05/23/19 | Career, Menu-Homepage

Ambition, A Foreign Land

I grew up without much money. The way I describe it is “I never went hungry, but there was more than once when we didn’t have enough money to pay for all the groceries and had to put items back.” I’ve never had someone not nod when I describe it that way, and I think it’s because the embarrassment of not having enough money in a grocery checkout line is so public and visceral even if you haven’t experienced it. My favorite part is everyone waiting behind you judging your priorities. That is not a good time to keep the ice cream.

Once when I was a kid, maybe 7 years old, my mom and I were shopping in a store similar to Target. I found a My Little Pony toy that said it was $1.00 on the tag. I knew instantly this was too good to be true, but I marched it over to my mom and begged. Normally good toys were out of range for everyday purchases, but maybe this once we could make an exception. At $1.00 my mom didn’t say no, but I saw in her eyes a hesitation. She knew what was coming. When we got to the counter, it rang up as $11.00. The toy was mismarked, and we couldn’t afford to buy it. I’ve told this story a few times as an adult, and the reaction of others is always how the store should have honored the price tag. And yes, it totally should have. But what I know is we didn’t really ask. We were used to disappointment, and we knew we wouldn’t get away with it. Luck didn’t bend that way for us, and I had already accepted that as a child.

When I was in 6th grade, I applied for and won a scholarship to the school I attended. For years my parents had paid full tuition to a private school, so I could get a better education than my local public school. Here finally was a way I could help our family, and after an essay and interview process I was the winner. It was a rare and delicious moment of success. My dad took me out to dinner, and I remember him kvelling as dads do. But then he said, “Things like this don’t happen to people like us.” He didn’t mean it badly; he was honestly marveling that life could be this good.

I can’t rewrite my history; it’s part of me. How it connects to my career feedback over the years may surprise you though.

Fast Forward

At various moments in my Google career, I’ve been told to be more ambitious. This feedback was intended well, as a vote of confidence. They saw me, a skilled leader who could move up the ladder or even start her own company. Sky’s the limit! Anything is possible!

“It’s hard to do the same job for as long as Alana has and remain optimistic about future personal growth. Alana has to identify what will give her the greatest personal satisfaction and demand a career path that supports her growth.”

“Alana simply doesn’t realize how veteran and senior she is at Google. There is so much she could do if she realized how skilled she is and recognize[d] that having the many abilities outlined above gives her the ability to truly play a leading role.”

“I think Alana could be more ambitious. She is one of those rare people who is far more capable than she even knows. I think she should think bigger and shoot higher in her next role.”

I appreciated their future vision of me, but I didn’t see it. It’s like when someone tries to explain a country you’ve never visited to you. You can marvel at what they saw, but there are limitations. You can’t truly imagine what they’re talking about. Even photos are pretenders; there’s nothing like the real thing. Ambition is my faraway land.

What is this thing you speak of?

Possibility is a luxury; you need to be able to afford it. Some of us are raised with ambition as an everyday thing; we see it in our family and friends. Others of us have to fake it until we make it. We’re climbing that ladder rung by rung, and we frankly don’t care where the ladder goes as long as it’s up.

I was successful because I was a hard worker, I made good decisions, and that helped luck roll in and do its thing. But once I had climbed into a better life, I had no answer to what’s next except to stay there. I’m the opposite of what people talk about in the business world. What if you’re just happy to be here at all? Just thankful you don’t have to put things back from your grocery cart? Grateful you can stay in a nice hotel when you travel? What drives you then?

It turns out fear drives me. I love security. I often joke about how I am essentially Scrooge McDuck; I would love a room filled with money to swim through. I never EVER want to feel the stress of credit card debt or school tuition again. My husband can tell you I have a hair trigger about money. Paired with that, I am interested in a different life. I watched fellow co-workers become COOs or CEOS, and it wasn’t my thing. I felt jealous of the drive, but not of the jobs. I like small teams, creative problem solving, and building expertise. While I might want my own (small) company one day, I’m on a different path than them. Sometimes I would beat myself up about staying at Google and still being a Director, and then I would have to say to myself, “Wait, you don’t even want that job.” And that’s ok.

In fact, it’s great. I’ve had four different jobs at Google which were incredibly interesting, been rewarded both financially and via other recognition. While sometimes my job has required long hours, it’s not all consuming like some roles can be. I’ve been able to prioritize my wonderful family, and people compliment me for my ‘perspective’ and ‘balance’.

I’m not jealous of other jobs, BUT I am jealous of how effortless it seems for others to dream and want bigger things. Am I missing out? If that doesn’t come naturally, how do you teach yourself to think big?

Homegrown Ambition

Over the past few years, I’ve been practicing various tools to push myself, to make sure I see and seize opportunity. It’s working bit by bit. Publishing my writing is one of my goals, and here I am!

1) Take a Step Back

When I have a career conversation with my team members, the first question I ask is about what they studied or liked studying in school. When we look back, we tap into our original motivations and dreams before life may have taken us down other roads. It’s useful to take a peek and see whether there are still seeds of ambition there to grow. In my case, I wanted to be a writer and an actress when I little, a story teller. Revisiting those goals has centered me; it reminded me of who I really am versus what Silicon Valley says I am. And I’ve refocused on writing as a result.

2) Use Labels

I’m a little skeptical of personal branding courses, maybe because the phrase ‘personal branding’ gives me the heebie jeebies. I’m not a brand of toothpaste after all. That said, there is power in a name. Naming is a form of legitimacy, and I didn’t know what “I” was. I wasn’t jealous of the CEO job, but I was jealous of the clarity of the name.

When I took a step back and thought about my personal journey, I realized I was a ‘people-focused leader’, something I hadn’t seen others talk about. In contrast to what I consider business-focused or tech-focused leaders who are driven by business or technical innovations, I am interested in what’s possible when a leader’s core focus is to build great teams and nurture them. In my experience, you exceed business goals with that approach. I believe in this; it’s what I am doing, and it wasn’t until I gave it a name that I could form complementary goals.

3) Ask ‘Why Not’?

How I grew up has left with me a permanent hangover of complacency. I tend to assume something won’t work or isn’t possible. Even worse, I won’t ask questions or think about what could happen. This has applied all over my life, but probably nowhere worse than at work. Years ago I was wondering why my manager wasn’t offering me additional responsibility when I was performing so well in a related area. I didn’t realize that my co-workers were asking for the opportunities they were receiving. A lot of life has been a mystery that way.

In the last few years I’ve been trying to break this pattern by asking myself two questions:

Why Not?: If I think of something awesome I could do, I stop the naysayers in my head and push forward with the simple question, “Why Not?” When I saw an application for a customer service award for my Fiber team, the deadline was days away. But I said to myself, ‘Why Not?” Months later, we were going home with a gold award.

What Would Rich People Do?: Seriously, folks, this works for me. Sample conversation with myself:

— Self: Should I write a book?

— Self back: Why Not?

— Self: OK, but how should I get started?

— Self back: Huh, what would rich people do?

— Self: I guess they would find a person who knows what to do, and they would get advice.

— Self back: How would they know how to find that person?

— Self: They would know someone? [pause]

— Self: Do you know someone?

— Self back: Wait, I do. I DO KNOW SOMEONE. (Alternately, I could tap into the kind people on LinkedIn!)

Always ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not just something other people do. It’s the best thing to do. In the last month, I’ve reached out to various people I know directly and others to ask for publishing advice. Has anyone turned me down? No. Have I received invaluable feedback and support? Absolutely.

It can feel ridiculous to go through a conversation with yourself, but I know I’m retraining my brain. I’m pushing myselfto see possibility, to ask for help and try new thingsIf you are a manager, I hope you’ll keep this in mind as you look at your employees. Perhaps the ones that aren’t ambitious could just use some help to see what’s possible.

A relevant read that influenced me:

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

This piece is selected from an ongoing series, chronicling my 17 years at Google and the performance feedback that has helped to shape my career. People often wonder what has motivated me to stay so long at one company. I usually tell them it’s the people and career opportunities that Google affords; it’s also the ability to level up my personal growth. I consistently ask myself: what have I learned along the way and how am I continuing to improve? As you may know, we love data at Google. In this vein, I dug back into past performance reviews and cataloged the feedback I’ve received. This has been a humbling journey, but also one where I can appreciate just how much I’ve grown over the years and help others with feedback they may be receiving today.

Alana Karen

Alana Karen

Alana Karen has spent 17+ years at Google in various customer service and operational roles. She's committed to growing people-focused leaders at Google and beyond, most recently with her LinkedIn series "Still Learning: 17 Years of Lessons Learned at Google". Alana raises her 3 kids and dog in California with her husband.

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