Start in a place of self-respect. Please. When I think about the time when I was staying in an abusive marriage, I ask myself again and again why I didn’t rebel or seek help right away. The answer is, I was too embarrassed to admit that my life was so unglamorous. I was scared to upset my in-laws. I was worried about being viewed as a loser. That certainly wasn’t intelligent behavior on my part! In hindsight, I could have avoided tremendous pain, had I located my self-respect right away and acted on it without the fear of being embarrassed. Of course, I behaved like a typical domestic abuse victim, and many before me did the exact same thing under similar circumstances — so I am no exception here — but still, looking back, I wish I were thinking with more clarity.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tessa Lena, founder of VulnerableWin. Tessa is an artist and an immigrant New Yorker with a striking survival story. She is on a mission to restore the art of dialogue and to encourage people to talk to each other fearlessly over disagreements.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?
I have had the strange luck of living through a number of experiences that were dramatic and at times life-threatening. When I was doing linguistics and music research in Tibet and China, I was attacked by a sex trafficker who ended up beating me up in front of an entire village; I was very fortunate to stay alive and get away from him quickly. Then I moved to Chicago, learned how to code, started working in IT — and married a man who turned abusive. Once he realized he could not control me, he arranged for me be detained in hopes of getting me deported. At the time, years ago, nobody checked the facts, and I spent a month behind bars getting a taste of unexpected and senseless cruelty.
Luckily, all my adventures ended victoriously for me — I ran away from the sex trafficker, escaped the abuser, proved my legal case beautifully, reconnected with my purpose — and today things are very good. But as a result of being on the receiving end of it, my perspective on life got deeper and probably more realistic. Painful experiences taught me to be calmer, more loving, more optimistic, and more humble.
I’ve also had the privilege of living and working in different cultures. Through that, I learned to appreciate humanity in its various forms, regardless of the slogan du jour.
Ever since I was a kid, I looked for ways of turning conflict into peace and understanding. I somehow get super excited about building bridges and connecting diverse people and cultures. With my art and my fearless dialogue workshops, I try to bring out people’s innate ability to relate to each other. It seems like today, the art of connecting matters more than ever. Given the amount of collective anxiety and anger, restoring our ability to relate to others — on a sensory level — is almost an emergency.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My immigration journey is what taught me how to survive. Hey, I had no choice!
Back home, life was pretty straightforward: I attended good schools, spoke at conferences, performed music — and I was used to being respected for both my intellect and my art. Then I came here and discovered that suddenly, I was a newbie, and no one cared about my values or the things that were sacred to me. I had to worry about money all the time, my precious intellectual and artistic pursuits didn’t interest anybody, everything was new and confusing. I felt lonely and out of place.
Very soon I figured out how to make money by coding, but I still felt out of it. So when I met a guy who seemed to treat me with kindness, I fell for him, and we got married very quickly (no, I did not need him “for papers.”) Shortly after that, he became physically and emotionally abusive — dragging me down the stairs by the legs kind of abusive — and I got completely lost. My life unexpectedly turned into hell — yet I was too embarrassed to talk about it and was suffering silently.
And then it got worse. He realized that he could not control me anymore, and he arranged for me to be detained by Immigration. It took me a long time and a lot of money in legal fees to prove my case–but I did it, and today I am a proud U.S. citizen. While behind bars, I found out what it feels like to be treated like a faceless animal without rights — an experience that many middle-class Americans probably don’t identify with. It was degrading, depressing, and scary — but it helped me discover my inner worth. Plus, I learned that had a lot more friends than I thought I did. All in all, it taught me a lot about life and about importance of humility. The experience was horrid, yes — but it provided me with good education and survival skills.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I guess, the drive comes from the feeling that you either swim or die. Necessity is a great motivator! You just do what makes sense in the moment.
I don’t want to make it sound like I was just pushing forward like a robot at all times. I am human. There were moments when nothing made sense, when it felt hopeless. But then it just came together. Having support of the community is truly priceless.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
Success to me is a living, breathing process. As soon as I accomplish one thing and let myself puff my cheeks for a brief second, there are ten more desirable things in sight all of a sudden, and I find myself in the land of the unknown, again!
What I consider my biggest success actually is the fact that it is very difficult to make me unhappy. My strange and dramatic experiences added a deeper layer to my perception of life in general, and whenever I think about the time when I was lying on the ground with a strange guy’s hands on my throat, for example, other challenges seem pretty minor. J
Today, I am psyched to be working on projects that are meaningful to me. Both my art and my fearless dialogue VulnerableWin workshops are rooted in love. It makes me happy to know that my hard-earned lessons may help my fellow human beings find their own innate confidence and clarity, or possibly make somebody feel less alone in this rather confusing world. We all need camaraderie and understanding! When I get messages saying that I was able to help, that is the best reward!
I particularly enjoy working with college kids because their choices will determine our future.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
Today, things are awesome! Okay, the world is a bit of a mess — and with that come many challenges — but it feels great to focus on kindness. The way I think about it, sooner or later each of us discovers the need to leave a good legacy. Having observed a lot of older people as a child (a blessing of growing up in a culture that does not hide its elders), I am convinced that it important to leave a legacy that doesn’t suck for humanity. When you do things with love and try to do the right thing, answers show up (along with new questions, of course).
Speaking of love, my art is about being human in the world of robots. It seems like a lot of people today feel isolated behind the screens, and it’s important to gently nudge each other with messages of love and actual authenticity.
Then, as a speaker, I educate students and adults on immigration and domestic abuse — and also run fearless dialogue workshops to help people find common grounds with strangers who think differently.
VulnerableWin dialogue workshops are designed as carefully guided direct experiences to help participants boost their emotional intelligence and encourage them to build inner confidence on a sensory level. With stronger confidence, we all act kinder and show more tolerance since our sense of identity is no longer endangered.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
Start in a place of self-respect. Please. When I think about the time when I was staying in an abusive marriage, I ask myself again and again why I didn’t rebel or seek help right away. The answer is, I was too embarrassed to admit that my life was so unglamorous. I was scared to upset my in-laws. I was worried about being viewed as a loser. That certainly wasn’t intelligent behavior on my part!
In hindsight, I could have avoided tremendous pain, had I located my self-respect right away and acted on it without the fear of being embarrassed. Of course, I behaved like a typical domestic abuse victim, and many before me did the exact same thing under similar circumstances — so I am no exception here — but still, looking back, I wish I were thinking with more clarity.
Accept yourself unconditionally. To build on what I just said, self-respect starts with accepting yourself fully. The words might sound pompous or trivial, but the reality of it is tremendous. Nobody is perfect, everybody learns by making mistakes. Obviously, we are all responsible for our actions, and we should all strive to be the best versions of ourselves because it’s a good feeling. But there is great power in accepting yourself just the way you are, with all your mistakes and imperfections. We carry a mystery inside us that is worth all the love in the world. Love can do wonders.
Think about those who inspire you. You never know how much strength and grit you can develop when you connect to your role models, even in your imagination.
Don’t postpone necessary changes until things go sour (!!) We human beings are a little lazy in a sense that we are rarely eager to make the changes we know we need if our situation is comfortable or even tolerable. However, life usually finds ways to walk us where we need to be — which means that we are much better off submitting to the necessity of doing what we have to do in order to succeed, while we still have options. Yeah, that thing. Do it. J
If worst comes to worst, you will probably develop grit anyway (but don’t wait). We are strong. We are much stronger than what we think we are. But please consider being kind to yourself and not procrastinating!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
My mom is #1. I love her infinitely. And my friends. I am blessed with wonderful people around me. I would be nowhere without the people who stand by me and support me every step of the way. I hope they feel the same way about me. The power of the community is everything.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My idea of a good world is a place where people are strong enough to be kind. I try to bring goodness to the world in different ways: by educating young people on campus about the immigrant’s journey so that it’s easier for them to understand international diversity and to relate to “the other”; by creating and facilitating environments where people with diverse backgrounds and views can talk to each other human to human; by heartfelt artistic expression that comments on society and human experience.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My main focus at the moment is the VulnerableWin dialogue project. It is a long-term and very labor-intensive project that I hope can create a cultural shift toward kindness, emotional diversity, and tolerance. Currently I am working on building an online platform to expand it beyond live events.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Given our overall civilizational values, founders and executives are in an ethically tricky spot. They need to deliver quantifiable results, stay afloat financially, and look good for the media. And because our culture is generally numbers-oriented, there is a lot of pressure to please everybody from investors to the media to everyone in-between. Not to mention the good ol’ ego…
Top execs are financially rewarded based on data, clicks, and perceived value — while employee happiness quotient (psst, buzzword alert!) often gets swept under a rug. And even when wholesome and honorable corporate philosophies show up, they almost immediately get transformed into soundbites and slideshow presentations, bypassing the original basic purpose. Just look at the sudden popularity of the word “human” among marketers!
None the less, I believe in the power of humility and honorable intent. Treating employees and partners with respect is not a heroic feat, it’s basic decency, a part of that good legacy thing. The power of honorable behavior is real. Some of the most important cultural shifts start with personal courage, with making individual choices that are rooted in the desire to do what’s right. I think we are at a point when a cultural shift is way overdue.
In the long run, what makes a person productive and loyal? The most productive worker (at any level) is the one who gets to be creative and who gets paid well for doing what he or she naturally loves to do. We all get excited when we do what we love — while none of us welcomes being squeezed and flattened on the conveyor belt in the name of the bottom line.
I know we don’t live in an ideal world, I know we have to compete with companies that are at times brutal to their workers — but it is still worth it to be the good guy on the block. Respecting employees’ individuality goes a long way!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Thank you, you are very kind to me! In my ideal world, it would be a movement to abandon sloganeering and to restore the use of language for good. I think that as a society, we are paying a very high collective price for being in a perpetual performance mode. We “talk to impress” — white we could talk to express our love and even our honest grudges — but again, with love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Quotes are tricky business! Life lessons are usually more nuanced than soundbites. But if I were to go there, my motto would be, “see a fellow human.” It truly is an aspiration of my entire life, and I try to practice what I preach.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Thank you, it was a pleasure!