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Hey everyone, thanks for tuning in to a brand new episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. We are joined by Lisa Sun. Lisa grew up in California as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and excelled academically, graduating from high school early and attending Yale University.
After having worked for a decade as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, Lisa traveled the world solo and subsequently founded her clothing line, Gravitas, which focuses on body positivity, inclusion, and self-confidence. Lisa is also a popular public speaker and author of ‘Gravitas: The 8 Strengths That Redefine Confidence’.
With that said, let’s delve into the insights she shares in this episode.
Nolan starts the discussion by asking Lisa to define the term’ Gravitas,’ which is key to her company and book. Lisa responds by highlighting that Gravitas traditionally means dignity, importance, and depth of substance, encompassing presence and confidence.
She shares that early in her career, she was told she lacked Gravitas, which led her on a 23-year journey to understand and redefine it. In her book, Gravitas is defined as an ideal approach to living life with self-assurance. This redefinition acknowledges the normality of self-doubt and offers a method to transform moments of self-doubt into bursts of self-confidence.
On a similar note, Aram asks Lisa about her experiences with Gravitas, particularly since she was initially told she lacked it.
Lisa recalls that at the age of 22, while employed as an analyst at McKinsey & Company, she encountered criticism for not exhibiting enough gravitas. Her superior recommended that she enhance her appearance by wearing a sophisticated dress, statement jewelry, and stylish shoes. This advice was particularly disconcerting to Lisa, considering her limited financial resources and personal style preferences.
Drawing a parallel, her boss compared her situation to the story of Dumbo, emphasizing that true confidence stems more from one’s self-image than from outward appearances. This comparison, while meant to be motivational, felt inappropriate and dismissive of her genuine challenges.
On that note, Lisa reflects on the common misconception of confidence as being about assertiveness and performance. According to her, true confidence is an understanding, appreciation, and trust in one’s abilities, which adults often struggle with. She spent her twenties and early thirties feeling insecure and trying to conform to societal expectations of confidence.
However, through her journey and writing her book, she learned that genuine confidence is about having a strong inner mindset and belief in oneself, which then manifests outwardly. She strongly believes confidence is not about faking it but genuinely recognizing and believing in one’s value.
Moving on, Aram asks Lisa about societal misconceptions regarding confidence, especially in relation to female leadership. Lisa responds that her book is relevant to all genders, with a significant portion of her readership being men who appreciate the inclusive and empowering redefinition of confidence.
She asserts that we are born with full self-confidence, as evident in the unabashed self-assurance of young children. However, between the ages of 8 and 12, self-consciousness begins to set in, and we begin to doubt ourselves.
In her book, she discusses six forces that undermine confidence, leading individuals to focus more on their flaws than their potential and to compare their achievements with others.
Lisa highlights that one of these forces is systemic bias, particularly affecting women, where societal rules and standards aren’t designed with them in mind. On that note, she cites Katie Kirk and Janet Yellen, who were criticized for lacking Gravitas due to not fitting traditional, male-dominated models of leadership.
By redefining confidence to recognize and value one’s talents and strengths, Lisa argues for a shift in narrative that celebrates abilities and qualities that society has historically underestimated, undervalued, or overlooked.
Lisa also discusses the eight superpowers or strengths central to her research on self-belief and confidence. Her team conducted extensive research to identify these key attributes, including a large-scale quantitative study and numerous focus groups. These superpowers are designed to help individuals, especially adults, recognize and affirm their unique qualities, which is often challenging for many.
The first two superpowers are “Leading” and “Performing”. “Leading” involves being in charge, setting direction, inspiring others, and having a commanding presence. “Performing” is related to extroversion, charisma, and effective communication, particularly in public speaking and presentation contexts. These are the most commonly discussed aspects of confidence but represent less than 20% of the attributes found in their study’s sample.
The next pair, “Achieving” and “Knowing”, focuses on accomplishment and expertise. “Achieving” is characterized by a strong performance mindset, resilience, goal orientation, and a belief in practice and improvement. “Knowing” represents being the most informed, thoughtful, and process-oriented person in a room, excelling in research and planning.
“Giving” and “Believing” are the next set of superpowers. “Giving” is about supporting and nurturing others with empathy. “Believing,” exemplified by the character Ted Lasso from the eponymous TV series, is about having a positive outlook, seeing the best in every situation, and helping others become their best selves.
The final two superpowers are “Creating” and “Self-Sustaining”. “Creating” involves generating something from nothing, a trait common in entrepreneurs and artists, marked by resourcefulness and iterative improvement.” “Self-sustaining” is about having a strong sense of self-worth and value, which is essential for overcoming criticism and confidently asking for raises or favors.
Together, these eight superpowers provide a comprehensive and inclusive framework for understanding and developing self-esteem and self-belief. This approach broadens the conventional scope of confidence, allowing individuals to appreciate and leverage their unique strengths and contributions.
Subsequently, Aram delves deeper into the concept of the eight superpowers, focusing on how they interact and any trends observed in her research.
Lisa responds by urging the listeners to take her website’s quiz to discover their superpowers. She explains that most people identify with two or three superpowers, but it’s possible to possess all eight, as seen in about 2% of her dataset, including her mother. She emphasizes that these superpowers are not static but evolve as individuals gain more life experience.
Discussing the interaction of these superpowers, Lisa notes that they don’t exist in isolation but often work in harmony. In her research, she found that a common combination for women includes achieving, knowing, giving, and believing. This combination reflects a blend of competence, process orientation, and emotional intelligence. Lisa interprets this as a celebration of qualities that are frequently taken for granted.
She also addresses societal expectations and biases regarding leadership and promotability. Women, she observes, often have to meet a triple standard of being competent, confident, and warm. Citing a study, Lisa points out that women tend to be rated highly in performance but lower in promotability, while men are often rated higher in potential.
Lisa argues that this creates a skewed scorecard in society, where leading and performing are disproportionately rewarded compared to actual results and caring for others. She suggests acknowledging and rebalancing these values is essential for a more equitable and inclusive understanding of confidence and leadership.
Thank you for listening!
Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I am your co-founder, co-host Nolan Martin. With me today as usual co-host, co-founder Aram Donigian. Aram, how are you doing today, sir?
Aram Donigian : I'm great, Nolan. Let me introduce our guest today. Folks, Lisa Sun grew up in California, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrant parents. She overachieved at a young age, graduating from high school two years early and funding her Yale education with six part-time jobs, scholarships, and financial aid. After more than a decade as a consultant in McKinsey & Company, she took a solo trip around the world and decided to start her own clothing line, Gravitas that promotes body positivity, inclusion and self-confidence. Six weeks after its launch, in 2013, Gravitas was featured in the Oprah Magazine, People, and the Today Show.
The business has taken off since and includes among its activities, a commitment to AAPI causes in New York City's garment district. Often called the Dress Whisperer, Lisa is also a highly sought-after public speaker who likes to impart her hard one knowledge on Gravitas and how to best harness it to other women. She's the author of ‘Gravitas, the Eight Strengths that Redefined Confidence’. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lisa Sun : What an honor to be with you all. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
NM : So Lisa, as we kick this off, perhaps we start with defining the term so integral to both your company and your book, Gravitas. What is it exactly and why is it so critical for both our personal and professional lives?
LS : When you look up the word gravitas in the dictionary, it's dignity, importance, depth of substance. It's really something around presence and confidence. And I was told this very early on in my career that I lacked gravitas. And so I spent the last 23 years on a journey to figure out what it means, how we define it as a little different though when we wrote the book, which we define it as a total approach to living life with self-assurance.
So, it really acknowledges the fact that at any one point in time you might feel self-doubt, and it's really an approach and a way to turn a moment of self-doubt into a burst of self-confidence.
AD : So Lisa, I was going to ask if you've always just naturally been a person with gravitas, you answered that question. You said early in your career you were told you lacked gravitas. I'm curious if you can tell us a little bit maybe about that moment and then since then what moments or people have had the greatest impact on your own choice to live a life with self-assurance?
LS : Well, I think many of us have been told that we lack confidence or we lack gravitas. And when I was 22, I spent 11 years of my career at McKinsey & Company, the management consulting firm. And as an analyst, I was told I didn't have any gravitas. My boss at the time told me to buy a new dress, wear big jewelry and great shoes, which I think is a little offensive if you're making $43,000 a year, size 18-20 and your boss tells you to buy new clothes.
When I asked her why, she said, “Well, Dumbo did not need a feather to fly. It reminded him that he could.” And so it's not about how others see you, it's really about how you see yourself. So she said, when I put on a great dress, I look in the mirror and I like myself even before I walked through the doors. I can teach you how to be good at this job, but I can't teach you to like yourself.
And I think so many of us define confidence incorrectly. If you've been told to be more confident, most of us queue up an image of standing on a stage, be outspoken, be assertive. It's very behavioral. If you look up the word confident in the dictionary, it has nothing to do with performance, bravado or swagger. It's an understanding and appreciation of, and a trust in your own abilities, something that adults actually really struggle with. So the way we talk about it and the way I've learned about it is it's not about faking it to make it or performing. It's about genuinely seeing what you bring to the table, believing in that, and then it becomes an outer expression.
So I would say I spent most of my twenties and early thirties very insecure and playing to what society had taught me confidence means, which is to speak up, perform. But now in my forties having written this book, I can tell you it really is having a strong inner mindset and an inner belief that then becomes an outer expression and a behavior.
AD : Specifically, I know you're writing towards women. What is our society still getting wrong with regards to confidence and what we all need to do, regardless of gender, to more deeply value female leadership?
LS : Well, yeah, and I would say the book works for women, men and non-binary. In fact, a third of our readership so far has been men and many men have written Amazon reviews saying, “We've had an incomplete standard for confidence. Thank you for resetting it for us all and making it inclusive and empowering.” What I would say is we are born fully self-confident. If any of you've ever been around a five-year-old, you ask a five-year-old what they're the best at in the world, and they'll tell you right away, I'm the best at soccer, I'm the best at hugs, I'm the best at everything. And at some point between the ages of 8 and 12 in our adolescence, we become self-conscious.
In chapter two of my book, I write about the six forces that hold us back from becoming confident or being confident. And what ends up happening is it forces us into a mindset where we see our flaws over our potential. We benchmark our accomplishments against others. So there are a lot of reasons why we might be insecure and specifically for women, one of those six forces is systemic bias where the rules were not created by you or for you. So as an example, when Katie Kirk was told she didn't have the gravitas to lead the evening news, she said, it's because I didn't have testicles. Or Janet Yellen, when she was nominated to be the first woman head of the Federal Reserve was told she didn't have gravitas because she was more soft-spoken, she was collaborative, she's empathetic. And so in redefining confidence as something where you can see your own talents as an adult, not as a young child, although that inner child is the purest form of gravitas, we start to change the narrative. We start to celebrate other talents and strengths that maybe society is underestimated, undervalued, or taken for granted.
AD : I'm curious if there's anyone else, I know you talked about this first kind of boss who gave you the feedback, but others that have really kind of inspired your own walk and work in terms of this mindset you're talking about with confidence, any other kind of milestones or key kind of folks who've impacted the way you think?
LS : For sure, I would say there's two. One, I dedicated the book to my mother. My mother is an immigrant to the United States, worked on a hamburger truck college, educated, worked on a hamburger truck, ended up owning a restaurant, which I worked in every summer, 4.95 at lunch, 12.95 at dinner. All you can eat Chinese buffet and Mongolian barbecue. And when I think about the grit and resilience that it takes to come to a place where you don't speak the language and you don't know anyone, and to build a life and create something from nothing, that certainly is someone who, my mother, is someone who lives with gravitas. That's why I dedicated the book to her, right? If there is anyone who's going to bet on themselves, see the best in themselves, believe in possibility, it's my mother.
And then the second one is I have another mentor from McKinsey who is, I write about him in the book. We called him Andrew, and he is a British male who grew up very wealthy. I grew up poor in a desert and we had no demographic connections. When you think about, you meet someone for the first time, you ask them where they're from, where they go to school, you're trying to create connection. Well, if it's demographic, it's fairly weak. That reinforces, oh, I grew up there too. Or I know that person too. He asked me in our first meeting, no demographic questions. He said, I can look that up in the HR system. He said, tell me a childhood memory you're proud of. And I told him about working in my parents' restaurant. He said, great, we're going to get along because I love people who know what it's like to put the work in and who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get in there.
So those are two people I think, who embody the approach that we write about. And I do think it's a reset fundamentally for how we talk about this entire topic of confidence. So much ink has been spilled about behavior, right? I can teach you how to present, I can teach you how to engage with people. Not enough is written about the mindset, the inner belief, things don't get easier, we get stronger. So really acknowledge your strengths even before you then take on real action in your life.
AD : I love the story in your book where you have this idea for the apparel company, I believe that you're going to start, and it's your mom staying up all night because of her own resilience and grit and her belief in you as well as self-help confidence that helped launch this.
LS : Well, my mom was a Tiger Mom before Tiger Moms were a thing. When Amy Chu's book came out, she said, you see someone write bestselling book all about me. When I told her I was leaving McKenzie and I had this idea for a company, she basically fired off a series of emails that when I woke up the next morning, I realized there was an accountant, a lawyer, a business planner already to execute all the things that were required to start a company.
NM : Very cool.
AD : That's awesome.
NM : Your research uncovered eight superpowers or strengths, characteristics, and traits that provide the basis for self-belief. Could you share with our listeners what each of these are and how your own discovery of your superpowers have helped you in life?
LS : Well, you know, one of the things that I think is so hard for us to do as adults is to take a self-affirming inventory of what makes us uniquely us. I think that's very, very hard. And so much of the work that I do is around teaching people that self-confidence is a choice and a mindset before it becomes a behavior. And I started asking this question, which by the way, a five-year-old can answer. I started asking audiences this question of what are you the best at in the world? What's your superpower? And what was so hard is people would say, this was really hard. I feel very put on the spot. And I said, ask any five-year-old, they'll tell you what they are right away.
And so what my team did is we embarked on a five-year journey. We did a thousand person quantitative study of confidence in America, 32 focus groups. Focus groups during COVID is really fun because people will tell you things in an online chat room that they won't tell you usually, right? So they're like, thank you for the two hour break from my family. Let me tell you all the things I feel. And we uncovered that confidence doesn't just come in one form, it comes in eight, and the eight are really powerful because they're incredibly inclusive, empowering, everyone has a chance to have confidence.
The eight are the first are leading and performing. Leading, I'm in charge. I set direction, I inspire followership, I'm in command. The second is performing, it's what I'm doing with you today, extroversion, charisma, presenting the energy exchange between two people. What was so fascinating is these two attributes of confidence are the most written about, most talked about, and yet they represent less than 80% of our sample. Does that mean 80% of us don't deserve to feel good about ourselves?
So that's why we uncovered the next 6. The next two are achieving and knowing. So achieving, I get things done, I have a performance mindset. If things don't work out, I get back up and I do it all over again. Practice makes perfect. I love goals. I love to exceed them. And so a lot of athletes have this mindset. And then knowing I'm the smartest, most thoughtful, most well-researched process-oriented person in the room, you want to build IKEA furniture with someone who has knowing. These two attributes, the simplest way to think about them are the three women from Hidden Figures. How do three black women have the confidence to be at NASA and do the work to send a man into space? This isn't about leading or performing. This is about achieving and knowing. And as my mom likes to say, when tsunamis happen, men make speeches, women, we clean up the beaches. Finally choose superpowers. And these are two superpowers that finally acknowledge that cleaning up the beach is equally as valuable as giving the speech, right? The next two are giving and believing. I support others. I nurture. I'm empathetic. Believing, are either of you a Ted Lasso fan?
NM : Yes.
AD : Yes.
LS : Okay. So believing is his superpower. This is about positive intent, seeing the best in everyone in every situation. If things don't work out, they weren't meant to be. And if you think about Ted Lasso as a character in the first season, he's underestimated. And he says that in a monologue. He says, “I've been underestimated my entire life because I don't fit the classic prototype of commander,” right? He's not leading. What he says is, my job in life is not to win or lose. It's to help people become the best versions of themselves. And by season three, you realize that believing is an incredibly powerful superpower, right? That's actually what powers that team to overcome adversity. And then the last two are creating and self-sustaining. My number one is creating.
A lot of immigrants tend to have this. I create something from nothing. I believe in something before I can see it. Entrepreneurs, artists, you see a lot of people who have creating really be incredibly resourceful and iterative, right? They'll bang up an idea until it gets better and better. And then self sustaining, this is actually one of the hardest superpowers for folks to really master. This is, I like myself. I don't need to impress you. I deserve the seat at the table and I know my value. It's the quality. Most needed to overcome criticism and objection without spiraling, as well as to ask for a raise or a favor, asking for a promotion is achieving.
Here's why I deserve the next level of leadership, my accountability, my responsibility, who reports to me. When you ask for money or a favor, you have to be willing to hear the words no and say, no worries. This is my market value. Someone else will give it to me. But together, these eight are a very complete picture now of what drives self-esteem and self-belief.
AD : Well, I'll be interested to get into that last one. That's my area of opportunity. We're going to ask you some advice before we wrap up because we want to get something personally out of this value too, based on taking your survey.
Hey, combined question here, these superpowers you just talked about, do they work in harmony? Do you see some that tend to pair up together? And how does that work? And the second question, as you conducted your research, do you see, so you said less than the two, that the bleeding performing account for less than 80. Do you see ones that pop up more often, maybe whether it's for women or men, non-binary, but just any trends and making things, so how do they pair up? And then any trends or commonalities you see?
LS : So what I would say is, and you can go to myconfidencelanguage.com to take the quiz. It sounds like both of you have done that. It's really fun. I always say it's a great Thanksgiving dinner activity, not just what we're grateful for, but what are my family's superpowers? The fun thing about this is most people in the survey, when you take the quiz, most people have two or three. My mom has all eight. She took the quiz. She goes, I have all eight and 2% of the dataset does have all 8. I don't think of this as a static thing. It's not a personality test. It's an inventory of your strengths today. And to your point, you can add to them. We find that as people age and progress, they go from having two to three to four or more because you’re learning things, you're experiencing things.
So it's really fun. And we're not just one thing. We bring lots of different talents to the table. And once you can see them, you can't unsee them. You can answer my superpower question, you know what's possible in your life? What we find, and I'll speak to women as an example, the most common combinations with women are achieving, knowing, giving, and believing. And as a lot of my friends who saw the data said, oh, that makes sense. We're the doers who give out the hugs. Thanks. And so that combination we see quite frequently is I get things done, I am process oriented, and I do it with warmth. So I call this the highly competent, highly emotionally intelligent combination. And what I love about that is we're celebrating that. That's often taken for granted. What is the issue that we see in the world is women in particular have to be a triple standard.
We have to be competent, confident, and warm. And I think when we look at versions of male leadership, you don't have to be all 3. Women do have to be all 3. And the example that we used is Kelly Schu at Yale in chapter two. She's a professor at the School of Management. She looked at 30,000 employee records, and she found that women were consistently rated the highest on performance and results, but the lowest on promotability. And men were rated the highest on promotion potential, but the lowest on performance and results.
And when she double clicked on promotion potentials, it was extroversion, charisma, and outgoingness performing or outwardly leading. And she said, this explains why we have such a promotion potential gap in explaining gender equity differences on pay is because fundamentally, we're rewarding performing in our world, in our eight superpowers and not enough around achieving, giving, knowing, and believing.
So those are some, the most common combo is achieving, knowing, giving, believing in some form. I think we can get into how do you add these other components, but I also think we have to first acknowledge that the scorecard is a bit lopsided, that we as a society reward leading and performing more than we do actual results and taking care of people. And that's what was so fun to look at in the dataset.
Hey everyone, Nolan here at the jump in and in today's podcast for part A of the show, be sure to rate, review and subscribe to NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.
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