In the 10 years since I graduated from college, I’ve had the same conversation hundreds of times:
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m an engineer/a lawyer/a pharmacist/an analyst at [insert name of large bank here].”
“Oh, cool! Do you like it?”
[shrug] “It’s work.”
“Not really, but… I guess it’s okay for now….”
Or maybe just:
I’ve had this conversation so many times that I feel like this problem is epidemic: So many Asian Americans I know have great jobs. So few of them enjoy their work.
I’ve dubbed this the Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis: intelligent and hard-working twenty- and thirtysomethings in stable, well-paying jobs that they detest but don’t leave.
If the conversation continues (and often it doesn’t, because the other person is depressed by it or just doesn’t want to talk about it), the reasons for staying in the job are sometimes predictable. “It pays the bills.” “The economy is crap.” But what I hear most often is this: “I don’t know what else I would do.”
Working a job that you don’t like isn’t unique to Asian Americans, obviously — it’s a problem so common that complaining about it is cliche. But I think this issue is especially pervasive in Asian American communities. For one, Asian cultures tend to be risk-averse, to value knowing your place and not rocking the boat. On top of that, our parents came to this country for the sake of financial security and stability, and they inculcated us with the same values. Most of us have been raised to think about our futures for as long as we can remember. It starts with math workbooks. Gifted summer camps. Endless SAT prep. All for the sake of fabulous college applications, which lead us to the best universities. The best internships. The best (read: most lucrative, most prestigious, most stable) careers, which usually fall somewhere in the vicinity of medicine, law, engineering, and (corporate) business.
In midst of all this striving for the best, there’s little to no attention paid to what we might actually enjoy. That would be indulgent, if not completely unheard of. There’s little concern in Asian cultures for personal strengths and weaknesses; there’s no such thing as someone who’s “not a math person” or “not a science person,” because excellence in any area can be attained through hard work. There’s nothing that can’t be achieved through more repetitions or more discipline. Failure to excel at something is not attributed to our unique dispositions; it’s attributed solely to laziness or lack of effort, and that is unacceptable. As a result, we’re trained to excel at everything. We become excellent at jumping through hoops and knocking down any task that’s placed before us. That’s what we end up enjoying, at least while we’re in school. These are not terrible skills to have, mind you. But the flip side is that as we’re trained be great at everything, there’s very little attention paid to what among those things we actually like. Generally speaking, this is not on our parents’ radars at all, and as a result, it goes neglected on ours.
The result of all of this: a generation of Asian Americans who are excellent at achieving but have no idea what they want to do. (Or, if they do know, are reluctant to pursue it because it isn’t as stable or well-paid as their current jobs.) A generation that is incredibly successful but, professionally speaking, not terribly happy.
Not to say that there aren’t Asian Americans who, in the midst of racking up achievements, figured out and pursued what interested them. And there are certainly Asian parents who are exceptions to the rule, who are actually interested in what their children want to do and support them regardless. I have Asian American friends who are graphic designers, actors, community activists; who are rethinking math pedagogy for Teach for America and doing campus ministry; and yes, even a few who enjoy being doctors and programmers and brand managers. Their numbers, however, are dwarfed by the scores of Asian Americans I know who would be much happier in other fields — engineers who should be teachers and filmmakers, lawyers who should be writers, doctors who should be chefs. And, of course, those who have no idea what they should be doing.
Also, I’m not trying to invalidate or trivialize how difficult this quarter-life crisis is. It’s a crisis, after all, because there are significant pros and cons to all available options. But I can’t help but wonder what kind of creative, innovative projects and careers Asian Americans would tackle if they weren’t confined — psychologically, financially, or culturally — to jobs they didn’t enjoy. And how much happier and more fulfilled they might be as a result.
Of course, I draw not only from my peers’ experiences but also my own. I grew up as a little achieving machine. My parents weren’t just Asian immigrants; they were Asian immigrants who came here to get PhDs and went on to become professors, so education was paramount in our family. The value of education (and stability it would eventually bring me) was so strong that my mom didn’t even need to be a tiger mom; by elementary school, I had so deeply internalized it that she didn’t need to do anything to motivate me to achieve. In high school, I cleaned up across the board — not only in math and science, the stereotypically Asian subjects my parents taught, but also in English and social studies. I had to be the best at everything. There was no excuse not to be.
In the midst of all this achieving, I also figured out what I wanted to study: Oddly enough, the recurring refrain of “Why are you like that? Like, the way you are?” in My So-Called Life, which I watched obsessively in 7th grade, triggered an interest in psychology. My parents were down with this, because they expected a doctorate degree, and whether it was in medicine or psychology, I would have tangible career options. So I went off to college as a psych major. Meanwhile, my Asian American friends swarmed to engineering and premed classes, spending long days in the chem lab or long nights in the computer lab, which they almost universally loathed. I toiled with them for one semester, taking multivariable calculus and organic chemistry (“to challenge myself,” I said at the time, though in retrospect, I think I just had something to prove) before retiring from all things premed. For the next 3 years, I looked at my peers with a mix of pity and smugness. They mindlessly studied what their parents wanted them to study, but I was studying something I actually liked.
I kept this chip on my shoulder for years — until I found myself midway through a PhD program and seriously questioning if I wanted to be there. I found myself in the very position for which I had judged my peers: I was pursuing a secure, well-paying career that my parents wanted for me but I wasn’t sure I wanted. Meanwhile, the people in college I smirked at for their hapless pursuit of stable careers — they were no less happy than I was, but at least they were making great money. All I was doing was accruing debt.
All of this came to a head 4 years ago, when I started the full-time internship that made up my last year of grad school, and I realized that my worst fears had come true: I had spent 5 years in school for a career I didn’t want. I had endured more classes, papers, and exams than I could count; an exhausting master’s thesis and an even more grueling dissertation; countless hours stressing about clinical hours, data analyses, internship applications, and all the other work of grad school. I was getting my first taste of what my life in this field would be like — a life I spent years doggedly pursuing — and I didn’t like it.
I was also getting my first taste of what many of my peers had been experiencing for years. Working at a job you hate SUCKS. Like, REALLY sucks. Getting up in the morning is terrible, because you’re tired and you don’t want to go to the job you loathe, and then you’re there for 8 hours — the entire time the sun is out — if not longer, and you come home and you’re exhausted and you have no time or energy to do the things you actually want to do. And you have to do this AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN. And a respite comes on Friday, if you’re not too tired to enjoy it, and then Sunday comes too quickly and you sink into your weekly funk because you have to repeat the whole cycle AGAIN. It’s like being in hell. All I ever thought about that year was my next day off, when I could maybe sneak in a sick day and just sleep….
Meanwhile, the next hoop was being placed in front of me. Announcements for post-docs started flooding my inbox almost the minute my internship started — post-docs that my peers were applying for, interviewing for, getting. There was pressure all around me to swim with the current — but could I do it if I was so, you know, unhappy with what I was doing? Could I really sign up for more of the same?
I started peeling my fingers away, one by one. I held out for half-time post-docs, which are virtually nonexistent, thinking that maybe I could do what I was trained to do part-time and use the remaining time to pursue something I actually liked. The few half-time opportunities that materialized fizzled out quickly. In the end, I was left with a gift: I did not have a job in my field. Or any job, for that matter. I had no choice but to do something else — to maybe figure out what I really wanted to do. At 28, with a PhD in a field I didn’t want to work in, I was about to embark on the task I should have started 10 years before.
I took a very different tack this time around: Instead of setting a long-term goal and obstinately staying the course, no matter what data I collected along the way, I would look for jobs that interested me and try them. If I liked them, I would continue; if not, I would quit. And I would see what opportunities unfolded that way. After years of meticulously planning my professional life, this strategy — one that involved working forward and not backward, in which my future would be determined by opportunities that may or may not arise — was terrifying. But it was also thrilling — like stepping onto a tightrope without a 5-year plan to catch me. And, well, I had seen how my previous strategy played out. I didn’t think I could do much worse.
So, new game plan in hand, I started my job hunt. I got an adjunct professor position at my alma mater; aside from the absurd amounts of prep work and the occasional entitled student, I found that I really enjoyed teaching, and it was a much better fit for me than clinical work. Then a friend from college asked if I would be interested in working with high school students, which I had done in undergrad and was happy to take up again. That job also led to some consulting work, which I had never done before but turned out to be right up my alley. Thus I patched together a professional life, running from meeting to class to meeting — but, in a dramatic change from the previous year, I loved going to work. Each of my jobs felt meaningful, played to my strengths, and had far more awesome moments than terrible ones. I finally got a taste for what it was like to do work that was life-giving, and it was fantastic. On top of that, I found that my satisfaction at work trickled into every other area of my life; after a year of being a zombie, I was happy, well-rested, energetic. I felt alive again.
Then, a few months ago, we had to move for my husband’s job, and I found myself back at square one. As wonderful as youth work and teaching were, I didn’t feel a strong need to continue either one. So back I went to trying-and-seeing. Two of my professors from grad school offered me a job as a consultant, helping millennials figure out what they want to do with their lives. Given my experiences, both professional (therapy, assessment, working with students, consulting) and personal (knowing intimately how it felt to end up in the wrong career and to wonder what I was doing with my life), this felt like an excellent fit — and it was, for once, something I could see myself doing long-term. I had also wanted for years to write more seriously — a desire that I had struggled to acknowledge, fearing that it sounded pretentious, frivolous, or both — and it appeared that I now had time to give that a shot. But I also needed an income as I built up these lines of work, so I looked for yet another job. I applied to work at a few independent bookstores, something I had always thought would be fun but never had the chance to try. One took a chance and hired me, even though I was both incredibly overqualified and incredibly underqualified. So I find myself splitting my time between three different gigs yet again.
And lo and behold, I am happy, for the same reasons I was in my previous trifecta of employment. Obviously, the situation isn’t perfect: I spend every day shifting between very different tasks. At the moment, I make significantly less than my peers from grad school, who are now licensed psychologists, and pretty much everyone I went to college with. My resume makes no sense at all. I’m almost 31, and I’ve made only the slightest headway into a career I want to have. But for me, all of that pales in comparison to how it feels to be doing work that I actually enjoy. After years of jumping through hoops because it was all I knew how to do, of achieving for the sake of achieving, I’m finally doing work that I find meaningful. And it feels pretty awesome. In a sharp contrast to my previous way of living, I have no idea what my life will look like in 5 years — but I’m content and fulfilled right now, and that feels like a good trade-off.
Now, I’m not saying that what I did is the right thing to do and that every Asian American who’s unhappy with their job should leave it immediately. I am lucky to have no student loans or house payments or children to support, to have a husband who is entirely supportive and as eager to see me in a job I love as I am, to have parents who had ample warning about this sea change and accepted it with minimal resistance, and on and on and on. I recognize that some people have children, parental demands, mortgages, and other constraints that keep them from making similar changes — and some have found a way to be content in the midst of less-than-thrilling careers. I respect that.
But in my case, I felt so dissatisfied with the path I was on that I needed to ask myself some serious questions about the choices I was making — and judging from all the conversations I’ve had in the last 10 years with other Asian Americans about their jobs, I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think that pursuing careers that are safe and stable is a bad thing by any means; having a consistent income, health insurance, and resources to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools is nothing to sneeze at. But I worry that as a community, we hyperfocus on security and stability to the point where we don’t think to explore what could be life-giving and fulfilling for us. And as a result, a lot of us walk around not very happy with our professional lives — which is to say, for most of our waking hours — and not really knowing how to change that.
I don’t have any easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions, but I do think we need to spend more time reflecting on our choices, both individually and collectively. And I wonder what would happen if we allowed ourselves more room to explore. I wonder what kinds of things we would pursue — and how much more fulfilled we could be.
A final thought: If anything here has resonated with you, I’d like to hear your story, too. If you left your career, if you decided to stay, if you’re trying to figure that out right now — what has your process been like? What’s made it hard or easy for you to make your decision? How will you advise your children, should you choose to have them? I’m super-curious to hear.