our lives brighter, but the impact goes far beyond just a smile or two. Practicing kindness is an act of self-care — it can boost mental health and well-being by encouraging meaningful connections and creating ripples of joy across communities! Let us all be mindful of how we treat each other — reaching out with compassion could ultimately make a world of difference.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I’ve been a fan of Reese Witherspoon since Legally Blonde, which inspired me to become an author myself! She is an incredible woman who has inspired me through her work and activism for many years. Not only does she use her platform to speak up and stand up for what she believes in, but she also encourages young women to live authentically and dream big. Her book club also promotes diverse voices of women authors from around the world and create meaningful connections through stories and reading. A lunch with Reese would be an amazing opportunity to learn more about her journey and the work she is passionate about. Reese, would you join me for lunch? 🤞🏼

How can our readers follow you online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Visit Exaltitude or my personal website!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

This article was originally posted on Authority Magazine.

Exaltitude newsletter is packed with advice for navigating your engineering career journey successfully. Sign up to stay tuned!

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