On my desk beside me as I write this book are two items: a ten-year anniversary award from Apple, and my branch of the family book that holds the last five hundred years of the names of Cao ancestors. Those two items define where I am professionally at present and where I came from personally, rooted hundreds of years ago.
The Apple award reads:
Your 10-year award is made from the same 6000 series aluminum that we use to make our products. Remnants from the production process are collected and reformulated to create a 100 percent recycled, custom alloy. The alloy is cast into long ingots, then each ingot is sliced into blocks that are machined to finished size. The surface is fine blasted and the edges are diamond-cut. The block is then anodized to seal the finish and create a protective layer. Finally, a stainless steel Apple logo is set into the center.
This special metal block reminds me of my current professional mission—to build the most excellent products that enrich people’s lives, in one of the best companies in the technology world. The company culture of innovation, thinking differently, taking risks, and executing with determination has influenced me deeply and aligns with my personal values.
But this book is not about my career or technology, and it doesn’t contain any stories about Apple. Those stories are not mine to tell. This legendary company headquartered in Silicon Valley is the platform I choose to work for. It’s a place where I have the privilege to work with many brilliant people who are also obsessed with details, seeking perfection, pushing limits, and proudly shipping products to people’s hands to bring joy to their lives. I remind myself daily to deserve and add value to it.
The cover of the Cao family book proudly displays the emblem for our branch, which includes dragons and symbols for balance, harmony, and the fierce spirit. That’s used as the icon for my maiden name, Cao, on the front cover of this book. That book is not just “another book,” and that emblem is not just for aesthetics. I have fought for a lot of things in my life, and I’ve done so with the values reflected in that emblem. It is a way of being, a reminder that during challenging times in our lives, we can draw strength from our roots, from the faith and values that have sustained generations before us.
The first page of the Cao family book reads as follows:
Ancestors to human beings are like water has its source, and wood has its origin.
Since the Cao family surname was given, there were two ancestry trees. One was given to ancient Chinese states in Xia Dynasty, who started the ancestry tree for all Miao descendants. The second was given to everyone in a country started by Cao, (Shu) ZhenDuo.
The first ancestor of our tree branch, Zhijia Cao, was the 71st generation of the Cao family. During the JiaJing period of the Ming Dynasty (1522–1566), he moved to 18 miles southwest of Liangbao Temple and started a village called the Cao Village. His descendants have been living there since then. Our family ancestry book has recorded the last 20 generations for nearly 500 years (from 71st generation to 91st generation). Last revision on March 26, 2016.
The book I got only contains my dad’s branch of ancestors. He is the eighty-sixth generation of the Cao family, and I am the eighty-seventh generation. Sometimes I read the names in the book, run my fingers across the letters, and think about how they lived their lives in the last five hundred years. Many people left Cao village, including Dad, yet they kept writing back to the village to ensure their names and their descendants’ names were recorded in the family book. This book reminds me of my roots and who I really am.
Who am I though? For the first thirty years of my life, I never asked myself that question. I was born in 1976, the year of the dragon. I’ve got fire in me, and that fire burns me to persevere in chasing bright lights in my life.
Where is that perseverance coming from? I didn’t know for a long time; I just knew that I had it, and with that, nothing could beat me in life. Still, I kept looking for answers. Dad told me that I got it from my blood, which comes with that unyielding nature. But I think it’s also through the heritage, the stories I have been told, and what I’ve learned and observed from my parents. Their perseverance is clear—but where does that come from? I believe the answer is previous generations of stories and the characters of our ancestors. If I look back to Chinese mythologies, there are stories passed down to all generations of Chinese that reveal a perseverance and unyielding nature that is built in us.
“The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains” (愚公移山) is a well-known fable from Chinese mythology about the virtues of perseverance and willpower. In it, a ninety-year-old man is annoyed by the obstruction caused by the mountains. As a remedy, he seeks to dig through the mountains[BB2] with hoes and baskets, one round trip at a time. The foolish old man believes that even though he may not finish this task in his lifetime, through the hard work of himself, his children, and their children—and so on through the many generations—someday the mountains will be removed if he perseveres.
“Jingwei Fills the Sea” (精卫填海) tells a story of a girl who drowns in the sea and is resurrected into a bird. She is determined to fill up the sea so no one else suffers the same fate. To do this, she continuously carries a pebble or twig in her mouth and drops it into the sea, one at a time. The sea scoffs at her, saying that she won’t be able to fill it up even in a million years. She retorts that she will spend ten million years, even one hundred million years…whatever it takes to fill up the sea so that others will not have to perish as she did.
Those are just two stories in Chinese mythology that are passed down from thousands of years ago. Leaving the plot aside, the core of the stories is clear: resistance and perseverance. The stories from my parents showed me their resistance and perseverance. My mom fought for her right to education relentlessly—starting at eleven and finishing at forty-five with her college degree and continued education—regardless of the hardships she faced along the way, including poverty and, at times, near starvation. For my Dad, ever since he was a young boy, he actively pursued opportunities for personal growth and development, even in the face of wars, famine, and political turmoil. He remained resolute in his quest for a better life, continuously striving to create a more prosperous environment for future generations to thrive in. My best friend growing up, Dongmei, also embodied these qualities. Before she passed away at age eleven from a lung disease and complications of poverty, she still smiled and said, “As long as I can keep breathing, I can keep writing.”
As written in the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text from around 400 BC, “Heaven and the Earth are not benevolent; they see all creatures as mere straw dogs.” (天地不仁，以万物为刍狗) This means that the universe itself is not benevolent, treating everything equally. To survive, you must rely on yourself, not others.
Looking back on my life, that resistance and perseverance were shown in every step of my own. I believe that I can lose, but I can’t give in. I’ve got a stubborn spirit of unyielding. I fight the fight I believe in, and I keep limping forward on the road I’ve chosen to be on, no matter how many bruises and scars I am left with. When I am told “no,” I make my own “yes.”
No, you won’t be admitted to college or study the major you want. Those are for “complete” talents, and you are disabled with polio.
So I went to college and completed a four-year degree in three years, aiming for more advanced education.
No, you can’t go abroad due to your disability. You need to be taken care of and stay where you belong.
So I went to the other side of the globe, a totally different country, limping forward to stand on my own.
No, you can’t possibly complete a PhD in one major and a master’s degree in a totally different area! Nobody has ever done that, and you will fail in both.
So I pursued a PhD in chemometrics and a master’s degree in computer science, completing both in three and a half years.
No, you can’t participate in sports or be an athlete, because of your polio leg!
So I completed a one-hundred-mile bike ride, racing against 50 mph wind for eleven and a half hours with the strength of one leg.
No, you can’t find your dream man to marry. You need to lower your expectations and settle for what you can get.
So I developed a scientific approach with machine-learning models for dating, found the man of my dreams after the eighty-second attempt, and married him…without lowering any of my expectations.
No, you can’t excel in Silicon Valley. It’s a man’s world.
So I became a high-tech executive at Apple, and I kept learning, growing, and leaping forward to my next set of goals…
The list goes on.
I heard from people what I couldn’t do, I limped forward and did all those things anyway, and I am not done yet. Those Nos and Can’ts may come from people who don’t believe in us—due to discrimination and/or biases—but they can also come from people who love and care for us…those who want to protect us from the cruel world. They want to warn us about the hard roads we are about to choose.
However, what really matters is how you want to live your life and deal with any consequences that come with those risky attempts. I choose to not select the easy routes. I choose to leap forward in a direction that allows me to control all my own destiny. I use all my strength to remove any obstacles in my way and keep going.
The Cao family history showed resilience over five hundred years. The high-tech award reminds me of over a decade of my own resilience. Looking back on all the lonely days and nights of fighting for something—for small progress or a big mission, even if others can’t see it—I can see that those moments are when resilience was forged.
In this book, I want to tell you stories of that resilience. Stories of my own, of my parents, and of my ancestors. I want to take you on a journey with me. We will travel in time, from several thousand years ago to modern times. We will travel to places across the globe, from a frigid forest tent in the northernmost point of China to a sunny boardroom in Silicon Valley, California. We will travel through different emotions: fear and bravery; sadness and joy; remorse and love; despair and pride.
I want to bring different perspectives that may impact how you see or understand this world, as many other people’s stories have changed mine. Our histories undoubtedly look different, as do our futures. But once we have walked this stretch of path together, my hope is that those memories and experiences can offer you the different perspectives[BB3] you need to feel relieved, get unstuck, and build the courage to keep moving again. If you ever feel like you are limping through life, you are not alone.
I also hope to build communication bridges through my points of view. For some bridges, I can only stand on one side with my own identities: Asian; disabled; woman; wife; high-tech professional… For other bridges, I belong to both sides: Chinese and American; mother and daughter; ancient and modern; poor and wealthy; defeated and successful… Through my own identities and the diverse life I’ve lived, I hope to remove some discrimination and biases in this world. You should see in me—like you may see in others—that we are all the same beings, grappling with human nature’s complexities. The more we explore those complexities, the more we can see each other for who we really are.
Now if you are ready, let’s start my story from the very beginning.
 Cao, (Shu) ZhenDuo (曹叔振铎 ?–?) was the sixth son of King “Wen of Zhou” (周文王), who reigned from about 1041 BC to 1016 BC, and the second brother of King “Wu of Zhou” (周武王).
 Translated into English here from ancient Chinese language.