My definition of career success and how it’s evolved over time - Holly Liu, Y CombinatorFeatured

What's your personal definition of career success? Has that evolved over time?Since I’m the daughter of two loving Chinese immigrant parents growing up my definition of career success was one of the following: accountant, lawyer or doctor. This is mainly due to how they viewed success in the Circle of Life. As a child they would make sure I was doing all I could -- sleeping well, eating my vitamins, studying, etc. -- so I could do well in school, so I could get good grades, so that I could get into a good college, find a good job (as an accountant, lawyer or doctor), and then in my case find a good husband so that we could get married and have kids and continue the Circle of Life. Well I got pretty far in that Circle of Life (though I’m still waiting to see how my kids turn out). I made it to college and right afterwards I was in a fancy job traveling all over the world (well, the the Continental US and Canada, really), with my fancy business cards and fancy carry-on, but the work was not fancy nor was I really good at it. And, I was miserable. My wake up call happened when I was flying back from a client site and the plane was coming in for landing. We were right above the street lights, that’s how low we were to the ground. Then the plane began to pitch left to right at about a 45 degree angle, back and forth. The plane began to shake as the pilot took the plane almost to a ninety degree angle for us to get back in the air. People began screaming. It was just like the movies. The guy next to me, 3 times my senior, wanted to hold my hand because he was so scared. And the main thought that went through my head was “I can’t believe I’m going to die like this, coming home from a job that I don't like with 3 weeks of dirty laundry!”. When the plane landed, I promised myself I would get off the conveyor belt and stop letting life happen TO me and instead make life happen FOR me.The following week I began applying for Masters programs, which led me to the UC Berkeley School of Information in the San Francisco Bay Area. It changed my career and life. The one thing I’ve learned recently about a career is it is a cross between a job and your calling. It takes the time and energy of a calling and pays you like a job. You spend most of your time in a career. It becomes the sum of your life’s work. So a form of happiness should be derived from what you are doing. It takes about 7-10 years to build a great company. If you think about your career as 7-10 year chunks, you can think deeply about what gives you meaning and happiness. If you are just starting out and don’t know what you want to do, trying things out makes a lot of sense. Be careful that you don’t look back on your life and realize you have just “fallen” into it. My previous definition of personal career success would not include happiness or meaning.The other thing I learned is that wherever you go, whatever organization you choose to work for, you are always figuring it out and learning how to succeed in that place. Your boss, manager or company defines what success looks like in that organization. I tell people that wherever you go and whatever you do, you are climbing some ladder or jungle gym, so make sure it’s what you want to climb. Now my definition of career success is climbing the ladder that I want. As women, we spend most of our life doing and helping others that soon life passes us by. And when people ask what you want you do not know because it’s not something you have allowed yourself to ponder. Give yourself permission to explore what you want and follow that path to get there. Holly Liu is an angel investor and visiting partner at Y Combinator. Previously she was co-founder and Chief Development Officer of Kabam, a world leader in AAA mobile free-to-play games. Prior to that she was Chief of Staff and oversaw HR leading corporate culture and talent experience for over 1500 employees at Kabam globally. Before co-founding Kabam, Holly was Senior User Interface Designer for AOL, where she led design of community web products. She has also worked as a consultant for Arthur Andersen and Accenture. She was named to Forbes’ “Top 10 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch” in 2013 and one of Fortune’s “10 Most Powerful Women in Gaming.”
Hi Elphas – as a reminder – this is part of our new #spotlight public posts series sharing conversations with women across tech on the topic of #careergrowth. Please share your perspectives and thoughts in the comments below.Holly, thanks for sharing the wake up call that became a turning point in your career, and sharing perspectives that empower us define our own standard of success for ourselves.
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I love your story! (PS, I used to work for Andersen/Accenture too and know the travel... but I was pretty lucky - they sent me to London for a year :)
London sounds so much better than some of the places I got sent to ;) A blessing in disguise!
@hollyster - Well, I also got sent to this horrible little pit of hell out in the middle of nowhere, so I served my time too :)
Beautiful! See, sometimes we don't even know what we should be thankful for, maybe it's a scary plane ride.
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Holly, thank you! Your insight about climbing that ladder is such an important one. As a leader, how did that impact the ladders you created for your teams?
We spent a lot of time training managers to help high potential talent to live at the intersection between company goals and personal career goals. When you find talent it is your job as a leader to groom it and enable them to live to their full potential by giving them as many opportunities to grow. We also focused on trying to train and promote from within as much as we could.
i love this holly! so many good nuggets. especially "The one thing I’ve learned recently about a career is it is a cross between a job and your calling."what experience did you have recently that revealed this for you?
1. Elizabeth Gilbert has a wonderful piece on vocation/calling, career and job. She has found her calling earlier in life as a writer. Not many of us are as fortunate and many of us think that career is our calling. And honestly being in the Bay Area pushes this idea as well withs startups focusing much on mission and vision as a selling point to recruit their earliest employees. also think Elizabeth does a great job of giving people permission to not have to have a career. I think that many women if they are not careful, mistaken other desires as their desires and even calling. 2. Being away from a company I built , joining another org, and as well as watching all of my founder friends make a transition away from their company creates an existential crisis of a focused kind made me realize where you spend your time is where your ladder is. And, when it comes to career, you are always climbing some ladder, just make sure it's the one you want.
"As women, we spend most of our life doing and helping others that soon life passes us by. And when people ask what you want you do not know because it’s not something you have allowed yourself to ponder. Give yourself permission to explore what you want and follow that path to get there." Well said! Thanks for sharing <3
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Great story! It's very inspiring to hear how you courageously decided to take charge of your life and pursue meaning!Were there any key indicators that helped you turn towards your calling? Anything that made you feel sure you were in the right path?
I think that there are several things that are indicators towards your calling:1. Is what you are doing aligning with your values?2. On a whole, do you feel energized by your career or less energized? 3. If you had all the money in the world and could retire, is this what you would be doing? Another way of asking this is Steve Jobs famously would ask himself: "'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' If the Answer is 'no' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."Also, in general as human beings I do believe we were placed on this earth to love one another, and enable each other to their full potential of what God (or Creator) has made them to be.
I love how you combined both purpose-driven and energy-driven questions as qualitative metrics. Thank you for sharing! 😄
I share many of your thoughts here. Life!
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Thanks so much for sharing your captivating story, Holly. You've had such an impressive career trajectory AND have kids. I'd personally love to hear any insight into how you've successfully climbed the ladder you want and raised kids as well? Thanks again for sharing.
I think having kids is a very personal choice, but something that needs to be supported by more than just you. Raising kids is incredibly difficult and newsflash: huge sink on productivity! I fully believe that it takes a village to raise kids, so I had A LOT of help. This included relatives, partners, spouses, and my largest regret was not paying for extra help. Most career successful women have some non-traditional set up at home (parents living with them, a live in nanny, stay at home dad, etc... ). The mental load at home is real, and kids just double it. I always tell people who want to stay at home to take care of kids is that it's full of repetitive chores especially when they are younger. If you like chores you may like staying at home :).Otherwise get help and lots of it!
I love this. Thank you so much for sharing your learnings with us, Holly. Really powerful and thought-provoking. <3
Thanks Rachel!
Thanks for sharing your story, Holly! I’m a recovering lawyer and went back to school for my MBA. Neither my first husband nor my big firm practice sparked joy, so I took the scary leap of reinventing my life. I’m not “there” yet but the journey has been so much more fulfilling than I imagined. And I’ve learned volumes from the people I’ve met along the way. I love when people share stories about changing course and taking ownership of their choices. It’s helpful to see how other people changed course so we are better able to imagine how things might be different in our own context.
@hollyster -- this is such a powerful story!-- "When the plane landed, I promised myself I would get off the conveyor belt and stop letting life happen TO me and instead make life happen FOR me." You've certainly fulfilled that promise to yourself AND helped alot of other people along the way. Question: as an angel investor, what's the biggest long shot that you took that became successful and what made you take that chance on that team/ product/ concept?