Opinion | After a long, tough battle, it’s time to unlearn and learn2 min read . Updated: 23 Mar 2020, 10:53 PM IST
In an ideal world, says Prof Miguel Centeno, there should be structures in place that guarantee equality of opportunities
Afew months ago, before this global public health crisis, I met Miguel Centeno at a conference in Cairo. A Cuban refugee who grew up in low-income housing projects, Centeno is now a distinguished sociology professor at Princeton University. In our brief conversation, I learnt about how he overcame poverty and constant negative perception owing to his Latin American accent.
Centeno exemplifies what organizational psychologists call transformative resilience. Everyone is an underdog in some situation, so transforming negative perceptions into positive outcomes is a necessary life skill.
Laura Huang, author of Edge: Turning Adversity Into Advantage, suggests each of us has the power to control how we are perceived by others, even when those perceptions are rooted in bias. After studying hundreds of Olympians, corporate executives and entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, Huang has put forward a three-pronged approach to flip stereotypes and perceptions.
First, find your edge and learn to surprise stakeholders. Working hard isn’t enough. We need to learn to add specific value to our work so that it stands out. This begins by understanding what we bring to the table.
“Get out of my office," said Musk when he first saw Huang. He had mistaken the gift in her hand to be a product prototype. Thinking she was an entrepreneur looking to raise money, Musk asked her to leave. Instead of getting flustered, Huang cracked a joke. The meeting concluded with bouts of hysterical laughter and Musk offering connections she couldn’t have dreamed of.
Second, deliberately guide assumptions about your worth. During her research, Huang found a range of uncomfortable truths, like women get only 2% of venture funding, attractive men get funded more and people with non-standard accents have a hard time getting funding. VCs subconsciously justify their choices based on intangible aspects like networks, interpersonal influence and political capital. These are the things that minorities, and women tend to be rated the lowest on. When encountering such situations, one must address the elephant in the room by providing examples of overcoming perceived negative biases. This needs to be done tactfully, at the appropriate time and in a benign way.
Third, help people see your future potential. When people make snap judgments, it is never based on a static quality. They project where we are likely to be in future, form a perception and figure how to react. This instant cognitive calculus matters because most people take important decisions based on snap judgments. That is why it is critical that we guide people about who we are, how we will add value to them and what our growth trajectory will look like.
In an ideal world, says Centeno, there should be structures in place that guarantee equality of opportunities. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. While we wait for these structures to change, we should empower ourselves by transforming adversity into competitive edge. Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.