Yangon Snapshots

Oh hello!

It’s been a while.

In the two years that I was gone, Yangon seemed changed but remained the same in so many ways. I had managed to drop by every 6-8 months, and each time, the change was incremental, yet drastic. This post is just me taking note of the sentiments I have noticed personally, from the sidelines, behind the major headlines you may have seen in the news.

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Scenario Planning: MBA Relationships

I often get questions about my MBA experience from admitted students and others considering the degree. One topic that many are afraid or too polite to ask about life in MBA – one I do not have a straight answer to – is about managing significant others and dating within MBA.

MBA is notorious for divorces and breakups. Some joke that MBA stands for “Married but Available.” Recently, a friend asked me, “Do you think MBAs cause breakups, or a  relationship fated to end will end with or without an MBA?”

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Design, Intentional Serendipity, Heartbreak, and Kate Spade

Designer Kate Spade passed two days ago.  This news maybe just one of the many headlines for several of you reading this note, but I find this loss personally sad, as if a very distant aunt has passed.  First of all, I adore the brand.  To many Kate Spade regulars out there, the brand’s aesthetics stands for a bold, optimistic “can-do” attitude towards life and adventures, with a touch of social graces and glamour.  This is why the circumstances surrounding her death came to me as so shocking and tragic, to realize that Kate was only human, too, and she could not be fun and cheerful all the time, the way the brand she represented was supposed to.  I feel for her, and her family.

I agree at a personal level what this New Yorker writer pointed out about many young women who love Kate Spade:

Owning a Kate Spade bag was drinking champagne out of a chipped teacup, or pairing your grandmother’s pearls with a frothy lime-green party dress.  A woman who carried Kate Spade was expressing a kind of madcap determination to make it in the big city, even if she was living in a small town and had no intention to leave.

Carrying a Kate Spade bag, or wearing one of her accessories – be it a polka dot coffee mug, or crisp stationery with sassy quotes – always made me happy.  But more importantly, I admire Kate for fusing creativity and business so well, something I myself aspire to do.  I love that Kate gave out Emily Post’s “Etiquette” books to her employees, saying the book is “the essential bible for any ambitious woman in a professional space.”  Her designs were so thoughtful, and the little gestures resonate/d well with me.  Like me, Kate loved thanking someone with a handwritten letter.  She loved her Japanese aesthetics, from Mikimoto pearls to Rei Kawakubo.  She loved colors, and she loved life.

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In Praise of Difficult Women

One of the increasingly popular courses among business schools is about managing interpersonal relationships, usually run by Organizational Behavior departments.  Think Adam Grant, one of the most well-known academics in that discipline.

In my class, we discussed a managerial grid based on the spectrum of focus on tasks vs relationships.  I certainly identify getting this balance right as one of my critical developmental needs at work and in life, and want to practice a mix that rings true to me, just as anyone aspires to live an authentic life.

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From London Business School class lecture.

Growing up in a male-dominated society, where I am often the lone Burmese / female member in a team, I have had to push boundaries.  I am attracted to disciplines and fields with a handful of strong women and many men.  At my conservative and traditional workplace, as a young female associate, I often have to balance being liked and being respected.  I do not always get it right, but I try to be a decent human being.

When you are trying to get things done, sometimes you cannot be too agreeable.  Most CEOs you know have to be low on agreeableness.  Last year, I had to publicly disagree with a male writer on how gender is an irrelevant topic in Myanmar’s development discourse.  Recently, I co-chaired a Conference team with mostly male members in a field notorious for a lack of female workers.  Sometimes, I can be too harsh to myself and my subordinates (again a developmental need).  Advertising agencies for which I was a client say that they are still scared of me, but invite me to their wedding anyway.  I do not think I am unreasonable, but I am often told difficult and demanding.  That I push boundaries.  With vendors, at work, and in romantic relationships, too.

This can be a painful reputation to follow around a professional woman beyond her professional life.

But you know what?  Coco Chanel was one heck of an imperious woman.  You cannot change centuries-old ways of dressing without a little push from a disagreeable woman like Chanel.  She loved being thought difficult.  And Karen Karbo said, so should we!  Celebrate being difficult.  Own it.  Live one’s life authentically.

So this is what I am doing these days.  On top of school work, and spring activities in London, I have been reading Warsan Shire, listening to Beyonce (who used Warsan Shire’s poetry in her songs), and contemplating on Karen Karbo’s 29 women who did/do not fit perfectly into their time, who were difficult, imperious, and overbearing, but are remembered anyway today for both good and bad reasons.

All of us owe it to ourselves to live authentically.  Have a nice life!

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“A difficult woman, as I define her, is a person who believes her needs, passions, and goals are at least as important as those of everyone around her.  In many cases, she doesn’t even believe they’re more important – many women in this book were devoted, loving wives and mothers – but simply as important.  A difficult woman is also a woman who doesn’t believe the expectations of the culture in which she lives are more important than what she knows to be true about herself.  She is a woman who accepts that sometimes the cost of being fully human is upsetting people.

“Difficult women tend not to be ladies-in-waiting.  Waiting for love, waiting for someone to notice their excellent job performance, waiting for the kids to go to bed, or off to school, waiting until they lose weight and fit into their skinny jeans.  Instead, they are driven by their internal engines. They make other people wait. It’s immaterial whether these others worry about her, grow impatient with her, find her frustrating, or call her names.  Difficult women may not enjoy causing a stir (though most seem to), and sometimes their feelings get hurt, but the bumps along the way fail to deter them from their mission.

“I love these women because they encourage me to own my true nature.  They teach me that it’s perfectly okay not to go along to get along. They show by example that we shouldn’t shy away from stating our opinions.  Their lives were and are imperfect. They suffered. They made mistakes. But they rarely betrayed their essential natures to keep the peace. They saw (and see) no margin in making sure no one around them is inconvenienced.  

“These difficult women give us permission to occupy space in our worlds, to say what we think, and to stand our ground.  They give us permission to be ambitious, passionate, curmudgeonly, outspoken, persistent, sassy, and angry. They tell us, by their words and deeds, that it’s all right to occupy our humanity.  

I hope you will come to revere them – and be inspired by them – as I have.”

Karen Karbo