Most of us strive to achieve, even if many do not quite know how to realize dreams and aspirations. For Hispanics/Latinos, the climb can seem to be insurmountable, especially by the time that career plans must be made. But, it needn't be an impossible struggle if you keep the following thoughts in mind and learn how to act on them. Note the caveat “learn how to…” None of us is born with the life skills that will turn us into champions and successful executives. But all of us are born with the capabilities to acquire the right mix of skills and outlooks.
Know your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s not easy to assess yourself, but as you mature and learn, you gain insights into what makes you tick; what makes you nervous; and, what makes you feel like you can accomplish and have accomplished something. Together, these experiences will help you sort out what you are best at and what you still need to master in order to succeed. Others will also judge you (and promote you) on your strengths and weaknesses. The key is to play on the former and consistently work on the latter. It’s your game and you can set the rules and schedules. Your worst enemy is yourself.
Introduce yourself with a sound handshake and a clear voice. It might very well be a Texan thing, but I learned early on that a strong handshake and the confidence to shake the hands of people I met would open many doors and introduce me to a wide range of associates. I also realized that a strong and clear voice would get the attention of others and get me many of the things I wanted. In short, I consider my voice to be as powerful a tool as my abilities to think and write clearly. But, it takes lots of practice. Invest in these and you’ll go far. And, by the way, this applies to men and women equally!
Walk straight and keep your head up. People will judge you by the way that you carry yourself. Even if you are not dressed in the latest duds, the way that you walk into a room or walk down the street says much about you, your demeanor, and your confidence levels. If you walk with confidence, you will get noticed.
I remember the myth that Hispanic children did not look up when spoken to in order to show deference to others. I always thought that this was an odd presumption, especially for teachers. While I respected my elders, I rarely felt inferior to anyone I met. I might have felt intimidated or have been in awe of someone’s family lineage or their schooling opportunities, but that never meant that I felt inferior to them. When you walk straight and look people in the eyes, you establish parity. Now, it might be that these same people are smarter than you or more handsome than you. But, the strengths that you exude when you stand firm are formidable entrees into other worlds and experiences.
Learn how to ask for help and favors. I visited a classroom in a Washington DC school several years ago. I was assigned to a Hispanic student who was creating a portfolio of assignments for the month for his teacher. She was going to grade her students on the finished look of the portfolio. After several minutes of introductions and sharing of personal information, I asked him to tell me what his task was. We got right down to it. When he needed extra sleeves for this work and other materials, I coached him on how to go to his teacher or his fellow students and ask. I also coached him on how to say please and thank you. Little by little, his engagement was total and he was pleased that he was able to get what he needed in order to complete his project. After class, his teacher told me that she was astounded by his behavior and his results because she viewed him as the most difficult student in her classroom! I truly believe that the simple rules of decorum that I modeled were the catalyst of his success. You too will experience success when you carefully chart out how to ask for help.
Learn how and when to ask questions. This skill too takes much practice. But it starts by listening carefully and by comparing what you know to what you are trying to fully understand. When I listen to a speaker or read an article, I pay attention to the theme or topic at hand. I then make mental or written notes about particular points being made. The end result might be a list of facts or ideas that interest me and that might be related to other information I know. Parallel to these exercises, if I have a question, I rehearse how to ask for clarification or for a definition. I also edit the question I want to pose. Obviously, you don’t want to distract yourself from the speaker by focusing on a question that might have been addressed while you were fiddling with your query!
While on the surface, the how, when, what, and who questions that you learned in grade school might seem like a simple template. The key to asking engaging and pertinent questions is learning when to ask a particular type of question and learning how to phrase it to align with the speaker’s intentions. Timing is as critical as the question you might pose. You can learn a lot by listening to the strategies that others use when asking questions. The next time that you are in an audience where questions are allowed, pay attention and learn from those experiences. Soon, you’ll be right up there with the most sophisticated questioners. By the way, always thank the speaker for responding!
Read every day and pay attention to words and their meanings. Reading for pleasure and reading for professional information are distinct. Yet, both require commitment, focus, and discerning attention to details, facts, and myths. Reading for pleasure will, of course, depend on your interests in particular genre and your interest in the style of particular authors or of columnists.
Reading professional literature, while a bit dryer and more didactic, depends on your career needs and on your job requirements. I used to read technical education documents regularly, including the products developed by the contractors that we funded. Each document required a questioning perspective because it was my job to ensure that the authors were writing authoritatively from the research literature or the results of their investigations. Still, fundamental issues of style, logic flow, and format were as important.
My social reading was and is entirely different. I like authors who tell a rich story in flowing terms and who do not complicate simple human foibles. I love reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez in both English and Spanish for the stories he weaves and for his style of writing. It’s like a written dream! But, on a daily basis, I read two national newspapers. Because my interests are eclectic, I read about politics, health, investments, fashion, the arts, and the global disasters of the day. I critique sloppy logic and authors who are lax in revealing what they are talking about. Importantly, I pay attention to how correspondents use phrases to describe events or people. But, my favorites are the obituaries of people who were accomplished. They might be inventors, civil rights leaders, scientists, or actors. Their lives invariably reveal much about what was happening when they were growing up, where and what they studied, and who influenced their lives.
The point is that your reading habits will prepare you to be an engaging conversationalist. It’s very easy these days to pay attention only to the hot topics of the day. What is essential is that you “connect the dots” across stories, issues, and time. I find that this is possible mostly by reading rather than by depending on the airwaves media that simplify, dumb-down, and many times, misinterpret developments in order to fill their airwaves. When you read regularly, your reading habits will improve markedly. In turn, such habits will improve your writing, your vocabulary, and the effect that you have on others.
Learn to be a loyal friend to yourself and to others. Loyalty is a rare trait. It’s a perception that develops over time as you gain confidence in yourself and in others. It’s a respect that comes from gaining insights into your strengths and weaknesses and the extent to which you are willing to take calculated risks.
Loyalty to others might be even more rare. This trait starts when you are young and start forming friendships and bonds with others your age. Loyalty to family, of course, is paramount. The more diverse your associations are in age and type, the more you are apt to be a loyal friend or acquaintance. Loyalty also means that others can count on you to offer support, to accept and take responsibility, or to carry out tasks. Loyalty is teamwork. It’s a reflection of what you are prepared to do for others, especially when the context changes. To say the least, you can’t do for others what you can’t do for yourself!
Learn how to translate your thoughts, ideas, and knowledge into words and sentences and arguments. Words alone are seldom as powerful as strings of isolated words. Your objective as an accomplished person should be to learn how to construct sentences that are clear, logical, and that are strategic. I’m not suggesting that you sound like an encyclopedia or a textbook.
But, I am suggesting that simplicity of expression is based on your abilities to think clearly and with purpose. Right now, as I am composing this and the previous paragraphs, I am streaming words together in what I hope that you, the reader, will understand and appeciate. In short, I develop mental pictures of what my thoughts look like and what my message is to be. It’s not easy to do this. But it becomes easier as you practice. We are all surrounded by words. Indeed, words are the building blocks of thoughts that in turn capture the essence of an idea or a thought. Knowledge is the culmination of these processes in that they enable you to construct meaning and meaning is knowledge. By extension, what you do with knowledge will influence how well you can compose and string sentences together to form arguments and questions. I respect authors and speakers who can take complex thoughts and translate them into their simple parts or elements. Equally, I enjoy people who are engaging because they have told a story well; one that has an insightful beginning, a sound middle, and a logical ending.
Set high but realistic personal goals. On the many occasions when I volunteer as a motivational speaker, I am mostly startled at the unrealistic goals that most Hispanic middle and high school students have already set. All of them want to be doctors, lawyers, space walkers, etc. Few of them express desires for careers in insurance, nursing, social work, teaching, being plumbers, etc. It is, of course, beneficial to want to be the former, but the reality is that most will not reach their goals because of any number of lax study habits, writing abilities, the demands of AP classes, and just plain perseverance. Failure to reach the lofty goals appears to doom them to achieve little after they face up to what is required. Further, the incessant drive to play basketball and football for the sole reason of getting a million dollar contract with a professional team steers many minority students toward false goals.
So, what is the key? The key is to strike a balance between personal strengths and career goals. The key is to take risks but not be reckless and over-reaching. The key is to decide that going to college will mean leaving the family circle and community and entering into new worlds. There is a very fine line between setting high goals and reaching them. It is something that can be learned. And, it is best learned when adults instill in students a clear picture of what it takes to become a doctor or a space walker or a plumber.
Avoid boring people. I’ve borrowed this phrase from the title of Dr. James Watson’s autobiographical book. His career took many turns and his positions were in numerous geographical locations here in the United States as well as in Europe. In short, he moved a lot! Equally, he was relentless in pursuing funding for the work that he and his colleagues were doing in trying to break the DNA code. Which they did! On a personal level, he writes about the many people whom he met and with whom he interacted. Some of them were highly intelligent but deadly boring. So, early on, he decided that he would avoid boring people. By extension, he vowed to not bore other people. Get the meanings? The point here is that you should try to become the best in your chosen field or profession.
You should also try to balance your professional interests and your social/cultural skills and behaviors. The real key is to develop interests in the arts and in fields outside of your immediate spheres. You should also develop keen interests in what makes other people tick and accomplish and, when you do meet them, let them ask you about you. If they never do, you know it’s time to move on to another spot. In this case, learn how to extricate yourself from boring and self-centered people!
Summation. I hope that these life lessons are of help to you as you grow into the person you aspire or dream to be. If you already know what to do, then share your experiences with others who are not so fortunate. The 21st Century has quickly developed into a crazy mix of erratic behaviors, mixed attitudes, and desperate needs. The demands on professionals are greater than ever. The demands on Hispanics are no less. That’s why I believe that brains coupled with cultural instincts and determination will make you a leader. Saludos.