We’re heading to San Francisco this September and we wanted to profile five women doing incredible things in the San Francisco/Oakland community. This series, SF LEADERS, will celebrate the work of trailblazing women and showcase how they’ve inspired others in their community and ours. The fifth woman in this series is Rachel Khong, Author, Editor & Co-Founder of The Ruby.
1. What does being a good leader mean to you?
People think about leaders as those who have ‘the vision,’ but ‘having a vision’ can be vastly overrated, and means nothing ultimately, if you’re a jerk. There’s a problematic glamour surrounding the ‘visionary jerk,’ and I hope it goes away. Good leaders are more than visionaries: they’re adaptable and they’re decent. They’re good listeners and they’re empathetic. They really try to understand where you’re coming from. They know how to bring out the best in you, and they’re supportive: they give you credit for what you’ve done.
2. For you personally, have you found that leadership is innate, learned, or both?
Both! I’m a pretty introverted person and even hearing myself talk confidently out loud doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve had to learn to communicate and better articulate what I’m thinking; it’s something I’m still learning to do.
3. What is some advice that has has helped you get to where you are?
Once upon a time in 2012, I interviewed the writer Elizabeth Gilbert. We talked about writing, sexism, and creativity, which she is incredibly wise about (check out her TED talk about those topics). The last thing Liz said to me was: ‘I wish you luck, and stubbornness, and the absence of the need for a permission slip from anybody. Just go fucking do it.’
Also, my favorite character on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Latrice Royale, has three rules for how to get through life. She says, ‘Get up, look sickening'—which in drag queen parlance means ‘awesome’—'and make them eat it.’ That’s what you gotta do.‘ I stand by that advice: Get up, look sickening, and make them eat it.
4. What do you admire most in others?
Authenticity, diligence, creativity, and joy. I admire people who don’t give a damn about external markers of success, like fame or money—people who do what they do simply because they love it.
5. How do you balance drive and ambition with gratitude and being happy with where you’re at?
I try to remember that life changes no matter what, whether you like it or not. Happiness isn’t permanent and neither is unhappiness. This is both heartbreaking and liberating.
My tendency, for most of my life, has been to be very excited for the next thing. In high school, I couldn’t wait for college. In college, I couldn’t wait for adult life. As an 'adult’ (in quotes!), I thought grad school was a good idea. These days, I’m trying to live more in the present—to notice, every day, the things I’m grateful for, instead of looking constantly toward the next new adventure. My first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, came out this past July, and that was a lifelong dream come true. So I’ve been trying to just exist, and be happy about it. But, already I can’t wait for my next project, which is actually a business. Along with my friend and former Lucky Peach coworker, Aralyn Beaumont, we’re opening a coworking space and social club for women in San Francisco. We’re calling it The Ruby. Running a business, I’m finding, is a totally new set of challenges and responsibilities. But I’m up for them and, yes, even looking forward to them!
6. How do you measure success?
Climbing into bed exhausted!
7. What are you still working on that you haven’t quite nailed yet?
8. What are three things in life you need in order to thrive?
Books, noodle soups, and airplane mode.
9. Words you live by?
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” —Octavia Butler
10. Wisdom for other women striving to be leaders in life?