Unapologetically unconventional

In Your Skin

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How would you describe yourself?

Unapologetically unconventional. One of my close friends described me like this once and I really like it, I think it fits me. I come from a very normal family and community and I've been told constantly that I am too different or that I don't do what's expected of me, that I should be more like others and care more about what people think of me, and things like that. Hearing this constantly growing up was quite painful and it made me question and doubt myself. What’s ironic though is that I never really thought of myself to be different but since most people do, I now embrace who I am and truly own it. For example, when people hear that I am a Professor, their reaction is "Really? You don't look like a professor!"Well, what am I supposed to look like? This is me, this is my true identity. I am smart, funny and fashionable, but I am also direct, intense and intimidating. And so many more. Recently I discovered that my great-grand mother Lucretia was very unconventional and broke all rules of her culture, community and generation and learning about her gave me such a great sense of belonging and acceptance of who I am.  Because in time I have learnt that while is almost impossible for someone to change, is much easier to work on becoming their best self. So this is my daily challenge, to become the best version of myself while staying true to my individuality. 

 What is the triggering factor that led you on this journey?

I never imagined myself becoming a professor. I actually had over 19 different jobs (I started working at 14) by the time I joined academia. Even though I was a great student up to high school, my college experience was very disappointing and I couldn't wait to get out of it and move on with my life. I grew up in Romania and post communism, life was hard, even harder than before in a way. I had multiple dead end jobs just to survive and constantly struggled to find my way. But after my first start-up failed, a very fun fashion agency, I realized I need to learn more about business so I went back to school, but this time in Switzerland. I still didn't think academia was for me and this time was more because I have not seen anyone like me or someone I can relate to standing in front of us students. We barely had any female professors whatsoever or any female leaders. To me it seemed like this industry was mostly full of old white (some boring) men who lectured us, with very few exceptions. I did though get a PhD scholarship and an opportunity to continue my studies in Switzerland and in US and I spent some time taking summer courses at Harvard University, I got to meet a lot of people at MIT and I became very inspired, hopeful and validated in my individuality. So today I am a Professor, but I am still my own kind. And I couldn't be any happier about what I have become.   

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What is your personal mission statement?

“How hard can it be?” And I live by it every day. I think it started when I was still very young and I saw my grandmother, Theresa (the daughter of Lucretia) make everything seem easy and doable through a lot of creativity and frugality (she didn't really have a choice as we were quite poor). She was my first role model and inspiration and taught me how to make the best out of very little. She used to say “the best chef is not the one who makes amazing meals with the best ingredients, but is the one who makes the best dish out of nothing”. And this statement really stuck with me for the longest time and then later on transformed in my mantra of “how hard can it be?”. I believe that because of this principle I took on challenges that I wasn't really prepared for without overthinking; I say yes very easily to new tests and trials which is not always the right way to go but I do think that if I really put my mind to it and I have the right people around me I can figure it out. 

What do people need to do more of?

Validation.  I know, Oprah said it first, but I came up to this conclusion all by myself! In time I realized how difficult is to work with people every day. My previous boss used to say “the job is easy, the people are not” and you will hear me a lot say in my talks that I don't really like people. People laugh and think that I’m joking but actually there’s a big truth in this tongue-in-cheek joke. Humans are complex and complicated; we all believe in our truth, in our way, in our values and way of doing things but while we are all so different, I do think that there’s one thing we all have in common: the need for validation, for approval, for support, for love. I think is because for most of us our own opinion is not sufficient and we need others to corroborate. This is how friendships and partnerships start, this is how tribes are formed. This is what social media is all about: public stated validation. 

However, while we all seek validation, we each ask for it differently according to where we need it most: physical, emotional, power, control, expertise, likeability. I think we all want validation for the things we don't like about ourselves or for the things we still struggle with. And a great manager, partner, spouse, family learns how to provide positive validation to the most critical areas of need, while still standing in its own truth.

How do you deal with fear?   

I have a turbulent personality that gets triggered when I experience intense emotions such as stress, fatigue, frustration or fear. I wish I could tell you that I’m cool under fire but is not always the case. But while I am quite emotive, I do not experience fear very often, except for obvious situation of potential harm. And I think is because of my mission statement “how hard can it be?”. One of my colleagues and favorite person said once about me that I never waste a good crisis and I believe to be true. Actually crises (after my adrenaline levels) give me a lot of space for creativity and innovation. I believe some of the best inventions come from constraints and limited resources and one should not be afraid to try new things. As I said before, I believe that nothing is that hard if you truly put your mind to it, but also by now I know my limitations and I don't put myself in situations where I know I have no business being part of.  I am very much afraid though of disappointing the people I love. 

What do people need less of?

Discrimination. I am very concerned about how much we have diverged as a society in the past few years and how hard we fight to validate our own way of life by openly attacking other ways (religion, sexual orientation, life choices, etc.) It seems to me that we have lost a lot of self-confidence, that we are more afraid that we are losing a dominant battle ground. I see people who believe that their life choices that seemed to be embraced by a majority, now have to make room for alternatives and they are concerned that these alternatives will become a threat so they go on attack mode before it even starts. I think this is how gender discrimination started, from the fear of losing a dominant position; same with religious persecutions. And this takes me back to the comment on self-confidence. When one is confident and humbled in its own life choices, that one will naturally allow space for diversity and color, for individual and collective expression of individuality. Because imagine what a sad place this world would be if we were all alike!    

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What is inspiring you right now?

I was always very inspired by pioneers; by the people who stand up and take the first bullet. I am in awe of people who have the courage to fight injustice, who are not afraid to challenge the systems, who put the price of their cause above their own safety or freedom or well-being. I am inspired by people who are first at doing something, people who are generous with their time, energy and spirit. I am inspired by my students who despite of their extremely hectic schedule, they find creative ways to help each other, explore the world, create new adventures and embrace new challenges.  These days I am especially inspired by all the women who are standing up against discrimination, inequality and against all these powerful figures that guard the status quo. I am happy that I got to see the rise of the #metoo movement but also sad that it took us so long to do it. I am moved and inspired by people who say “enough, no more, not me, not her, not any of us”. 

Read more in Freda Liu’s book