As a first-generation immigrant and college graduate, I grew up fast. My childhood often included making phone calls on behalf of my parents—activating credit cards and enrolling in medical insurance—because they don’t speak English. During the day, my parents ran housekeeping at a motel. At night, I slept with my sisters and parents in two adjoining rooms at the same motel. From an early age, I felt an unspoken need to work hard so that, as an adult, I could avoid the adversities my parents faced. Like other Asian-American immigrants of their generation, my parents taught me to “trust the process”: keep my head down, follow orders, and not question authority. But to disrupt generational poverty, I needed to challenge the myth that my parents instilled in me, because trusting the process stunted their ability to rise economically.

Breaking generational curses

I believe self-advocacy can break generational curses, yet there are few forums in corporate settings to openly talk about first-generation experiences. Speaking up and asserting needs were not norms in my upbringing, so I’ve learned to face discomfort and hesitation in order to advocate for myself in my career.

Working full-time as a product designer in a corporate setting, I quickly learned that there’s no prescribed career path, there are no grades to validate performance, and the less I spoke, the less I received. Like many early career hires, I faced imposter syndrome. But after talking to managers and peers about my experiences, I began to shift my mindset and find confidence in my voice. After all, my job as a product designer is to share opinions.

Where do you see yourself?

At Dropbox, managers and their direct reports have biannual career conversations characterized by the question, “Where do you see yourself in your career?” I used to dread this discussion, because it implied having a daunting, multiyear career plan. Lately, I’ve been looking forward to it, because it creates a space for reflection, expression, and potential pivots.

In my quest for discovery, I took personality tests to better understand my intrinsic traits and professional strengths. While these tests yielded generalizations, some themes resonated: I’m attentive and people-focused. I enjoy building community, teaching, and guiding others. But I lacked ways to embrace these strengths in my day-to-day as a product designer.

Embracing risk

Then, in early 2021, I was laid off. While I initially thought this was the worst thing that could happen, I realized it was a necessary, pivotal chapter because something magical happened. For the first time in my career, instead of seeking, I was sought after for my skills. Knowing that I could be selective in what I work on, I began to embrace risk. So, in late 2021, when my team shifted to a strategy that deprioritized a product I was hired to work on, I embraced it as a chance to advocate for what I want. Instead of “trusting the process” and passively accepting assignments, I made a list of desired growth areas and internal teams that spiked in those areas.

Elevating my craft

Topping my list was the Design Systems team, which I admired for their attention to detail and ways of helping internal Dropboxers speed up their workflows. Since I had used our design system in my work developing products, I knew I could craft component documentation, host one-on-one design sessions, and answer questions to help designers and engineers move forward in their work. I also wanted to elevate my craft in visual design and spend less time writing product strategy docs. So when the Design Systems manager shared the team’s need to improve user onboarding, I immediately raised my hand. Create learning materials to onboard Design Systems users? That sounded like a dream.

Evolving my relationship with work

Finding the confidence to advocate for my strengths and interests took years. After getting laid off and observing unemployment rates peak during COVID-19, my relationship with work evolved. I began to detach my job title from my identity, especially after seeing family and friends lose their job titles overnight. Through these observations, I’ve learned that:

  • Our jobs can change in an instant
  • Our careers are long
  • We spend most of our waking hours working

New chapters unfolding

These days, I’m less nervous to ask for what I want, because I know the worst response is “no.” Getting let go is no longer the worst thing that can happen, because a forced exit made room for a new chapter to unfold. Some of my family and friends have newfound interests and realizations that they wouldn’t have nurtured had they not been laid off.

Much like assessing my work assignments and raising my hand for interesting projects, I’ve learned to be more comfortable advocating for likes and dislikes. To date, redesigning the onboarding program for Design Systems has been my favorite project at Dropbox. This project wasn’t in my original job description, but the scope of work aligned with my interests and growth areas as much as it aligned with business needs.

Affirming my authentic self

To continue rising as a human and product designer, I believe in chasing curiosities, sharing goals and interpretations, and asking questions. Through personal trials and learnings, I’ve found fulfilling projects that affirm my authentic self in a corporate setting. In a complicated way, I know my immigrant parents will feel both disgruntled and proud of my journey to resist and self-advocate.

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