Our neighbor, Kathy, called to tell us to come over for prom pictures.
We had no idea what she was talking about. I told Melissa I was too happy reading Little Bee in the sun. “But,” I said, “Kathy is so nice to us. One of us has to go. We have to be good neighbors.”
Melissa said, “Then you go.”
“Let’s do rock scissors paper.”
“No. You want to be a good neighbor, you go. And the lambs are so happy sitting in my lap. I don’t want to move them.”
“Take the lambs with you. They’ll like that.”
“In the car?”
“Yeah. Like dogs.”
Melissa goes. It seems like maybe this would be okay because when my sons walk over to Kathy’s house, the goats follow my sons, and Kathy invites the boys in for chocolate milk and anything else they find in her fridge, and the goats wait outside, like watch dogs who have a big appetite for grass.
We thought the lambs would do that. Maybe. Or wait in the car. I don’t know what we thought. But Melissa was back in five minutes.
“You have to come. You’re not going to believe it. The whole school is there. At Kathy’s.”
“Did you see Zach and Mitch?”
“Yeah. But you have to come.”
We pull up to the house, with the lambs in the car, and there is the senior class, in prom outfits, lining up for photos. We get out of the car and start searching for Zach and Mitch. The lambs follow us.
Mitch and Zach look so cute in their tuxes that match their dates’ dresses. We want to talk with them but the lambs start making noises because they are not close enough to Melissa, and they won’t shut up, and we really just need to get the lambs back into the car.
Days later, when we ask Mitch how was prom, he says, “People thought you guys were nuts wearing those hats.”
“What about the lambs?”
“The hats were more crazy.”
We wear our sun hats everywhere. In the country, this is not done. I’m not sure why. I guess women are not protecting their faces from the sun. I don’t really know. But Jeanenne, my assistant who translates life in Darlington for me, says that people think Melissa and I wear the hats because we think that’s what you’re supposed to do in the country.
Here’s the career part of this post: The thing that is most difficult in work life is adjusting to different cultures as seamlessly as possible. People do not lose jobs because they don’t get the job done. People generally lose jobs because of poor cultural fit. If people think you fit on the team, they’ll cut you slack even when you don’t get the job done. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that people don’t even care if you don’t get the job done if they like you.
It’s the getting people to like you part that is so hard. And our hats are such a good example. We think we are really pushing the limits of what’s socially acceptable by driving around with baby lambs in our car. But really, where we cross the line is wearing sun hats everywhere.
The question is not “how to always know the rules for blending in” because you can’t—especially if you are constantly challenging yourself with new work environments. The question is, instead, “How can you recover from a cultural misstep?”
So if the ability to navigate a cultural misstep is what separates stars from regular performers, then how do you prepare to be a workplace star?
I’m not kidding.
Here’s a great article in New York magazine by Wesley Yang, about success in the Asian community. In case you did not have any AP math classes, Asians are kicking everyone’s butt in academics. Even the rich white kids cannot keep up with the Asians. This is reported in depth in the article, but suffice it to say that Asians make up a very small percentage of the US population but they are not considered a minority in the Ivy League because they make up such a large percentage of the students there.
But the article is really about how Asians don’t do as well in the workplace. Because the skills that you need to do well in school are not the skills that you need to do well at work. Work is not a meritocracy—it’s a popularity contest. And the book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, explains that Asian kids miss sleepovers and basketball games to practice violin and cello, which is why the art of brown nosing eludes overachiever Asians.
So we have statistical proof that working hard to get good grades does not help at work. But here is something else: Lauren Rivera professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, finds that extracurricular activities matter more than grades. Highly selective hiring managers – those with piles of Ivy League resumes – distinguish between candidates not by GPA or major, but by extracurricular activities; how you interact with peers matters a lot.
I don’t know what makes me so sure that Zach and Mitch are good for me to be in business with. But I think it has something to do with how they navigated the prom scene so well. I remember being nervous and unsure of myself. They seemed to be able to read the crowd of girls and go with the flow.
There is no better skill than being able to read a group and know how to fit in. Or maybe it’s just that I’m lacking that skill, so to me, there is no skill more impressive. And no skill I need more.
I used to look at my old prom pictures and think, prom is so stupid. Why did I go?
Wait. Look at this. It’s me going to prom. I was a junior. The boy was a senior. I’m pretty sure I was disappointingly prudish and overly concerned with what color barrettes I wore.
But now I feel like going to prom was important. It was me putting myself in an uncomfortable situation with rules I didn’t know and seeing how it felt. It felt scary, of course, but this is what the hard work of adult life is: navigating scary situations so they are not scary anymore, and then doing that again and again.