New York Huskies

Why there’s never been a better time to drop the ball

Tiffany DufuNew York Husky Tiffany Dufu, ’96, is the author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less and the founder and CEO of The Cru, a platform that helps women find a circle of peer mentors. Through The Cru, Tiffany matches women with a close group of collaborators who offer inspiration and accountability for meeting goals and facing challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Cru gatherings online but also opened the door for a nationwide expansion of their services. Tiffany’s resilience, wisdom and insights into managing life’s twists and turns are more relevant than ever.

People who don’t know you might be surprised to learn you already know the words that will be written on your tombstone. What are they? The exact quote is going to be, “she got to as many women as she could.” My life’s work is advancing women and girls. That’s pretty much why I’m on the planet. Now, I’m just kind of project managing my life backwards. If you can get to a point in your life where you’re clear about why you’re here it makes life a lot simpler.

Getting that kind of clarity can be challenging, where do you start? I want to demystify this idea of finding your purpose. I don’t know anyone who was walking down the street and heard the voice of God say to them, “you’re here to save the orca whales.” It’d be really cool, but that’s not how it happens. Purpose is simply a commitment to the way you want to create impact in the world that’s inspired by experience. Each and every one of us have experiences that can ladder up to a lot of different purposes.

There are a couple of exercises I encourage people to do if they don’t have any idea where to start. One of those is the funeral visualization exercise made popular by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You fast forward into the future, the end of your life and think about what you’d want a family member, a co-worker and a friend to say about you at the end of your journey. It’s a mechanism that forces us to get out of the trees and see the forest around us, to think about the legacy we really want to leave.

Another great exercise I encourage people to do is to ask multiple people in your life – preferably people who have known you in many different contexts at many different times – about a time in your life when they saw you at your best.  Ask a lot of people and you’ll start finding words and phrases that are the same. People who have been with you since you were in kindergarten can really help you determine or distinguish the through line of your life.

2020 is throwing us a lot of curveballs, can those help you gain clarity? I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m pretty certain that planning is not as useful as we make it out to be. I remember, when my husband and I were students at the University of Washington, we started off with a plan for the way our life was going to go. I was going to get my master’s degree from the UW and he was going to get an MBA. We thought, he’s going to go into finance and we’re going to use the money from his big finance job to pay off our student loans. And then the 2008 curveball hits. His whole industry crumbles.

That’s why I believe compass questions are really important. It’s something I write about in my book. They’re a set of questions we ask ourselves when we hit a crossroad. Questions like, will moving in this direction put us on a path to financial freedom, is it in alignment with the values our parents instilled in us? If we choose this option, will it advance women and girls, which is what I care deeply about or will it advance Sub-Saharan Africa, which is what he cares deeply about. One final question is always, if we choose this, will it make our descendants proud?

Those questions give you a way to gauge that you’re on the right path. When I graduated from the UW, I could have never told you that I’d be living in New York City or the author of a best-selling book or that I would have two beautiful children or be the founder of a technology start up. But I could have told you that I would be advancing women and girls. When the curveballs come, your compass questions let you know you’re still grounded in something.

Do you think the involuntary slowdown of the pandemic has made people more comfortable with dropping the ball? No one is ever comfortable with the concept of dropping the ball. For most people it’s a terrible thing to do with a lot of negative connotations. I wrote the book because I was a person who was terrified of ever dropping a ball but what happened to me is what’s happening to a lot of people now. You come to a point in your life where there is some external force that causes you to drop balls left and right. For me, it was the birth of my first child. For many people right now, it’s the crisis we’re in.

After it happened I had what I call one of my Tiffany epiphanies, some people might call them “aha moments.” Once all the balls were rolling all over the floor, Armageddon never hit. All the things I thought would happen if I ever dropped the ball didn’t happen. No one called to tell me they didn’t love me anymore, I didn’t get fired, no one came to arrest me for unpaid parking tickets.

This philosophy is really about letting go of unrealistic expectations. It’s a wonderful time to adopt this philosophy because you can’t keep it all in the air right now anyway so you might as well forgive yourself. When I dropped the ball, it was a process of realizing that my expectations weren’t really coming from me anyway. I wasn’t the source of them and it was okay to let things go.

In your book, you talk a lot about how the work of marginalized people can be invisible; is the pandemic making that problem worse? What I talk about in the book is called the myth of meritocracy. It’s the idea that people who are the most successful are the people who worked the hardest. When we’re in school, often that strategy works. You go to class, you participate in the discussions, you read the books, you get good grades, and you’re a successful student. Then we get to the workplace and realize there’s this thing called politics. We have to acknowledge that part of your job is to ensure that your performance matters. What you do is far less important than the difference you make and other people have to know what that difference is.

Right now, I encourage people to be more explicit about what they’re working on and to message that in meetings with other people. Make sure your projects are populated in your team’s project management tools. If your boss is trying to foster teamwork with a random Slack channel with pictures of dogs or cats, post there. Be visible, let people know that you’re present and accounted for. When you get on that Zoom meeting, you’ve got to think in advance about what your contribution is going to be and how your voice is going to be heard. Use video meeting tools to communicate your brand and who you are in a way that going into an office doesn’t allow you to. You can control what’s behind you, you can wear a brightly colored top if you want to exude joy. Bringing that larger vision of ourselves to the table is one way to be visible.

What can people in positions of power and privilege do to make sure the work of marginalized people isn’t invisible? First, really dig deep into your own power and privilege. All of us have aspects of power and privilege. I am Black and I have certainly experienced racism in my life. I am a woman and I have experienced sexism in my life. But I’m also a straight person who has never had to worry about bringing my husband to an office holiday party. I’m an able bodied person. I wear a size two in a culture that glorifies that. When I walk into a room, people make assumptions about my health and fitness and work ethic based on my dress size. I have fertility privilege. I mean, I have so many privileges so I have to understand how the decisions I make might impose on someone else.

My favorite definition of leadership comes from Marshall Ganz. He says that leadership is enabling other people to achieve a shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Right now, we are at a moment where leadership is less about strategy and much more about trust, about whether or not people even believe what you say. Understanding your own relationship to power and privilege is incredibly important because without that you aren’t going to create a culture that is inclusive. You’re not going to be able to harness the power of diversity in order to innovate new solutions.

What is a “Cru?” How does it help women succeed and keep from being invisible? I believe very strongly that none of us is supposed to be doing any of this by ourselves. Having a peer group of individuals who know what your ambitions are and are helping you create a plan and holding you accountable to that plan is very important. I founded The Cru because it became very clear to me that not enough women had that.

Everyone probably has what I call a village, even if they don’t call it that. Everyone from your auntie and grandma to maybe the people in the church you grew up in, the teachers you had, the kids you went to camp with. This large ecosystem of people who feel like they’re invested in you and have been part of your journey.

A Cru is a much more strategic, smaller group of people – 10 is kind of the max – who are peers. A Cru is objective, meaning that they care about you but aren’t invested in your decision making, they don’t have a stake in your decision. A Cru offers accountability. You should be meeting with your Cru on some kind of consistent basis and before you get together with them, you think, “did I finish that book” or “did I ask for that promotion” because you know they are going to ask you about it. The third critical aspect is diversity. If you all went to the same high school, have the same color hair, skin and eyes, you don’t have enough perspectives that will really help you think differently as the curveballs come your way. I think the reason why it’s those three aspects that are so important is because they’re often the things that are missing in our other social circles.

Why is mentorship important to you? One of my mentors, a woman named Marie C. Wilson who built the Ms. Foundation for Women and started Take our Daughters to Work Day, used to say something to me often. She said it when I would be frustrated with her calendar and the fact she had so many meetings. All these meetings with lots of young women who were not going to necessarily help our organization. She would say, “Tiffany, you have to understand that you’re doing all this stuff to get to the top but if you don’t send the elevator back down, it’s going to get really lonely up there.” That’s why mentorship is important to me, because it’s sending the elevator back down so you’re not the only one up there.

What makes a good mentor-mentee relationship? Mentorship is a relationship in which someone helps you achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement. It’s best if they have some insight into you, if you’ve been working with this person in a longer term relationship. Someone who knows you can reiterate your patterns back to you.

I’ve learned the most about how to be an effective mentee by being a mentor myself. In fact, when someone tells me they don’t have a mentor, the first question I ask them is, who are you mentoring? That experience of investing in someone else teaches you what works and what doesn’t. It teaches you how to drive the relationship and get buy-in on the cadence, the strategy and the questions of your meetings.

What’s next for you? I’m here to serve and right now I’m of service largely through The Cru. Now, no matter where you live, you can apply and I’ll help you find your Cru. If there’s anything I can do, especially to support another Husky, I’m here. There are a lot of people who opened doors for me. You know, I didn’t have parents who could make introductions for me or expend their social and economic and political capital on me but there were people who did. I’m here because I’m a Husky and I really want to make sure I’m giving back to the community. You can always reach me at or on LinkedIn.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.