Like millions of people around the world, I had never heard of Jeremy Lin until a couple of weeks ago. Now, of course, hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear about some reference to “Lin-sanity,” the public craze over a 23-year-old Asian-American basketball player for the New York Knicks who has soared—seemingly from nowhere—to blazing stardom.
One can hardly blame the news media for obsessing over Lin. After all, it is a…Lin-credible story. Lin, who graduated from Harvard, wasn’t offered a college scholarship to play anywhere. He was passed over by the 30 National Basketball Association teams in the 2010 draft. He was signed by the Golden State Warriors only after he was spotted in an NBA summer league outplaying the No.1 player in that year’s draft. Then he was cut by the Warriors. He was picked up by the Houston Rockets; cut by the Rockets; then signed by the Knicks. Still, he seemed to be going nowhere. In fact, Lin appeared to be on the verge of being cut again when the Knicks—who had been playing poorly and were in the midst of another listless game against the New Jersey Nets—put Lin into the lineup. (What did they have to lose?) He astonished everyone by scoring 25 points and almost single-handedly willing the team to a win.
Since then, he has re-energized the Knicks and has electrified the sports world, as well as Asian-Americans everywhere, who are thrilled to hold up their unlikeliest hero to the rest of the world. Yes, people love to root for the underdog, but they also love Lin for his grittiness in the face of daunting odds and his humility in the face of stunning success.
And yet, there’s also something troubling amid all this hype. Even if Lin continues to excel, the din will undoubtedly die down, like all subjects in the media sphere. At least we won’t have to groan at the endless punning in the press (“All Lin,” “Linsightful,” “Just Lin Time,” “Lin and bear it”…Enough already!). But in the end, what will we have learned from Lin-sanity? It’s not just about sports. If we take the time to reflect upon Lin’s story, it can tell us a lot about our culture and yes, how we treat and manage people in our own businesses. What lessons will we take away from this besides Asian men can play electrifying basketball, too, not just African Americans and a handful of white men—and oh yes, women too.
The first thing we need to understand is that Lin did not “come out of nowhere.” He was always right there, in plain sight; it’s just that people couldn’t see him. Most people, even the experts, have blind spots. Professional recruiters and scouts were not expecting to see a basketball phenomenon come out of an Ivy League school like Harvard (few do), nor did they expect him to be Asian (even fewer are). These experts, like all of us, are often subject to what is known as “cognitive bias”: we assess the patterns in our world based on our experiences, and this cognitive process can prevent us from learning how to change our behavior.
So, based on what we see and experience, it’s easy for our minds to process ethnic and racial stereotypes, like African Americans being great basketball players, musicians or entertainers. But people don’t expect to see an African American like Neil deGrasse Tyson, (another Harvard graduate,) who is as funny and engaging as Bill Cosby, but is actually an astrophysicist who is director of the Hayden Planetarium. Similarly, people aren’t surprised by the image of Japanese American Michio Kaku as a renowned theoretical physicist; but they don’t expect a Chinese-American like Jeremy Lin to excel on the basketball court.
The insidious thing about stereotyping is that any group subjected to it often starts to believe the stereotype. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as “reactivity,” which can take several forms. Sometimes people perform better than expected simply because they know we’re paying attention to them; they feel important and valued (the Hawthorne Effect). In other instances people alter their behavior to conform to the expectations of the observer, which can be caused by bias and stereotyping (the Pygmalion Effect). Experiments have shown, for example, that a group of students with the same test skill level as another group often does not perform as well on such tests after they are told by the teacher that they are not as “smart” as the first group.
In many ways, Lin-sanity mirrors the experiences of many professional women I’ve worked with—and indeed, my own life. As I pointed out in a recent cover story in Newsday’s ACT II Section, which looked back at the history of my own name change, , my career was spurred in part by a determination to overcome the stereotyping of women, beginning with an experience I had with my father, who had a contracting business in Brooklyn. Early on, I wanted to go into my father’s business and help him, but he told me “that was not a place for girls.”
Right—just like basketball is not a place for Asians. Those who actually watched Lin play over his career know that he is no different from any other talented player: He works hard, tirelessly focuses on improving his skills and his game; and he has taken advantage of good coaches and mentors. What he has always needed to succeed was opportunity.
That is what I am passionate about, making sure that people, especially women business owners, have equal access to opportunity. All of us, but especially managers and executive coaches, need to be willing to put people in the game—and see what happens. It’s unsettling to think just how close Lin came to never having an opportunity to show what he could do. How many talented people, whether basketball players or women executives, never reach their potential because they just don’t get a chance?
That’s why I recently decided to re-launch the Women’s Leadership Development Center, which originally was an outgrowth of the Women’s Educational & Counseling Center, which I ran more than two decades ago. I’ve come to see how important it still is for women to be mentored, not stereotyped. Men are hired and promoted based on “potential,” what people expect they can produce. Women, on the other hand, have to demonstrate that they can already perform at a higher level to be given a chance to do so.
One of my goals, then, is to help ensure that women are given equal access to the opportunity to succeed as leaders, and to pass on this leadership to the next generation. If you want to know more about my thoughts about how to fulfill your potential as a woman business owner, come to my presentation on March 21st at Marcum LLP, 10 Melville Park Road, Melville, NY 11747 from 8:30-10:30AM CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION!.