Jessamyn Lau, a high school drop-out turned art student turned MBA, speaks about her philosophy of risk-taking and her confidence in being a daughter of God. Jessamyn’s non-traditional career path has led her from waitressing to teaching in China and now to building the field of social entrepreneurship. She’s proof that calculated risks can pay off. Her advice? Be bold. Be deliberate. Be prayerful. And try getting a mohawk.
I was born in Islington, London, and spent my childhood just outside London in a town called Chelmsford. My mother is from the north of England and my father is Chinese, from Malaysia. I’m the oldest of three siblings, and second-generation LDS on my father’s side, and third on my mother’s side.
You dropped out of high school? What happened?
I was 16 years old. I remember sitting in my chemistry class realising that I was struggling in classes I had previously enjoyed. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, but I knew that what I was doing wasn’t working. I officially dropped out of high school that week. I got a job as a waitress, and went clubbing multiple nights every week. Quite understandably, I had many people taking me aside telling me I was ruining my life.
I think people thought I was going off the rails and rebelling, but that wasn’t really it. I never drank, did drugs or got serious with any boys. I was consistently attending church. I just went out a lot, wore short skirts, loved dancing and came home late after driving my friends home.
Six months after dropping out of high school, I started a vocational course at a local community college and had the best two years of education I’ve ever experienced.
How did college foster your sense of creativity?
At the community college I was studying art and design. As far as I remember, that was the first time a teacher left me with unanswered questions that only I could answer. One teacher in particular would leave me with tricky questions—about my work, motivation, and intentions—that I would grapple with over days, if not weeks.
I developed an abstract expressionist painting style, painting massive mixed media paintings that involved a lot of movement in the paint. I’d paint with ink, house paint, grout, powder paint, bitumen—anything I could get my hands on. My favorite painting from that time is still in my parents’ garage. It’s a 5’x7’ monochrome painting depicting flight.
I’m an advocate of community college done well. I don’t think we’re all cut out for or immediately ready for the university experience. I really needed those two years at community college before university.
Are you still an artist?
I’m convinced that everyone is an artist in some way or another. In some aspects of my work today I feel more creative than I did in art school. I’m trying to maintain a healthy appreciation of mistakes and be consistently willing to see what happens when I just play. I think that gets harder with age, so it has to be more of a deliberate decision.
Tell us about your philosophy on risk-taking.
In art school I got a mohawk haircut. Over time, a mohawk came to represent any decision that was risky but had an aspect of impermanence, and helped me become more of who I wanted to be.
To some degree, I think risk-taking is in my blood. I never deliberately decided to be risky, but I was lucky that my parents gave me the space to exercise my will from a young age. Now I see the amazing growth that followed those “mohawks.” I try to be deliberate and purposeful in doing things that will push me out of my comfort zone—what that looks like has changed with time. I’m a mohawk junkie. I love change and get a little antsy when there aren’t major changes in my life for a year or so.
What was your first thought when you got your mohawk?
During the haircut I remember feeling a twinge of panic, but I trusted the hairdresser implicitly, so I knew I was in good hands. It wasn’t punk or extremely spikey or anything, yet still a big change at the time. My poor parents thought I’d lost my mind when I cut my hair. I loved the change. Once it was finished it felt liberating to have my outsides reflect more of how I felt inside—something that both consciously and subconsciously continues for me.
Tell us about a significant metaphorical “mohawk” experience in your life.
One spring I was considering what was next for me. I knew I needed a new challenge and direction. I was stuck in a bit of a rut. I wasn’t sure if it should be a new job or going back to school or a new location. I was on a road trip with two new friends. During the seven-hour journey they recounted stories of life in Beijing, where they had recently lived for a few years. I had never been to China, knew no one there, and didn’t speak any Mandarin, but there was something about their stories that told me it was the kind of place I would relish at that point in life. By the time I got out of the car I was 90% sure I needed to move to Beijing.
I took time to think about it. I knew my parents and many friends would think I was crazy, so I needed to confirm it was a good decision. I continued to feel calm and peaceful about the decision. When I returned home, a week later, I started looking for a job in Beijing and making plans to move out there.
It was a nerve-wracking move because I didn’t know what life would be like there, if I’d find friends or like my job. Many people leave China a couple of weeks or months after arriving, as it can feel like a big culture shock. I wondered if I would want to stay or leave once I knew what my life would be like there. After a couple of nervous days when I initially arrived there I met friends, found I enjoyed my work, and discovered I loved living in Beijing. When I focus on what there is to love and discover about a new place—rather than what I miss or can’t get from the last place I lived—I integrate and settle in to a new home very quickly. My year in Beijing was one of the most exhilarating, challenging, enlightening experiences of my life. I will always be glad I made that decision.
What are some other “mohawks” in your life?
Applying to business school and getting an MBA certainly felt like a risky decision. I was a Fine Art undergrad, hadn’t taken a maths class since I had dropped out of high school, and had never taken a finance or accounting class.
And then more recently what I’ve viewed as a risk, most wouldn’t—I’ve lived in the same town working for the same employer more than four years now. For someone who doesn’t usually stay put for more than twelve to eighteen months, this has often been uncomfortable and has taken some deliberate decision-making. Maybe change is on the horizon, I’m not sure, but for now I’m proud of being able to do something I couldn’t previously—something that has stretched me and taught me how to put down roots to some degree.
So putting down roots has been a deliberate decision?
The work I’ve been involved with the Peery Foundation has been so engaging and varied that it’s been worth it to me to stay here to keep learning and growing in this role. Palo Alto is a very easy place to live, too. The two wards I’ve been in here (Stanford 2nd and Palo Alto 2nd) both have many fascinating, globally minded, ambitious people who take the time to figure out how to live the Gospel in their own authentic way. I particularly appreciate the Stake leadership here, who are very open to new ideas and often solicit feedback and solutions from the membership.
I still feel the itch and crave the discovery and unfamiliarity at the beginning of a brand new chapter. However, staying still geographically and professionally is a good thing for me to deliberately do right now, even though a little uncomfortable. I’ve learned to put down roots (to some extent) and contributed to building something beyond the exciting new phase. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve found there is another layer of learning that comes with time and prolonged engagement with a field, which is quite different to the intense learning curve of the brand new phase that I’m more accustomed to. I’m not sure I’ll ever be an expert in anything, but I’m enjoying building competency as a generalist.
How do you integrate Gospel principles in your decision-making?
When I have big decisions to make, or mohawks to consider, I pray for guidance and specifically for clarity and peace of mind around the right conclusion. At odd times during my days I’ll continue to silently chat with God about my options and any confusion that might accompany the process. Without fail, when the decision comes I always feel calm and sure about it. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel nervous about what that decision might entail, but I’m always given assurance that this is good for me and that I can follow through on it. Then I just try to hold on to that feeling.
I’m guided by a foundational confidence in being a daughter of God, and the fact that those around me share a divine heritage and capacity.
Also, I have the privilege of working almost exclusively with people of faith (no matter their religion or philosophy on life), who believe not only in their own capacity to change the world for the better, but also unfalteringly in the value of other people and the power that comes when we work in unity to overcome huge challenges and injustice. True social entrepreneurs are some of the most faith-filled humans I know of.
What are some of the personal things you have learned about yourself in each of your life changes?
I’ve learned that boldness enacted from a place of peace can be good. I’ve learned that people are essentially good and giving, all over the world and in all walks of life. I’ve learned that we humans are highly adaptable when it comes to unfamiliar or new situations. I’ve learned to say no as much as I say yes. I’ve learned that we are co-creators of ourselves, with God. We each have enormous capacity for growth and progress. Maybe we have more control and power over how that growth happens than we might realise. I think that’s what I’ve got a sense of when looking back at one of my mohawks—seeing the involvement I had in deliberately choosing growth that was shaped and polished by God. Using agency to create something good and better out of yourself is a fantastic feeling.
What advice would you give to women looking to make small or big changes in their life?
Cultivate self-awareness, particularly around understanding your current and potential capacity. This is paramount to growth, in my limited experience. Sometimes other people can build you up and reassure you, but ultimately one of our greatest powers is in embracing our unique opportunity to grow and become much more than we currently are.
Why do you think many people are risk-averse?
Generally, people don’t like ambiguity or the unknown. When we don’t take risks, we essentially limit our exposure to the unknown—and often to growth. It doesn’t have to be a big risk; you can start small, doing something where you’re not quite sure what the outcome will be. It could be simple, like drawing a picture on a blank sheet of paper, starting a conversation with a stranger, ordering a dish you’ve never tried, or adding something new to your wardrobe. Then listen to your body and your mind’s reaction. How does the process feel? What do you think about the outcome? What did you learn about yourself? Does it make you a better person towards those around you? What do you want to try next?
How do you refuel your creative energy?
It might sound silly, but first and foremost through sleep. I’m useless at many things without a good night’s sleep, but lack of sleep especially affects my creativity. Also, when I need a break from some sort of creative activity, I like to do more mundane, process-oriented activities, like cooking, assembling furniture, house projects, and paying bills. There can be something therapeutic and beautiful about process and repetition when your creative juices are exhausted.
At A Glance
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Program Leader, Peery Foundation
Schools Attended: BYU, Byam Shaw School of Art, Braintree College
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Be Still My Soul”
On The Web: Jessamyn’s TED Talk
Interview by Kathryn Peterson. Photos used with permission.