Social mobility ≠ mindless assimilation

In my first post, “Poor and Traumatized at Harvard”, I explained some of the challenges I faced in transitioning to Harvard University as a first-generation college student from the inner city. I would now like to share some of the lessons I learned from that period of time in the hopes that others facing similar challenges find it beneficial.

From the moment I stepped foot on Harvard campus when I was 17 years old, I was on my own to figure out how to navigate between two polar extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum without any guidance or mentorship. This catapult comes with a cost that is rarely discussed or fully understood: becoming psychologically tribeless.

It has taken many years for me to process what this did to my sense of self. I eventually learned to embrace my journey and I now appreciate how my journey forced me to transcend narrow definitions of identity. It led me to see myself as a citizen of the world. Now looking back, I know that so much of who I am — my character and my values — has been grounded by my humble beginnings yet how I think, analyze, and process the world has been shaped by my education and professional training.

As a student at Harvard, I recognized a pattern that whenever I visited home, I would experience an existential crisis when I returned to campus. I was too young and immature to make sense of the drastic differences in the way people lived at these two extremes. On top of that, my parents often expressed worries that they were losing me and accused me of being ashamed of them. My siblings complained that I sounded uppity. As a result, I felt increasingly disconnected from where I came from. It was painful to not feel like I belonged anywhere. I beat myself up for losing touch with my roots and for “selling out.”

As I matured, I eventually came to understand that leaving my comfort zone and letting go of the person I thought I was to grow into the person I could become was a necessary step towards understanding that who I am transcends socioeconomic class, ethnicity and race. Growing takes guts and courage. Growing is the best thing anyone can do to put themselves on a trajectory to serve the greater good.

Why are “be yourself” and “know yourself” two of the most common pieces of advice people share with one another? Is it because it’s actually really hard to be yourself and know who you really are? Why do we often find it safer to put on a face, wear a mask, or pretend to be someone else than to let ourselves be open and vulnerable? Why is it much easier to let social norms and expectations condition us to fit a mold than to push back?

I’ve always been fascinated with watching myself and others code switching, which is one of the most prevalent forms of adaptation. It wasn’t just changing the way I talked — a pidgin of Chinese and broken English at home, slang laced with fbombs when being casual, and scholarly English in academic and professional settings. I unconsciously developed different personas that matched each environment and social group. It was like being a chameleon — it wasn’t something I consciously chose to do or had any control over. It happened automatically. It was spontaneous and authentic.

Looking back, I now see that the ability to code switch was an enormous asset. As a student, I was curious and enjoyed exploring different social settings and situations. Code-switching enabled me to interact with a broad and diverse array of social groups and have people feel comfortable around me. I got to know so many people from different backgrounds and therefore, greatly expanded my horizons. However, it was confusing to be so adaptive that my identity seemed to be continually in flux as I moved in and out of different circles.

As I thought about the biological mechanisms that underlie code-switching, I started to appreciate it more. Now I realize that I am intuitively reading people through my mirror neuron system and reflecting it back to them. This is how empathy works biologically. It stems from a willingness to understand someone else by resonating with them. Neuroscience has found that when people experience resonance, the pattern of activation in their brains become very similar.

So when I allow myself to resonate with someone, it doesn’t mean I am giving up who I am or selling out. It means I am expanding my sense of self to include the person (or people) I am with. After going through a number of leadership development programs, I now realize that this type of social flexibility and agility is a necessary part of being interpersonally effective. It’s critical to engaging with people.

That said, a true test of character comes from finding oneself in a group setting observing social behaviors and norms that go against one’s values and or that crosses moral and ethical lines. Whenever I find myself in these situations, I have to make an important conscious choice: do I let this go so I stay part of the group, do I engage with people and challenge the group to change, or do I opt-out and withdraw from the situation? (A sequenced combination of these options as a decision tree is what usually makes the most sense.)

Evolutionary biologists theorize that it is very likely that during the course of evolution, the social instincts of mammals formed the basis for the social instincts of human beings. Robert Sapolsky, a biologist and neuroscientist who studies primate tribes, has found that primate social behaviors shed light on human social patterns, hierarchies, and power dynamics.

If these tribal instincts are programmed into the ancient mammalian structures in the human brain, it’s logical to surmise that people, who are in fact primates, mindlessly play out unconscious social instincts. Everyone has a biological urge to be a valued member of a tribe. This is why people instinctively compare themselves with their peers. People want to know where they stand and everyone prefers to be in the upper tiers of the tribe. Our brains unleash dopamine when we are on top and stress hormones when we are below.

Then the question becomes, should we always give in to these deep-rooted biological programs? If they become obstacles that keep us from growing and from being true to our values, should we challenge them? Should we choose not to play out these ingrained instincts? Should we choose non-conformity? The reason why many times people don’t is that it feels terrifying to go against our social instincts. There is safety in numbers. Standing out is a surefire way of putting oneself at risk. We are biologically programmed to seek safety and security and flee from threat and danger.

This is why it takes courage and wisdom to be yourself. Every person struggles to make sense of universal aspects of human nature and the human condition. This is why I look to science to accurately know myself.

During my time at Harvard, I stayed grounded by making a conscious decision not to let class differences impact my sense of self-worth and change how I treated people. I didn’t bother to ingratiate myself into circles of privilege and connection. Instead, I consciously made an effort to be nice and show gratitude to the workers who served us in the dining halls and who cleaned the many buildings at Harvard. I felt like I had more in common with them than with many of my classmates.

I wasn’t at all enamored with the dominant culture at Harvard and I questioned whether assimilating would make me a better person. Fortunately, I found the art department — a little microcosm at Harvard that celebrated non-conformity. The classes were taught by artists from New York City who couldn’t resist the novelty and perks of teaching at Harvard yet also chafed at the stuffiness and conservatism of the institution.

I have to give these artists credit for showing me it was a good thing to be different, to express my voice, to stand apart from the dominant culture. They respected me for being spunky and encouraged me to push boundaries. For example, for my final project in my painting class, I built two concrete tombstones on which I painted images of iconic paintings to declare that painting was dead. As I recall, I actually got an A. The class was called “Painting with Attitude” and nothing shows more attitude than a cheeky act of defiance.

During the worst period of my PTSD and depression, when I was taking a senior seminar led by Peter Schjeldahl (the art critic for the New Yorker), Peter helped me see that standing up for myself was a commendable thing to do. One day it was particularly hard to drag myself to class, so I got there late and had to take the only empty seat next to him. Peter was in the middle of giving a tirade about how Harvard students are like very obedient sheep who can jump through any hoop but can’t think for themselves or push creative boundaries. His tone of voice and what he said completely triggered me. I suddenly got so pissed off, I cursed him out. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was something along the lines of “F* you. How dare you f*ing talk to me this way. You don’t know me.”

Then there was dead silence in the room. My classmates’ faces were completely white. Inside my head, I was like: holy shit, did I really say this out loud? To Peter’s credit, he took it very graciously. He said something like “I stand corrected,” and beamed at me with a big smile, like I had passed his test. He was even nicer to me after that. He didn’t give me a hard time about my depression-related problems with attendance. Since then, I’ve often wondered why I was the only one who got upset at Peter. If I hadn’t come to class that day, would any one else have spoken up?

Looking back, I am grateful that I found this unique environment where I learned to push boundaries and discovered I could succeed without conforming, without following the herd. I learned to make choices based on what resonated with me and what didn’t. And the most incredible thing was that I got respect for having a voice and having a vision. Looking back, I now see the most important lesson I learned as an art student is how to be the author of my own story. Being trained as an artist made me willing to stand apart from the greater collective and identify what doesn’t work for me. These experiences helped me follow my own inner guidance.

Now as an adult, I feel the most valuable thing I got from Harvard was a greater understanding of the universality of the human condition. Most of my Harvard peers will always have a leg up in life thanks to their inherited family connections and resources. They have a safety net that I could never dream of having (I am my family’s safety net). However, they still have problems. The biggest lesson I learned from interacting with people at Harvard is that wealth, resources, plus world-class brains and talent do not provide immunity to suffering.

What I took away from having an inside look at this microcosm of elite culture was not what I expected going into it. I saw that my peers and their families were as caught up in mindless patterns and irrational thinking as the rest of the world — these patterns were different from what I observed in low-income communities, but they were nevertheless self-destructive. I saw that the wealthy and elite were by no means superior to anyone else. In fact, they were often painfully disconnected from their own humanity. I saw that with privilege came the pressure to be perfect. I watched young people cave under this pressure (one of my classmates took his own life). I tried to support friends struggling with eating disorders and drinking problems. It was heartbreaking to witness so much dysfunction.

I eventually learned from my classmates and friends who came from privileged backgrounds that my having no shoes to fill, no expectations to disappoint and no pressures to follow in any one’s footsteps has been a precious gift. The fact that nothing was handed to me on a silver platter gives me a sense of profound independence and autonomy that few people get to truly enjoy. Still, this realization didn’t come overnight. It took many years for me to understand that the fact that my achievements are truly mine serves as a wellspring of self-empowerment and self-confidence. I can be real because I feel no need to wear a mask.

After I graduated, I decided that being a professional (starving) artist was not the right path for me and chose instead to go into the business world. To my surprise, I found my artistic training gave me transferable skills that have been invaluable. Because I have a way of appreciating situations in a manner similar to how I appreciate a work of art, I found I had a special knack for seeing the bigger picture, grasping the key issues, and seeing different angles. This gift enables me to find creative solutions to problems. Further, my training in portrait photography taught me not just to see people, I looked deeply to see their soul. When I look at an organization, I also see and appreciate the people in it and all their personal stories unfolding in the foreground and the background. It’s beautiful, stunning, and poignant.

I believe the main reason I’ve done well in the business world and as an entrepreneur is because I am able to express my free will to not mindlessly act out an implicit social script and give into group-think. I am able to discern when to follow, when to engage, when to push and ask tough questions, when to let go, and when to withdraw. In the process of listening to my inner compass, I create a space that allows others to also do so. By being authentic and vulnerable, I make it safe for others to be more open.

The person I am now is a result of many choices I’ve made along the way. I chose not to define myself by social status or class. I chose not to pretend I am someone that I’m not. I chose not to keep up with the Joneses. I chose not to adopt a lifestyle that is beyond my means. Instead, I chose to build skills. I chose to pay off my student debts. I chose to take care of my parents. When I had acquired the skills I needed to build a social enterprise, I chose to walk away from a lucrative career in finance to come back to inner city Philadelphia. I now choose to apply my skills to realize a vision for making a difference.

By sharing my own story, I want people to understand that all of us can choose to not let ourselves be mindlessly defined and limited by the social patterns set before us. No one has to go along with what everyone else seems to be doing because that’s just the way things have always been done. Every one of us has the power to question and break out of the unconscious patterns that hold us back. Each and every one of us can be the author of our own story.

About the Author:

Due Quach is a social entrepreneur who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, graduated from Harvard College and the Wharton School of Business, and built an international career in management consulting and private equity investments. Having started life in poverty as a refugee from Vietnam who suffered severe trauma, Due created Calm Clarity to share the powerful neuroscience-based techniques she developed to heal PTSD, master her mind, and become her best self.​ Her book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment and Joy is one of Fast Company’s 7 Best Business Books of 2018.

Due also founded the Collective Success Network, a nonprofit that collaborates with the wider business community to increase socioeconomic inclusion by mentoring, supporting, and empowering low-income, first-generation college students to successfully navigate college and enter professional careers.

After living and traveling all around the world, Due is once again a proud resident of Philadelphia, her hometown.

Founder of Calm Clarity, a social enterprise that uses science to help people across the socioeconomic spectrum master their mind and be their best self.

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