Art of equanimity

Call it cosmic fate or destiny or maybe a matter of good timing — whatever it was, the stars aligned for Irene Au.

Au graduated summa cum laude from the S.C. Honors College with degrees in electrical and computer engineering in 1994 just as the world began to discover the Internet. After a stop in graduate school, she landed high-profile positions, one after another. She started at Netscape as an interaction designer, went on to Yahoo where she established the company’s user experience and design practice, then joined Google as head of design.

With that foundation, Au built her career as a major strategist in the Web industry. Now 20 years after graduating from Carolina, she has taken another career leap as a partner for a venture capital firm, while also purposefully finding a place of balance in her life.

Part of your job at Khosla Ventures is to help emerging companies find the right talent. What should professionals be asking themselves if they’re looking for a better alignment of their own goals and skills? The first question is: What are you curious about? Curiosity is the primal source of passion and interest. When you’re curious, you want to dig deeper and learn more, and you have fun. When you’re not curious, learning feels like a chore. Cultivate curiosity by changing daily habits: Try a new routine, learn about something you’ve always wondered about, meet new people.

Many of us have the misconception that when we’re successful, we will find happiness. But the converse is true: When we are happy, success follows. When we are happy, we are grateful for opportunity, and we don’t mind working and learning. We then work for the pure enjoyment of the endeavor, without any attachment to the final outcome. When we’re not attached to the final outcome, we free ourselves from our inhibitions and are able to take more risks. Ironically, this is when we do our best work, and success usually follows.

From the start of your career, you’ve worked in positions that were so new there was no template to follow. What was your strategy for adaptation? I learned to stay curious, and I was eager to learn and try new things. I also learned that you have to be willing to take risks and fail. My roles were naturally very ambiguous and ill-defined, so I had to rely on my instincts. It was better to take action and risk making mistakes than wait to be told what to do; on Internet time, you can’t afford to wait. Finally, you have to listen and get feedback. For me, listening — to myself, to others, and to the world around me — allowed me to constantly improve. I didn’t expect to always get things right the first time, but I knew that if I tried my ideas, observed the outcomes and reflected on how to improve, I would eventually get there.  

What are some of the career mistakes — and smart moves — that you’ve seen people make? The biggest career mistakes stem from insecurity or fear. When someone is insecure, they’re less apt to listen to feedback because they fear being shamed and judged. When you’re fearful, you’re less able to act outside your comfort zone. Fear might manifest as an inclination to do things a certain way “because this is the way it has always been done.” Fear might also manifest as perfectionism, so as not to be judged negatively when you fail. Or fear can play out as a need to keep others down so you can rise to the top (in contrast to seeing others not as competitors but as a source of inspiration). Fear can also prevent people from reaching out to others, which is unfortunate because so many opportunities happen when people connect.

Conversely, some of the smartest moves come from a growth mindset, which isn’t possible without a very strong sense of self. People with a growth mindset understand that with hard work, persistence and iteration, they can improve. The best career moves people make are often borne out of having a track record of working hard and doing good work, a strong network and a willingness to say yes to opportunities that come their way even if they don’t feel completely ready for it.

At what point did you become interested in yoga and meditation? I was always an introspective child, journaling since I was 9. I was first introduced to yoga when I was 16 while attending the S.C. Governor’s School. I didn’t really commit to a regular yoga and meditation practice until 2008 when I sought refuge from the stress of my job, my exercise regimen and my divorce. I took a yoga teacher training course to deepen my practice, and that experience was transformational: My body became more open. More importantly, my perspective on life and how I live changed.

Mindfulness practices have helped me to be present, to stay calm and to feel love and compassion. Meditation and yoga help train the mind to pay attention, clearly and purposefully, in spite of distractions and past experiences. By being present, it’s easier to see clearly what the priorities are and what needs to be done.

Yoga has taught me how to breathe and stay calm in the face of stress, whether physical, mental or emotional. Yoga allows for a calmer, freer way of being, giving physical comfort and also clarity of mind, creativity and a playful spirit.

Mindfulness practices have also cultivated within me a deeper connection to my own self and to others. I can see my own intentions and feelings more clearly and those of other people, as well. I am more quickly able to empathize and feel tremendous love and compassion toward others, even those who challenge me the most. 

As you’ve navigated the corporate world, has your definition of personal success changed? Even as an undergraduate at USC, I wanted to ensure that I could be financially independent but not at the expense of enjoying what I do for a living. It’s a balance between pragmatism and passion. As much as I encourage people to do what makes them happy, I believe that you can learn to love what you do. Success is not about climbing the corporate ladder with a fancy title, managing a lot of people or making a lot of money. It’s about having a sense of purpose in life, creating something you can be proud of, and finding love, fulfillment and joy, however one chooses to spend their time.

Irene Au's story appears in the winter 2015 edition of Carolinian magazine. Get the magazine by joining the My Carolina Alumni Association or contributing to the Carolina's Promise campaign.  

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