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Can Immigrant Women Leaders THRIVE?

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Changing perception

As soon as I read the first chapter of Arianna Huffington's new book, Thrive, it hit me instantly: Above other motivations, the dream of thriving has brought people to America, for centuries now. Many individuals have tried to decipher what the American Dream and American success are all about. In Arianna's original interpretation, American success is a three-legged stool: money + power + thriving. She makes a compelling case for our need to change perception and redefine success -- and the world should take note.

Since I'm researching a book about American immigrant women leaders, I tend to see things through their specific lens. Studies clearly show that women immigrants sometimes manage, under the best of circumstances, to achieve money and power. But Arianna's third metric of success, thriving -- achieving happiness -- is often beyond their reach. Why? It's America, baby, that's why. Or is it?

It's America, baby!

What does it take to succeed in the U.S.A. today, and why has the third metric of success never occurred to anybody before? Part of the reason is that American work ethic is as unique as America itself, and its number one component has always been "working hard." After all, Huffington had to work herself to exhaustion, fall and get her face bruised, before it dawned on her that she needed to change the way she lived and worked. And she wrote Thrive, to help others accelerate their own joy-filled lives.

At first sight, the call to thrive may seem the direct opposite of the traditional American work ethic -- a sacred cow that helped to build the country we live in. According to Eric Chester, in his interview in Forbes, work ethic is deteriorating in America. Gen-Y especially has trouble with it. This is not an exclusively American problem; it affects all Western nations, and some in the East.

Why? First, Chester suggests, technology makes life faster and more fun, eliminating avenues for learning vital concepts about work. Second, psychologists who push parents to focus on building self-esteem in their children have created generations of me-centric workers. This disengaged and disloyal workforce seeks fun, not work.

Does this mean that the principles of Thrive are only good for three other generations? And are the hard-work ethic and thriving mutually exclusive? No. Although work ambitions may bring along thirst for money and power, the three-legged stool will stand just fine, if we follow the easy principles of Thrive: paying attention to our well-being, ability to draw on intuition, inner wisdom and sense of wonder -- in America and elsewhere. But there's a caveat...

It depends on cultural DNA

Taking a closer look at my pool of immigrant women interviewees, I noticed how their cultural DNA affects their attitude toward -- and ability of -- "letting go" of the work stresses and success-obsessions, and "letting in" the joys of relaxation and well-being. It really depends on a cultural DNA, "a bio-psycho-social-spiritual code that underlies every aspect of our lifestyle and culture and holds it together," as Dorothy Bonvillain, William McGuire and Rosemary Wilke put it.

Really, in some countries/cultures, a "work-to-live" principle dominates: people generally work from nine to five, and then comes their quality time -- for family, friends and fun. In other countries/cultures, including the United States, a "live-to-work" principle is king, trumping everything else. For better or for worse, research shows that the latter attitude has saturated the American psyche since the settlers/pioneers, whose very survival depended on their hard work and passion for success. Handed down for generations, this hard-work mentality may have morphed -- with many individuals -- into pragmatism, materialism and money-plus-power pursuits that followed a separate path from the "pursuit of happiness" we are entitled to by our Constitution. Since cultural information can be genetically encoded, it became part of American cultural DNA. And this is what Thrive is trying to amend.

Indeed, all of my interviewees, even the Germans known for their collective work-conscious mentality, noted that the American work ethic is stellar. People who immigrate and succeed are workaholics by design anyway, regardless of culture, so they fit in on that dimension. But, given the intensity of immigrant lives, are they ever able to reach a "thrive-time" -- Arianna's third metric of success?

One Who Thrives: June Sevilla, from the Philippines

A President/CEO of Q-Makeda, Inc., June immigrated to the USA as a young engineer seeking professional opportunities. Lucky to find employment, this self-starter made it to senior engineer managerial positions at the time when women leaders were uncommon at high-tech companies like AT&T and Bell Atlantic -- and managing the all-male team of design engineers took a lot of her uncommon creativity. Where did it come from? Well, June was drawing from her cultural and personal resources:

1. The Philippine culture is unique in its matriarchal tradition -- so its women are less deterred by male dominance than other Asians.

2. This culture experienced a prolonged U.S.-American influence -- so English is learned at school, and people are no strangers to American work ethic.

3. June's naturally thriving personality led her to become a national Philippine beauty queen at 19, seek involvement in the arts in parallel with her tough corporate workload, take up TV movie supporting roles after she semi-retired, enjoy swimming with the dolphins and travel to special destinations, like Scotland, pose for magazines as a model (representing different ethnicities) -- and so on! Is this thriving, or what?

Maybe the best manifestation of June's contagious ability to thrive is that as a single mother, she managed to raise a wonderful daughter of the same breed: a prominent professional working for the federal government -- and also a talented performing musician, Dr. Christina Sevilla. June's history tells us that all three metrics of success are attainable for talented immigrant women leaders -- whose ranks are swelling.

Passion, not obsession!

Being passionate about the work ethic, as our cultural DNA prompts, should not prevent us from stopping and smelling the roses, and changing perception of our priorities to embrace thriving.