As told to the First Round Review by Frederique Dame, most recently a product leader at Uber, and before that at SmugMug, Photobucket and Yahoo!. Here, she talks about how cultivating happiness put her on her top-flight career trajectory.
When I was a teenager, I saw the movie Working Girl with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver, and it had a profound effect on me. I wanted what they had. I wanted to be a savvy corporate sleuth and make big decisions for big companies — Harrison Ford and the skirt suits were just a bonus. It might sound silly, but it changed my life.
Growing up in France, my parents were dentists and they wanted me to be one too. I, however, wanted to be a “businesswoman” — and, more specifically, after falling in love with math and science — an engineer. My dad, a crusader for his daughters to never compromise, supported me to follow my heart — which ultimately led to working in the U.S., becoming a product manager, and joining Uber early, when it was in just 14 cities.
Most people are interested in hearing about this one segment of my career: How I helped shape a big part of one of the most influential companies in the world as it grew to 400+ cities in 68 countries. But the mindset that got me there is a longer story, going back the 15 years I’ve been in Silicon Valley. When I look back, the single most important factor in my success has been happiness.
Make no mistake, the path you’re on right now is not straight. Even if it feels like it is. Things will go wrong. Plans will fall apart. The only thing in your control is how you’ll respond. Being content, grateful and (yes) satisfied in today’s culture seems nearly impossible. But those things are much more likely to get you to the right destination than chasing fame, ego, titles, money. What follows is a list of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from my experience — all of which you can apply right now.
“You’ll be fine if it doesn’t work out.”
Simple words. Tremendous meaning. What if you just decided that you were going to be fine no matter what? You’d probably do a lot of things differently. You’d test your boundaries. You’d trust yourself more. The trick is that feeling this way is just a choice you make. You decide to believe it or not. Too many people in this industry feel like they’re on a tight-rope suspended 50 stories up. One wrong move and they’ll fall. But that’s not the case. The people who believe they’ll rebound have a lot more power.
I was 24 when I decided to work in the U.S. I was terrified, but I hustled to make connections, and now it was time to actually go. Once again, my father was the one to give me the push I needed, booking a ticket for us to visit the Bay Area for 10 days — our very first trip to the U.S. for both of us, and assuring me that even if I didn’t find a job, I’d figure something out. I remember printing my resume out at the Stanford library on my way to the Santa Clara University job fair, literally shaking. I ended up getting an offer on this trip. Had I not gone, I wouldn’t have.
Being daring is all about trusting yourself to handle the results. A shocking number of people in tech know they’re brilliant, know they’re capable, but don’t trust themselves to know what to do if they get fired, fail spectacularly or just want to switch gears towards a more fulfilling path. Shifting your confidence from one area of your life to another gives you the safety net you need to take more chances.
I know this works because I had to do it. During the 2002 Silicon Valley downturn, I got laid off. Panic set in. Here I was, now living in the country illegally, crashing on a friend’s couch in San Francisco, and I had to figure out what to do to stay in the U.S.. There was no time to wallow or doubt myself. I had to get out there and start meeting people. I joined a few other networking organizations and Ryze.com, and networked hard. I made it known I needed a job and went on many interviews only to get rejected many times, or rejecting a few offers that just didn’t feel right. Finally, at the 11th hour, something clicked.
It’s hard to anticipate what you’ll do in this type of situations until you have to. But if you can rewire your brain to know you will be okay, even if you don’t get the role, don’t get the promotion, don’t raise that round, you’ll try harder at all of it, and your chances of success will be that much greater. Whenever you find yourself thinking, “Oh I can’t go after that...” or “That’s a crazy risk...” immediately append the sentence: “You’ll be fine if it doesn’t work out.”
You don’t hear it a lot these days. It sounds outdated. But that’s what makes it special. In tech, people don't think about acting elegantly. To be elegant is to be deliberate, respond gracefully, take things lightly — to move through the world with positive purpose. It’s having a soft touch and tough resilience at the same time. And, in my experience, it’s an incredible secret weapon.
If you were to weather a transition or a tough time elegantly, what would that look like?
You’d be honest and allow yourself to mourn the lost opportunity, an unexpected hiccup, whatever it is. You’d let yourself feel it with the self-assurance that the pain is impermanent because life changes fast. Looking strong counts for nothing if you’re miserable inside.
You’d look for hidden opportunities to hasten your recovery. Let’s say you got laid off. Now you have time to exercise during the day.
You’d get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Sometimes you'd even seek out the uncomfortable because that’s how you grow and get better.
You wouldn’t take things personally. Life happens. You get caught in the middle of a perfect storm. It sucks but it’s not about you, and thinking it is will only make things worse.
You’d trade expectations for appreciation. Instead of clinging to what you don’t have or what you didn’t get, you think about what you do have and the power you do have to make a change.
The first conversation I had with Uber’s recruiter was remarkable. But it ended with her telling me they already had a head of product. Before the call, I had been so attached to that title and only that title. I could have let my disappointment turn into indignance, and closed myself off to the company. Instead, I listened to the excitement in my voice, and the energy in my body when I hung up the phone. I was the best version of myself when I was talking about my goals, Uber and what I could contribute there. I decided to stay open to other possibilities there.
Soon after, I started interviewing to head up product for a fashion company in New York. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I diligently built a case for why it was the right move. But I was stretching, and I knew it.
Whenever you find yourself working to gather evidence that a decision is the right one, take pause. Rationalizing means you’re not in tune with your gut instinct.
The right things tend to flow naturally. That’s why the right job often feels inevitable. Sometimes you’ll want to do something that you absolutely can’t rationalize because it just feels right. Think back to the times you’ve felt this “rightness” before and pattern match. What happened in those past experiences? Were you right or wrong? Did you learn something valuable? The answer is probably yes.
Approaching things elegantly means you don’t take things too seriously. No opportunity is the be all end all. The stakes are never make or break. All of that is just noise obscuring your intrinsic sense of what makes you happy.
Titles are your enemy. If I had stuck to my guns on only accepting head of product roles, I would have missed out on the rocket launch of a lifetime.
Two months after my first call with Uber, they were ready to hire another product leader. So I came in to meet with their head of product. She was five years younger and had less experience. This could have been brutal, but I was determined to check my ego at the door, and I’m so glad I did. We were able to brainstorm and build off each other’s ideas about ride sharing, and the emotions customers attach to the company. We liked how each other’s brains worked. By the end of the hour, I knew I wanted to work with her.
The chemistry you feel with other people is the most underrated factor in whether you should take a job. Today, I’m convinced that the primary reason to take a role is to work with a great manager and a great team. Together, they determine nearly all of your happiness on the job. This means letting go of your assumptions about title and money. Making this tradeoff will pay off in surprising ways.
For years, my product manager friends and I would obsess about salary, our next promotion, the next company we’d join to get a bump up. Then we all made head of product somewhere and realized it wasn’t anything so special — certainly not worth all the time and anguish. What was special was looking around at our colleagues and realizing we loved working with them, that we were having fun, that we were building cool things that were getting used. We realized we didn’t have to only go after what was sexy. We could make what we were doing sexy, and that was a much more interesting challenge.
Not getting hung up on status has cut the other way for me too. Eventually, it was time for me to interview with Travis, Uber’s co-founder and CEO, and a lot of people would be nervous in that scenario. I was determined to walk in there and talk to him like any other human being, and within 10 minutes, we were geeking out together about our prior technical experiences. At the end of the conversation, he said he had one more question for me, and I joked back, “Well, we have two minutes left.” He chuckled, and I knew I’d be going into a work environment where everyone’s ideas are weighed equally.
Letting go of status is not about settling for less. It’s simply not letting it drive your decision-making. And it’s not getting intimidated by others’ status. If it doesn’t matter in one situation, it shouldn’t matter no matter where you rank on the company’s org chart. That attitude has served me well and brought me closer to people.
Sometimes you have to compromise, but that doesn’t mean you should stop asking for exactly what you want. This is important for everyone (though it tends to be a little harder for women). First, know what you want. Second, understand (honestly) the value you bring to your company. Your goal is to balance these things to move the needle on your compensation, responsibilities, etc.
If you ask for too little, you will feel shortchanged. If you ask for too much, you’ll feel like an impostor. Never pin your happiness on promises of promotions, raises or bonuses unless you’re okay with being disappointed. Businesses grow and shrink. Managers leave. The next thing you know, the guy who gave you your offer has moved on and anything he promised is void.
The best course of action is to ask for what you know you deserve upfront. Don’t hide it. But if you don’t get it — which sometimes, perhaps often times, you won’t — be patient. Don’t drop it or reassess your value or motivation for the job on the basis of that decision. Just hold steady. Be happy with the knowledge that you’ll get what you want if you do good work and keep it on people’s radar.
A big part of this is understanding your motivation. Are you going after things based on your ego or your desire to be happy? (In other words, are you trying to be right or trying to be happy?) The problem with the ego: It’s never happy. Even if I would have gotten the Head of Product position right out of the gate, I probably would have ended up wanting more.
Be careful to not rely on external sources of reinforcement. This often motivates poor decision making. You’re the one in the job day in day out, and your happiness matters most to you — no one else. Sure, TechCrunch can write a nice article about a company, and tomorrow there’s massive backlash. If the only reason you joined that company was for the prestige or popularity, you’re screwed.
I used to think that other people were keeping score for me. I thought they were watching and I had to keep moving up and doing more to keep up. But no one is watching that closely. Your job trajectory will deeply affect the person you become. Every opportunity is the chance to build connection with others, learn about yourself, and build your life one brick at a time. If you join a team that brings out the best in you, you grow. If it brings out the worst in you, you’re setting yourself back.
Always go after what you deserve. If you find yourself in a bad situation, don’t whine about it. Get the data you need to make a better decision next time. You can always learn something from other people — from good and not so good relationships alike.
This is an incredible cliché for a reason. Most of your career and mobility will be determined by your relationships. If you accept this empirically, you’ll invest a lot more in your connections.
Even if you’re an introvert, there are things you can do to forge strong bonds. It all comes down to emotional intelligence, which, in my opinion, has the following components:
Empathy: This has been especially critical at Uber with such a diverse team spread out around the world. You have to go the extra step to put yourself in someone’s shoes, think through their personal motivations, wants and needs, and respond to them on that basis.
Long-term view: The best relationships are long-term ones where you can both give back to each other many times. Don’t sacrifice relationships for short-term gains. It’s never worth it. Assume you’re going to run into everyone again and again. You’d probably be kinder, more understanding, more likely to invest in getting to know them.
Know the stakes: The people who are closest to you end up heavily influencing your work, the way you behave, your family life, your potential. Given all this, would you associate with different people? Try to form more positive bonds with your colleagues?
Find out what people love: It might not even be work related, but everyone adores something. Their dog, skiing, solving hard problems, a good Scotch. Find out this answer for as many people as you can and always be on the lookout to send them an article, give them a gift, pass onto them an opportunity that touches this part of their heart. This will make you memorable and indispensable.
Be selfless: Generously forge connections between others. Unblock others so they can have the glory. They won’t forget it. This will give your team a chance to shine and the motivation they need to take it to the next level. At the end of the day, you can work to make yourself more successful or you can work to make your team (including you) and the product more successful. It seems like a no-brainer.
Don’t be intimidated: Networking events can be scary and seem contrived, especially if you’re an introvert. Don’t give into this fear. Just go and talk about anything — a good restaurant you went to lately, your upcoming vacation, a TV show. Good networking is all about finding commonalities and then leaning into them. If you don’t connect with one person, shake it off and move on. It costs you nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever I meet someone at an event or through work, I always follow up with an email about how nice it was to meet them and a thoughtful mention of something we discussed. I also connect with them on social media and make a point of commenting on their shares — but only because I genuinely care. It’s one of the easiest ways to deepen your connection with someone. Today, I have close friends I’ve only met once or twice in real life because we made a meaningful connection when we first met, and every subsequent encounter nurtured that bond. Who has time for superficial interaction anyway? And where is the fun in that?
There have been times when these people helped me a ton in my career and times when I was the one who helped them. I know most of my professional connections on a personal level; because when you spend that much time together, why not?
Lots of people are out there meeting people, adding them on LinkedIn, and moving on. Very few nurture these bonds on a regular basis. Core to this is inspiring people to trust and share with you. Whenever I start working with a team member, I tell them upfront that they can share anything they feel comfortable sharing and it will go no further. And because I have their success at heart, I’ll be on their side, no judgment.
A while ago, one of my engineers and I went on a walk — our weekly one-on-one ritual. Halfway through our loop around SOMA, he apologized for being repeatedly late to our daily stand-up meeting. I asked him why he thought this had become a chronic problem, and he explained that he was going to bed late every night to handle his workload. Together, we were able to find a more efficient way for him to get this work done. If he hadn’t felt comfortable sharing this in the first place, he would have burnt out and probably left.
If people suspect that confiding in you will actually impact your opinion, or their performance review, or word of mouth about them within the company, you’re not doing a good job as a leader. People do their best work when they feel they have a safe space where they can be human; they can be vulnerable and allow for space to go beyond their comfort zone and, as a result, grow. If they don’t have this, they complain outside of work, their dissatisfaction amplifies, and it’s a negative feedback loop.
When you become a confidante in the office, and prove that you won’t share information and there won’t be any negative ramifications to sharing, people will want to help you too. They’ll want to listen to you. They’ll advocate for you. Because having that safety is invaluable.
Gossip is the ultimate enemy of efficiency. It’s toxic, sucks value out of relationships, and only creates problems. And not just small scale problems — big, pernicious, long-lasting problems like fear, insecurity, grudges, and burnt bridges. If you’re a leader, you need to never gossip. If you see gossip happening, you have to nip it in the bud, or force whoever it is to be more transparent and share their complaints openly.
It only takes one time to break someone’s trust permanently. You say one thing and it’s out there in the air, floating away, no way to recover it. So just don’t. Everyone you work with needs to know they have nothing to lose by telling you what’s important to them.
Working at a startup is going to be a hard knock-down fight every day. But the best work isn’t going to be born out of suffering. You have to find, vocalize, and rally positivity that stems from doing something difficult together. At Uber, I led a team of product managers and engineers, and this was my objective. It was me and my team against the world. But how can you do this?
Identify the people on your team who are fighters and survivors. They’ve been through projects that have failed. They’ve had work thrown out. They’ve made it through massive scaling efforts and came out productive on the other side. Make them your lieutenants and role models. They’ll help foster a culture of hustle and grit and inspire the rest of the team to keep pushing through.
Be generous with small words of encouragement. Don’t reserve praise for the big wins. Try to give everyone a pat on the back as often as you possibly can. It makes a massive difference. And it often takes over-communicating for someone to even hear you once.
If you need to tell someone they’re sucking, just do it. Don’t sentence them to death by a thousand cuts. Don’t talk around it. Just rip that band-aid off so you can immediately shift gears into what they can realistically do to improve; and quite frankly, I expect and seek the same in return. If you hedge and don’t tell them the truth upfront, you’re going to sap their energy. If you’re direct and honest, you have a much better shot of giving them the momentum to work harder.
Call out people’s strengths early, often and in public. People will lean into the most rewarding reinforcement they get. This is often more effective than giving negative feedback — and other people on the team will seek mentorship from them in those areas.
Find your team’s battle cry. At Uber, there was this value of flawless execution and ruthless pragmatism — the idea that everything had to be done right because we needed to move fast and had limited chances to nail it. This ended up bringing out the best in everyone given who the culture attracted. It could be different for your team, but the ideal battle cry acknowledges the struggle and the badass mentality it takes to thrive in it.
Pay your mentorship forward. Don’t expect nor ask people to do anything in return for you. Tell them the best way to thank you is to mentor someone else. Many people took a chance on me, so I’ve taken a chance on others. Just the other day, I got an email from a woman who interned with my group saying I gave her her first product role when no one else would. That’s impactful for the company in the long-run. You’re much more likely to build a strong team if you incentivize people to give their knowledge away.
Everything you’re doing today will influence how capable and resilient and happy you are two jobs from now. How you react to every success and failure will build your tool set to handle future challenges and problems. There’s one truth you can accept to set yourself up for success: life and work are cyclical. There’s no stopping it or working against it.
You’ve got to truly enjoy the highs when you experience them, and make sure you capture their essence — for me, that means having a deep sense of gratitude in and for those moments, and taking pictures every chance I get. Likewise, you’ve got to remember that the lows won’t last for long, and that a new high will quickly follow. If you keep that in mind, and surround yourself with people you love and trust, you’ll be able to weather the worst of times.
Being gritty is a lot like working out. When you start, it’s all pain and struggle. Then you have a breakthrough and get into the zone. You start really enjoying it, so you up the ante — and you inevitably crash. In writing, also, you might get into a euphoric groove where everything is just flowing, then abruptly, you hit a wall. In both cases, in order to be truly great, you have to have the wherewithal and skills to push through.
In tech, everyone talks about how it’s going to be hard. It’s going to require grit and tears and late nights and panic attacks, and all the rest. It’s glorified. But then when it actually happens, people are still surprised. They didn’t think it would be THAT hard.
The best tactic for surviving it? Know that there will be times when you learn more, times when you give more, times when you need to take on more. Don’t beat yourself up about learning and taking. Know it’s not permanent and that you’ll give back when you can. The ultimate job is the one where you learn as much as you contribute. You’re challenged every day and able to teach others too. You can strive for this balance, as long as you know it’s rare.
If you stay on this road, you’ll build the right set of skills for that next job, and the job after that. Just keep building your empire — and don’t apologize.
Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills.