The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis.


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.”

Or maybe:

“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.

298 thoughts on “The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis.

  1. It sounds like a horrible statement, but I realized something at 21: One day, my parents would be dead, but I would still hate my job. Their wishes shouldn’t determine how I lived my life.

    At the time, I was flunking out of my 3rd year in a six-year Pharm.D program. It was a compromise between their wish for me to become a doctor and my wish to be something other than a doctor. And also, since I hadn’t gotten into any of my Ivies or other top-ranked schools (funny how spending most of your spare time hiding in the choir room or being incredibly emo about getting in trouble for such behavior doesn’t lead to more college acceptance letters), it allowed me some sort of imagined special badge of honor that made up for the fact that I was going to a state school. Leaving pharmacy school, even though I hated it and was terrifyingly awful at it, was kind of traumatic. I had built up so much of my persona around it, and I was genuinely scared of how I would survive the world without a pharmacist’s salary (a fear that was quickly overcome, but has returned upon a move into Manhattan). Then came countless cycles of trying and failing- I have tried and quit so many jobs that my resume makes no sense. But I’m finally getting an idea of what I require from a job (a fair amount of autonomy and courteous work environment), what I’m good at (constantly learning new things), and where suitable jobs might be found (some corporate IT departments can be surprisingly chill). I don’t love my current job, but I hate it alot less than most of my previous ones AND I can afford to eat at least twice a day! I could have probably started out aiming for IT without rocking the boat too much, but I wouldn’t have had the journey of trying and failing and starving and not knowing how the next rent check was going to be paid. I know where my edge is now, and how to live close to it if I want or have to, and I had some really strange misadventures. So go ahead and have a quarterlife crisis while you still can. You’ll be boring and happy about it in a few years!

  2. A novel is below:

    Hi Elizabeth. I found your post through someone’s link. I just wanted to say that I am in an extremely similar position at the age of 27 as you were at 28. It was so hard to admit, or even think that I could be anything but a doctor. Even worse – I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be a doctor at that point but was experiencing difficulty (you know, the “i didn’t really want to” ego protection), or if I only wanted to be a doctor because I had TOLD MYSELF that since I was 10. I genuinely could not tell what I wanted because it took me a very long time to figure out how to think for myself and how to do things on my own instead of the obvious, logical, and safe choices (choosing the best like a machine, to use a little of your idea).

    Even after graduating I felt totally unprepared for medical school applications so I needed more “prep.” I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t performed as well as others because I was lazy (my parents’ theory), because I didn’t care to (protecting my eog), or because I just wasn’t as good (what I thought was reality). I was exactly as you described – a machine that achieves things. When I felt I could not achieve getting an admission to medical school – I broke down. I couldn’t even force myself to apply because I had no self esteem, no self image, I had no idea what I was doing and no overall focus and I was unhappy because nothing I was doing made me happy. I felt like a complete failure because there was no way I would get into medical school without 4.0’s and tons of internships and a list of honors. Later I met an admissions adviser and found out I had a decent chance with my old stats at the time and I should have applied. I still don’t regret not applying – but I learned a valuable lesson about constantly comparing myself to impossible standards I imagined everyone else had but me. My parents sure made it seem like I was the ONLY one in the universe not going to medical school at the time.

    It wasn’t until I moved away for a second run at college that I ended up figuring out a lot of really positive but also really stressful and painful things. Realizing I could be good at other things besides interpreting textbooks almost caused me something like a cognitive dissonance because it meant I HAD other options. All that time the other options existed in my head – but not for me because the other options were deemed impractical, not financially stable, or otherwise unfit for someone who wanted to be successful. At first all those skills I had didn’t really matter because all that mattered was becoming a doctor, at any cost. All the sudden I could see that I had useful skills and they could be put to use to do other things. Things that I might like.

    The toughest thing is hearing all those things you mentioned, too. “At least so-and-so is making decent money. That should be your first priority!” “just get a decent job, you can do other things later” I feel like those ideas are so ingrained in my head that I feel guilty and stressed out all the time because when compared to those expectations I am a complete failure. I couldn’t handle being unhappy in a job I hated and as soon as I realized that and finally admitted it wasn’t worth it – life became a lot scarier. A lot more difficult and a lot bigger too in the sense that anything could happen.

    I’m still super stressed out but I have a new career track and I feel a lot more content and happy to pursue this rather than medical school. I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of the what-ifs and the guilt of “throwing away” all I had done towards medical school but didn’t use.

    Of course at this age many of my peers are starting to have little ones of their own. I don’t know if I’ll ever have kids but I would hope I don’t do the same to my kids. My parents, like most Asian parents, care a lot about their kids, but they have different values.

    They came here for financial security and gave that priority to their kids. However, in my opinion, even though I feel that guilt like I’m a failure when put up to their initial expectations – they have still achieved their goal of giving themselves and their children financial security. People’s higher needs can only be achieved when their basic needs are first met. People who have money seem to care less about money – they can go higher than that level of need. One of the basic needs includes financial security and by giving me that – I feel like I am more brave than some others by breaking out and trying to do what I want. If I didn’t feel financially secure or knew what it was like to be financially secure (and “still” not happy), I wouldn’t be able to break out no matter how miserable I felt. Since you have a psych background I hope this sort of makes sense – I can’t recall the name of the list/chart of needs I am thinking of at this time.

    Sorry about the novel. Take care =)

  3. “a generation of Asian Americans who are excellent at achieving but have no idea what they want to do”

    OMG, I am totally part of this generation!
    My parents so desperately want me to be a doctor. Since I was still in diapers, that’s all they’d ever rave about to people. “Oh, she’s going to be a doctor when she grows up!” And everyone would swoon and marvel.
    As I got older, people would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and my parents would answer for me, “She wants to be a doctor,” and I’d be the obedient Asian kid who smiled and didn’t argue against my parents’ decisions.
    Once I hit high school, I started thinking about all the other possible career options that interested me: writer, videogame developer (I had done work on indie games), voice actress, social services worker, member of the Marine forces, CIA agent, etc. I realized that my interests lie in completely different career paths. I mentioned a few of these career ideas to my parents, but they brushed each one aside, as if I was stupid for even considering these “mediocre” jobs.
    I’m in college now. I’m studying pre-medicine. I thought I might enjoy it. But the truth is, I’ve been hiding the reality from myself in order to make my parents’ dreams come true. In reality, I suck at higher levels of math. Chemistry barely makes any sense to me. Physics is like a bunch of magic tricks I don’t understand. Biology is just tedious. And to top it off, I don’t have the strong memorizing skills needed for this pathway. This is all stuff I figured out while I was taking the classes in high school, but I just never admitted the truth to myself out of fear that I would disappoint my parents.
    But my other fear was that I would be lost. Since my parents had picked out my career for me already, I never really gave a thought about how to go about achieving the other career options. Heck, I don’t even know what degrees you would need for those. I was desperately clinging to the one option I had been given in my life.
    The pre-med path depresses me, and honestly, I’m not sure I want to go through with it. Yes, the ultimate goal of being a doctor would be a fantastic dream-come-true, but I don’t know if I want to go through all these years of math and science when my dreams lie elsewhere.

    My situation is kind of hard though, and I’m having to stick to my current career path. See, I have an older sister. She’s not all too interested in her studies. She came to college, and pretty much flunked out within two years. She’s currently taking community college classes, at the insistence of my mom. In contrast, I have always been the studious kid, so my mom has had high hopes for me. And since she is now disappointed by my older sister, she has even higher hopes that I will at least be able to succeed and obtain a high-ranking job of being a doctor. She has been let down by my sister, but she has full faith that she won’t be let down by me. And so, as to not disappoint her and make her think both of her children are failures, I’m choosing to stick to the career path of becoming a doctor.

    Another reason why I’m having to stick to this career is because of an issue between my parents. My mom divorced my dad in 2012, and my dad has been giving my mom a lot of hell about it. She moved out, and is currently living with my sister and I. My dad is very domineering, so he’s always had control on financial assets. Currently, he owns pretty much all the money that had ever been saved up/invested in our lifetime. My mom, sisters, and I are living at the poverty line because of him, and we all chip in to make it through the months. We don’t even have enough money to afford a divorce lawyer in order to get our part of the finances from my dad.
    With depressing financial crap like this going on in our lives, my mom sees my future as a bright spot in her life. She dreams of the day I will become a rich and respectable doctor, and will be able to pull our family (minus my dad) out of our financial woes. She says that when that day comes, people are going to forget about judging us by our financial struggles, and will respect us for my position in society. “Life will be easier,” she says.

    And so, I kind of have to keep my current position…for my mom, at least. Changing careers would be just too, too much of a disappointment for her, and since my sister screwed up, I can’t follow her steps, even if I just want to be happy. It’s become one of those situations in which you sometimes have to make big sacrifices for the greater good.
    I can’t just think about my happiness, I have to think about my mom and sisters as well. It’s become my job to be the savior for the family, and everyone’s kinda counting on me and waiting for the day I’ll be able to pull them out of the gutter. I can’t let them down, I have to think about their future. Yes, mine might end up being hectic and depressing, but if it makes the rest of my family happy, safe, and secure, I’ll have to do it.

    Haha, thanks for letting me rant on here. I’ve never actually told anyone any of this stuff.

  4. Hi Liz,

    Thank you for sharing this very well-written story. I resonate with this so much. I was also in a job that I hated, and 6 months ago I finally decided to quit. The startup world was my solution; it’s where a lot of people left their former life to start something anew. I’m still trying to find my fit, and it’s been thrilling and scary at the same time since I can only see one step ahead at a time. However, I can tell that I’m on the right path: (1) I’m so many times happier and more productive, and (2) I’m growing and learning new things each day. Luckily, I had someone in my life who was extremely supportive (of course not my parents haha).

    For anyone who’s thinking about taking this step, I would suggest finding just one person who’s going to emotionally support you no matter what. You will have to deal with most people (including friends or family) not understanding, but someone once told me that if everyone does, then there would be no opportunity.

    Liz, I wish you good luck and look forward to read more of your blog. =)

  5. Hi Elizabeth,

    I found your link through a friend of mine from college. I have also followed a similar path as yours.

    I studied engineering with a focus on biology in college, and I almost completed the pre-med track. I excelled in the liberal arts as well, I played piano and violin, and I was also leader of an Asian student organization, which grew immensely due to my parents’ support and connections throughout the community and through which I built an identity and reputation as the “perfect Asian daughter.” The expectation was that I would either end up in a PhD program for the sciences or go to medical school.

    After my junior year of college, with the prospect of my last year and the future beyond it looming over me, I sank into a deep depression that led to thoughts of suicide. I had tried to get a summer internship in broadcasting and film in Asia in hopes that I might explore something different and utilize my leadership and performance skills (and interact with people), but I ended up with a local internship with a scientific laboratory because of my major. I ended up quitting after four days. I had known lab work was not a good fit for me – I had been so relieved to finish up my undergraduate research position just a few months previous – but I thought that I had to continue building up my skills and establish a secure career path. I saw no way out. How could I break free of the path my parents had worked so hard to put me on? I was to be the main breadwinner of the family in the future. How could I betray their trust and their faith in me? Who would I be without my engineering degree?

    In my senior year, in the midst of my final engineering project and at the peak of my power as an Asian student leader, I finally had had enough. I called a former teacher and mentor of mine from high school and told him that I was thinking of teaching. I wanted to work with directly with people – which was the aspect of the student organization I enjoyed most – and I liked communicating ideas. He encouraged me to take the risk; he said my parents would forgive me, but that I needed to take control of my life. I ended up moving far away after graduating and teaching for two years. I barely made minimum wage – I made 1/4 of what I could have made if I’d taken an engineering or science job, though I did have benefits and insurance – but it was the first time in my life that I felt free and truly autonomous, and even happy. The kids weren’t perfect and neither was the school itself, and my parents and I didn’t even talk for a few months after I accepted the job offer for teaching, but I am immensely grateful for the experience. I think that if I had not taken the risk, I might not even be here today. My parents have indeed forgiven me, somewhat. They still think of me as a disappointment, but at least I am not disappointed in myself, and that is the best I can hope for.

    Sorry for the novel – I just wanted to say, you are not alone! I hope more of us Asian-Americans read your post; I know several friends who are in the same situation as your friends’, and I think one day it’s all going to come to a boiling point.

  6. I believe Avi is referring to “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” at the end of her post.

    My story is a bit different. I’m the son of immigrant parents – my dad started several successful tech companies and my mom was a manager at a tech company. Both came from households in poor neighborhoods in HK and Vietnam. I felt the same push to achieve greatness as do most Asian-American kids, but my parents never dictated my career. My Dad never wanted me to become successor to his companies or follow his engineering path. I naturally gravitated to it. I must also note that my dad never did a job he did solely for money. He was a very passion driven guy who left millions in stock options at a stable tech company to try out a startup in the 70s. And given the time and his positioning, he capitalized on the opportunities offered by being in the red-hot tech industry. I believe his core belief – to do something that makes you happy – had much to do with his directing of my career. Happy to him meant happy financially and what you do everyday.

    But at my first job out of college – an engineering consulting job – I found myself questioning what I was doing there 3 months in. I blew my paychecks traveling, partying, spending money to cover my discontent. I always saw myself as an entrepreneur like my dad. But I fell out of college and into this job because I some how believed I would just become an entrepreneur one day, not knowing how my engineering degree would get me there. After many many lengthy discussions with my dad about how do I become an entrepreneur, I decided to take his discomforting advice and just try out different industries until I found a market opportunity to start a company around. It is such an uncertain solution but is perhaps the best way to become one. Everyone from Henry Ford and Alexander Bell to Zuckerberg all follow this course.

    So at 25, I did what you did Elizabeth. I tried out many different things to see what I liked to do – film, fashion, furniture. I now have started a small company of my own at 28 and am super stressed about my success going forward even though I love what I do – learning new things everyday. I too have the financial security of my parents to enable me to take these risks. I am much happier now having made all these decisions about where I wanted to take my career.

    I believe that Asian Americans aren’t the only ones to feel this way. I know that my Dad’s own brothers had this dilemma of what to do in their life too, and they were born in the 50s. One uncle works at IBM and tries teaching and other careers on the side as hobbies – he’s too old to start from scratch. Even traveling around the world, I have met people of all ages who don’t know what they are supposed to do, in South Africa, Tanzania, Vietnam, Argentina etc. I even met teacher who were 60 and not sure what they wanted to do in life.

    I know there are a a lot of articles on the net about Millennials and our discontent, our impatience, our lack of happiness. But I believe this lack of happiness is experienced by every generation to an extent. Every person will question what they are doing. It just so happens that we didn’t grow up during a depression or after a world war and the American economy has grown to be one of the largest in the world ahead of other countries in the last 50 years. We have opportunities – opportunities many other generations and people around the world never had. And I think I’m an example that given all these options, I had trouble picking what I should do next. My indecision and lack of self-awareness early on made me discontent with my results after college, not really my parents or other factors. I also want to contrast my findings against more mature teens my age who planned out their careers in high school. Having spoken to my high school classmates who went to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, they told me they made decisions in high school and college to be something they thought they wanted to be – inventor, doctor, etc. But after college during their first job, they all reached the same level of discontent that I had despite all the decision making and self awareness they had. These results, my experiences and what I’ve witnessed from other generations and people around the world lead me to conclude that this phase of “what should I do with my life” is natural. I think work experience has a major part to do with this dilemma that occurs typically after college. For those who worked during college, I think their discontent later on about what they are doing is mitigated to an extent. Nonetheless, it seems to be a natural part of the maturation process of people.

    I am all for self reflection as are you. I don’t think clarity can be gained in ones life without it. But to be devils advocate for our parents, they help give us drive. Yes, many of us end up forever psychologically influenced by their demanding nature but it really gives Asians a solid career default in my opinion. I think that is why generally Asians progress faster economically than other Americans – we are always better off later even if we have no idea what we are doing early on in our lives. It sucks but it helps. I, for one, was lucky to have the gotten the job I did out of college while I was brain dead and not making conscious decisions about my life.

    Anyways, just wanted to share with you my thoughts, findings, and experience on this subject. I’m always up to expand my view on this topic. I’ve mulled it over for many years and come to realize we aren’t a “special” generation as the media portrays us as.

  7. Also, I’d like to recommend this video by Prof Deepak Malhotra – HBS – 2012 Speech to Graduating Harvard MBA Students. He has changed his career multiple times in his life and continues doing so. My father is the same way – he retired, pursed a PhD in econ, became a professor of econ at San Jose State, now runs a incubator to impart his startup experience. All of this in the past 6 years. And he’s retired. Insane. Anyways, I love this video by prof deepak.

  8. This piece really resonated with me, and as I find myself at a crossroad, similar to what you went through years ago, I will take you up on your offer to share my story.

    But given how I found this article through fb/friends, I’m reluctant to just lay it out on a public blog. Do you have a spam/public email you could contact me at, if you are indeed “super-curious” haha? I believe my email address is attached to this reply.

  9. Frodo, I commend you for putting your family’s needs first, but don’t limit yourself to believing that your only choices are 1) becoming a physician and 2) leaving your family in poverty and destitution. There are a wide range of high-paying and prestigious jobs out there, and seeing as how you are still very early on in the process toward becoming a doctor, it’s not too late to figure out another plan. If nothing else convinces you, consider that it will be a decade before you even begin the make the salary that your mom dreams of. TEN YEARS – that’s a long time! First, you have to get your bachelor degree. Then medical school takes four years, during which you’ll likely rack up *hundreds of thousands* in debt. After medical school is residency, during which you might make $50,000 per year, and which takes a minimum of 3 years – longer if you go into the well-paying specialties, and IMO being a doctor isn’t lucrative financially unless you enter one of the specialties. It wouldn’t make sense financially to spend big money to go to med school to become a family practice physician and make $175,000 a year. Heck, you could become a nurse and get a graduate nursing degree, and with a masters degree you could work as a CRNA making $189,000 per year. The amount of school debt you would incur to become a CRNA would be a fraction of the debt to become a doctor. For a more detailed breakdown of the deception that all doctors rake in the dough:

  10. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for your kind words. =) Like you’ve mentioned, I have also been thinking about the financial setbacks of pursuing a physician career path. But I’m just so lost right now, and I don’t really know what to pick. X(
    Someone once mentioned Nursing to me, and my mom was there to hear it. She didn’t like the idea, even if it DOES save money. In our native country, nursing isn’t seen as a very respectable job. Actually, it’s one of the lowest of the social scale/ladder, although I can’t understand why, as the job seems pretty important imo. But anyways, because of that, my mom is always automatically against it.
    But I agree with you, there are other jobs I can consider pursuing, and I am starting to look into them.
    Thanks again for the advice. =)

  11. Thank you, Elizabeth, and everyone for sharing thoughts that seem very similar to mine. I do agree with takeittothemax that this indecision is not solely associated with our generation, but I must add that the philosophy of teaching and life from immigrant parents, especially those who came here for higher education has a detrimental effect on the formation of independent thought and decisions about life during college. This is further compounded by siblings both older and younger, who can be a source of leverage for parents to ensure compliance.

    I am at a crossroad right now where I have not yet locked myself into my career path as a physician but I’m far enough along to where changing paths would require a great deal of consideration. The question is whether it is worth it. I am like many other Asian Americans in that I went to school for engineering with the end goal of going to medical school. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze in a lot of travel abroad experience that helped with perspective and seeing what else was out there. However, it never occurred to me that I would have any other option then going into medicine. My parents had instilled that idea within me at such an early age that even now I still wonder if it was ever truly my idea to become a physician. What made things worse was that I did rather well in math and science classes in college, where many other kids struggled. I see now that it was detrimental because I never had a moment when I needed to reflect on my life choices. I could continue to go along with my prescribed path. Getting into medical school did not help the situation, because the do well in medical school you need to have motivation, a real drive, which I realized I never had. I discovered that my motivation was in reality a deep rooted desire to please my parents, and unfortunately I had gotten old enough to where that was no longer a priority. I even considered/tried to fail out, but decided that that would be a really stupid thing to do regardless of whether it made me happy.

    My problem is that I have an independent spirit and many interests that I wish to pursue, just none of them as financially secure as being a physician. I wish that I could have more time to explore other job prospects before committing to this, but there is no point in hypothetical situations. The success stories are very inspiring, but I cannot help but to think of those who were not successful in making the jump to a new profession.

    After writing this and thinking deeply about what has been said, I believe that it is an inherent and cognitive decision that must be made whether we value happiness or security, at this point in time. I am not suggesting that they are mutually exclusive, but if you had to pick just one, would you want a job that is secure or one that makes you happy?. Our parents made their decision and now it is time for us to make ours.

  12. I definitely hit that quarter life crisis a few years ago. In fact, I could argue that I hit it while I was still in college. Engineering didn’t pan out since physics didn’t agree with me (or rather, I didn’t agree with physics, but that’s beside the point), and I bumped along the rest of my four years before coming out with a degree in history, which is only marginally more useful than one in say, ancient Greek lit. Naturally, my Chinese parents always advocated going for a ‘more useful’ degree like the ones you mentioned, but by the time I had graduated, they were resigned to the fact I’d never have an MD at the end of my name or be going for an MBA. At the end of my rope (and my bank account), I managed to land a job doing some data analysis and project management, which I was fine with since it got me out of the house and my parents out of my hair. Of course the commute was terrible, and the work uninteresting at best, but I justified it as a step since I was finally working in NYC.

    Being in the doldrums of the financial crisis can do wonders for killing one’s career aspirations though, and I found myself interning there for almost a couple of years with no full-time position in sight. Parents, as they are wont to do, find cause to point out the negatives in situations, and began getting on my case about not having my own insurance and whatnot. I luckily found a permanent product opening in another division and moved over to that with great gusto. The work was interesting at first, and I tried to make the best impression since I was the new guy. Jadedness slowly settled in as I learned the extent to which dysfunction ruled the organization. Still, it was a job which allowed me to pursue the photography hobby I’d picked up a few years back, so I was momentarily content to put in the time and find something else.

    I nearly did jump for another position a couple of years in (which was scuttled since the company I interviewed for got bought), when I was let go from the job I had. It wasn’t terribly surprising since budget cuts were du jour by that time, but there I was, out with no job. Spending the next few months hitting the job boards and referrals was like a job in itself, and the parental complaints reared their ugly head again. I grew tired of making it through one, maybe two rounds of interviews, only to be turned down for the position, so I began rethinking my approach. At this point, I was 27 and staring down the barrel of “the dirty 30” in a few years with no career advancement prospects to speak of, and I wasn’t too keen on what I saw (namely, living at home). Now, I won’t ever admit that they were right, but my parents were (mostly) right. So I opted to start after something a bit more stable and looked into nursing schools. I still won’t have an MD at the end of my name, but I guess my mom will be happy with RN. More importantly for me, I won’t be footing an insane bill for med school, and I’ll still have time off to pursue my other interests.

    In a bit of a related point, I never understood all those speakers who would come to our schools and tell us to do what made us happy in our lives. For most of us, it was never practical advice. I mean sure, if you can earn a living doing what you want, more power to you, but to tell kids to just say “f*ck it” and not consider how to pay for life was irresponsible. So when I say I don’t mind working for a living, I really don’t mind because I know it’s allowing me to do do what I want. That’s probably the advice I’ll give to my kids, unless there’s a radical shift in things in these intervening years. I recognize that they’ll be the ones who will have to work, not me, so I don’t see the sense in pushing them towards something they don’t want. As long as I can set them with a good head on their shoulders and get them to see the whole picture, I’m sure they can make an informed decision.

  13. Great article.

    I went through a very similar situation where both of my parents went and got Ph.D.s and there was this implicit expectation that I would also follow their path and also get a Ph.D. I knew when I was about 16 that I didn’t really want to do a Ph.D. in either Physics or Chemistry since those are the areas my parents pursued and that I would always be compared to them, regardless of what I did, and (fortunately) I hated biology with a passion so I opted for Engineering because it was a lot of problem solving and it wasn’t any one of those mentioned previously. For me, the achievement driven/hoop jumping mentality translated quite well into the engineering undergrad where you are required to tackle difficult problems and solve them.

    It was also during my senior year in college that I realized that there is no way I will pursue a Ph.D. Having gone through a program where the graduating requirement was a senior design project complete with thesis and also taken many undergrad research classes, I knew that while grad school offered me some additional buffer time from the reality that’s society, it was not the solution.

    That led me into choosing consulting after graduation, mainly because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after my undergrad. After 4 years of that and two more years of grad school to get my MBA/MS in Engineering, I once again returned to the consulting world doing what I like best: learning new things, tackling new problems, and am happy (for the time being).

    Am I going to remain a consultant forever? I don’t think so, but until I find that one thing that I’m really passionate about (and I’ve yet to find it), I think of it as investing in myself, quite similar to going to grad school (except you actually get paid). So in a way, becoming a consultant and not focusing to specialize in any one special area (though you become specialized inadvertently regardless) I am merely in my own form of grad school, waiting for that job that I would jump at regardless of everything else.

    As for educating my future children? I think I would do a lot of what my parents did, because it was successful. But I would also correct for the things that couldn’t be forced. My parents wanted me to play an instrument and as a result I learned classical guitar for two years. I got some Grade at some Royal Conservatory, but right now all of that is gone because I just wasn’t into it, nor was I any good at it. I competed in some competitions, but that was only because of the hours upon hours of practice that I was any good. I would lead my kids to try out any and everything, and help them do it if they really want to do it or if they have a talent for it. I don’t think I would spend time and effort on something that the kid may never end up using for the rest of his/her life.

    Not really organized thoughts but just wanted to share my two cents. 🙂

  14. Hi Frodo,

    I usually don’t comment on articles but felt inclined to share my journey with you. I’m currently 24, and I have a very similar history to yours with my parents divorced, my mother/sisters/me living together and having everyone financially dependent on me. Fortunately, I inherited a stubbornness from both of my parents and never listened to their pans for my future. My older sister studied useless stuff in college and I immediately went to business school. I was ridiculed by everyone in my family because I didn’t choose medicine and my family had no idea what type of career I could have with business.

    I was in the gifted program at school but wasn’t the smartest kid, I hated math because I didn’t have the discipline to practice problems and I didn’t like the idea of being a doctor and having someone’s life on my hands. I also had a weird respect for people in business suits and always thought they were all rich (a result from growing up poor, watching dramas/movies, and transferring to a rich high school where everyone’s rich parents wore suits). So naturally, I went to business school. I needed to make money. Not just for me, but to support my family. I applied for 20 scholarships and got 3 plus state grants, which paid for everything except living expenses (it was roughly $10k a year – not nearly as much as becoming a doctor). I graduated in 3 years because the classes were not incredibly difficult compared to science and without a real income soon, my family could not have survived. I’m currently a consultant and get to travel every week for work, where they pay for my flights, hotels, rental cars, and daily meals.

    The point of my rant is to convince you to leave medicine and go to business school. Honestly, it’s a load of bull-crap. The real world is so different from what they teach in class and 90% of it is irrelevant. All you need is a degree, a good resume packed with leadership in student organizations and a decent GPA. You will be trained on the job, which might be covered in one of your classes. The rest is up to you to determine how successful you want to be and how hard you want to work to get there. Am I happy? Yes, because I could not even imagine that this type of lifestyle exists before I got the job. Being a consultant allows me to dip my toes into different industries and types of work to see what I like the most. Most of all, it has allowed me to pay off a LOT of debt that was accumulating from my family’s immigration to the US 18 years ago and keep my family alive. It seams like you and I have similar values in supporting our family and financial stability is something that we consider a basic need. Don’t worry about what your parents are telling you right now – my parents are actually bragging about my job to their friends and no one else how good I have it. The older Asian generation doesn’t understand different career paths except being a doctor, so you can’t let their limited knowledge stop you from making your own choices. If you are incredibly unhappy with medicine, then I would highly recommend trying business. If you decide that you dislike your business career later on in life, then at least you would have not wasted so much money on school and have an income to save up to support your dreams.

  15. Frodo,

    As a first-year medical student, I’m worried about your outlook on being a doctor.

    I’ve always loved math and science, and in undergrad I took more advanced classes than I needed to for the pre-med path just because I really liked physics/math/biology. I did well numerically (graduated magna cum laude with 3 majors and scored in the 98th percentile on the MCAT). There’s nothing I want to do more than to practice medicine. I remember telling my mom when I was eight that I wanted to be a doctor. That changed over the years – I said teacher for a while, or researcher (I went into college thinking I wanted to get a PhD) – but I always came back to medicine.

    Even with this strong academic background and the intrinsic motivation, med school is hard. Our first year is pass/fail and half the time when I turn in a test I’m afraid I failed. Second year only gets harder, and third year (when you’re actually in the hospital doing clinical rounds) harder still. I’m happy to be where I am, but I definitely have moments when I think, huh, maybe I should have become a physical therapist or a nurse. Most of my friends have had similar doubts.

    Additionally, if you want to get into a lucrative specialty (e.g. dermatology, plastic surgery, anesthesiology), it’s not enough to just “survive” med school – you have to stand out. If you’re not already outstanding in undergrad, chances are you won’t be outstanding in med school. Pretty much everyone in my class was outstanding in undergrad, yet here, half of us are automatically in the bottom 50%. I’m okay with digging myself a $100k hole because I know I will be able to pay it back eventually, but I’m not going into medicine for money, and the areas I’m interested in are not particularly well-compensated, especially considering the hours worked.

    If you don’t enjoy and excel in sciences at an undergraduate level, it’s also possible that you will not survive med school, will not pass board exams, will not match into a residency – these things happen to med students every year. What would you do then? Before that, even, if you can’t build a good application (including a strong personal statement convincing the admissions committee that there is nothing you would rather do in life besides medicine), what are you going to do if you don’t get in? (A lot of interviewers will ask questions like this – what would you do if you absolutely couldn’t be a doctor/ what are you going to do if you aren’t admitted this cycle.)

    I don’t mean to scare you. I love medical school and can’t wait to be a doctor, but I don’t think it’s right for everyone, and based on what you said I’m worried that you might get crushed somewhere in the process of becoming a doctor. I know you’re trying to do things for the greater good, but your happiness and mental health is part of that greater good.

  16. I just read this article and it resonated so much with me, except my quarter life crisis may have struck in college.

    I was miserable at my top 20 school because I never thought I would be anything but a doctor. I had interned at Harvard Med and hated my internships so much, but my parents were obsessed with the prestige. So I ended up failing orgo 3 times and gave up because I did not have the patience nor love for medicine. Before looking at medical school applications, I would just dream of moving to a big city and sketch clothes. During junior year, I switched majors to a social science–which was the end of the world for my parents. I loaded classes, graduated early, and got the hell out of that toxic environment.

    I have since moved to NYC for law school and never regretted it. I am finishing up my last semester and did not take the traditional law route, but have had the chance to experiment with internships in fashion law and entertainment law at a music label. Further, I have developed social and networking skills I never knew I had…that I believe are suited for me far better than medicine. Currently, I’m excited to see what next steps I will have the chance to take. My dad, a doctor, still hates me for going to law school.

    Hilariously, my younger brother had been the “lazy” one, who they threatened to kick out if he didn’t go to college, and ended up going to a top college in the south rivaling mine. He was naturally gifted at science and ended up a chemistry major, and is on full scholarship at a MD/MPH program, which he began at 20. When asked what he wanted to do, he replied “I’m not sure what else I would do.”

    Although I am sure my brother will one day be a great doctor, I am glad I had the quarter life crisis and ability to change direction and do things I was interested in. At least one day, like you, I can look back and not regret my different work experiences.

  17. jen: loved reading your story. especially the revelation you opened with — morbid, perhaps, but true. at some point, we have to stop making decisions for our parents and start making them for us, b/c we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences. i totally get the trauma of leaving something even when you hate it, b/c it’s such a core part of your identity… but i’m glad that you’ve had such a formative journey, you’re figuring out where you thrive, and you’re happier now than you were when you embarked on it. props to you!

  18. avi: your story resonates so much with me! i totally sympathize with not knowing if you want something or if you’ve just told yourself that that’s what you want for so long. and the cognitive dissonance that discovering other options can produce. and “get a decent job, you can do other things later” (my parents’ versions were “you can do that as a hobby” and “you can do anything you want after you get your graduate degree”). and how scary life can get when you let go, b/c the world is suddenly so much bigger than it was when you were myopically focused on one thing, and there’s a lot you haven’t explored.

    for what it’s worth, even though it can seem on paper like you “threw away” a lot of time and effort toward grad school, that journey was still valuable, because you learned a ton from it and it brought you to where you are now. and it’s wayyyy better to cut your losses now than later — say, after med school. so i don’t think that time was necessarily wasted. (at least that’s how i rationalize my own cognitive dissonance for having been in grad school for so long. 🙂

    in terms of kids — i don’t have any either, but my hope is that if/when i do, i’ll be able to strike a balance between helping them explore what they like and finding careers where they can do those things and pay their bills.

    as others have said, you’re thinking of maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which i think about all the time. and i agree with you — our parents did good. and they encouraged what they encouraged b/c they wanted us to be able to meet those lower-level needs for ourselves one day. now that they’ve done that, it’s up to us to figure out those higher-level ones.

  19. frodo: props to you for being honest about where you are — that’s a big deal. i’m honored to read your story. and i’m impressed that you’re able to sit in the tension of “why i don’t want to be a doctor” and “why i still feel like i need to be a doctor” — there’s a lot of people who can only acknowledge one side or the other.

    i also totally understand feeling the need to compensate for your siblings’ failures and to take care of your family’s financial situation. for what it’s worth, though, know that you are not responsible for saving your family. or your mom. you can do what you can, but ultimately, that’s far too much responsibility for any one person to bear. and, as others have said, med school is crazy expensive and all-consuming, and if you want to make good money, there are a lot of other, faster, less expensive and exhausting ways to do it. our parents only know medicine b/c they’re old school, but my friends who are making the most money are all in tech.

    thanks for sharing your story! i’ll be thinking of you as you process through these things.

  20. RG: YAY! so happy for you! i’m glad that though you’re still on the journey, you’re happier and more productive and growing. i think that though work is work, it should also be a place that fosters all of those things in its employees — so i’m glad that that’s true for you.

    i too have found that a lot of people looking to start over have found good fits in the bay area. do you think it’s the innovativeness of the work that’s being done here and of the companies themselves? the fact that these organizations seem to treat their employees so much better than more traditional companies? these startups seem to do a good job of making their employees feel valued, and i think that goes a long way.

    totally agree that having one person who supports you and doesn’t think you’re crazy is key, because everyone else is going to question your decision, and that person will keep you from second-guessing yourself or thinking that you’re crazy.

    thank you so much for you kind words, too! i appreciate them a lot. 🙂

  21. ceci: i loved reading your story. i’m sorry that you felt like you had so few options that suicide was on the table — that’s horrible, but i can totally see why you felt that way. i’m glad that you had the courage to change course and for your mentor’s wise words — he’s so right! at some point, we have to stop making decisions for our parents and start making them for ourselves, b/c in the end, we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences. and i’m glad that you took the risk and got to experience what it was like to have ownership of your choices, for better and for worse. that’s awesome.

    thanks for the encouraging words, too! much appreciated.

  22. max: i appreciate your story and your thoughts — they’re super-interesting. you do have a unique story, having an immigrant parent who valued enjoyable work and encouraged risk-taking — and could one day advise you when you stumbled into your quarter-life crisis. that’s awesome. i’m glad that you’re happy with where you are now.

    i agree that the quarter-life crisis is fairly universal, for the reasons you mentioned. that being said, i do think that it’s especially prevalent in our generation — we were raised to believe that we were special, only to hit the real world and realize that we aren’t special and work is, well, work. and we have the luxury of asking ourselves what we want, b/c our parents have been successful; i don’t think my parents had the luxury of a quarter-life crisis, b/c they were immigrants and they just had to survive. i also think that while the quarter-life crisis is universal, the asian american one is more complicated because we often don’t give any thought to what we really want to do, so we end up in careers that aren’t suited for us at all. so we basically have the regular quarter-life crisis with an added layer of complication.

    i agree with you about our parents, too — they did good. they encouraged what they encouraged because they wanted us to be able to provide for ourselves one day. i don’t hold any resentment toward my parents for that anymore, because they just wanted me to be okay.

    i’m looking forward to watching this video! i realized a while back that i’m probably going to be changing careers constantly, and that appears to be the case so far. looking forward to hearing what malhotra has to say.

  23. julie: great points. thanks for the link, too — i’ve heard for a long time that doctors don’t make all that much when you factor in the costs of med school and residency, but seeing hard data was super-helpful. totally agree that there are other jobs where you can make more money and make it faster — my friends who are making the most are all in tech. as jenny pointed out, our parents push us to medicine b/c it’s all they know — i don’t think my parents had heard of a start-up when i was a growing up, and if they did, they would have dismissed it based on dress code alone.

  24. i don’t know yet: i totally agree that while quarter-life crises aren’t universal, our upbringing complicates it. your point about siblings is also very true.

    loved reading your story, and it resonated with me a lot. i completely sympathize with being in a place where you can still change, but it would take a lot of effort and sunk cost. and experiencing the downside of success — that it means that you don’t have to think about your choices. (have you read this piece by william deresiewicz? a lot of what you said reminded me of what he wrote.) and having a lot of interests that you want to pursue — that was a huge part of my crisis in grad school. however, i don’t think that exploring other job prospects would be pointless. because if you sign up for med school, you’re committing to something… well, huge, and it seems wise to do some exploration into the other options if they still interest you. would you be open to exploring if you had some time? could you defer med school (it sounds like you’ve already been accepted) for a year?

    about happiness or security: i don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive, as you said; i think they’re on two ends of a spectrum, and you can have something in the middle that offers both of those things. but when you’re at a crossroads, like the one you’re at, you generally have to choose between moving toward one or the other. i’ll be thinking of you as you process this!

  25. geoff: what an interesting journey you’ve been on! loved reading it. and you brought up so many good points — how the financial crisis threw a wrench in everyone’s plans, how dysfunction in an organization ruins everything (even if the work itself is fine). it sounds like you’re satisfied with your current path, and i’m glad for you.

    your thoughts on the other extreme — “f*ck it and do whatever you want!” — resonated with me too. (this article that’s been circulating the interwebs speaks to it as well: sometimes i wonder if our generation, in response to how we were raised, will swing to the other extreme and encourage our kids pursue anything, regardless of the consequences. but, as you said, that feels irresponsible to me — they’ll have to pay their bills somehow! so i hope that when i have kids, i’ll be able to find a balance between helping them explore what they enjoy and helping them figure out careers where they can do those things. and i hope that, as you said, i’ll be able to remember that they have to live with their choices, not me, so there’s no point in pushing them toward something they don’t like.

  26. zult1: loved reading your story. you were wise beyond your years to know, at 16, to avoid your parents’ fields, and to veto phd work based on the data you collected in college. i did not have that kind of wisdom, so i commend you for that.

    i’ve never thought about consulting as a form of grad school, but now that you say it, it makes sense; you get to learn about a lot of different fields (or many different aspects of one field), you get exposed to a ton of different roles and work environments, and you get paid! not bad. that sounds like a great gig for someone who’s not sure what they really want to do after college.

    your philosophy for how to raise your kids seems pretty sound, too. encouraging them to explore everything, helping them pursue what they want/are good at, and not wasting your time with stuff they don’t like and won’t do again? simple and wise. i like it.

  27. jenny: “The older Asian generation doesn’t understand different career paths except being a doctor, so you can’t let their limited knowledge stop you from making your own choices.” so, so true. my parents had never heard of a start-up when i was a kid (and if they did, they would have dismissed it based on dress code alone), but now, who among my friends are making the most money? the ones at start-ups. i think my parents would have different feelings now, but back then, they only knew what was profitable in the motherland when they were growing up.

    props to you for being stubborn and choosing a path that you’re happy with. zult1 said similar things about getting to learn a lot as a consultant, and it sounds like an excellent first job out of college, especially for someone who’s not sure what they want to do.

  28. @Anon: I suck at compsci. =( I tried doing it because everyone was raving about how awesome it is and how useful the skill is for the 21st century, but I’m just not good at it. u__u

    @Jenny: Wow, I’m honored that you would take the time to reply on an article because of my post! =D Unfortunately, business stuff doesn’t really interest me. Like, I like medicine stuff, but I hate all the chemistry, math, and physics. However, I still find the subject appealing. But I don’t feel that way with business. Business bores me to tears, and I always feel bad when we’re taught “tips” of how to rip-off customers. Idk, I just don’t like cheating people, whether or not it’s for a profit. But thank you for sharing your story, it’s very inspiring. It makes me understand that I really do have a choice to be whatever I want to be, and if I’m stubborn like you, my family will eventually have to accept my decisions. Hopefully, should I choose some other major/study, it will make them equally as happy. =)

    @Liz: OMG, the writer commented on my post!!! SO cool! 8D Ahem, anyways, thank you for the kind words and advice. To be honest, I don’t think I ever thought of the situation the way you mentioned it, that I am not actually responsible for saving my family. It’s just that everyone else is doing their part, so I feel like holding up my side of the bargain. But the more comments I read here on your blog, the more I’m starting to feel like I’d be more helpful to both my family and myself if I chose some career path that both interested me and benefitted my family, financially and socially. And the best career to pick with that kind of criteria would probably have to be something non-med-school.
    All this talk about degrees and stuff has gotten me thinking, and I actually scheduled an appointment today to meet with a career advisor next week. Hopefully, I can find something that I would love to learn about and do as an occupation in the real world, and something that can financially help out my family situation, while still making my mom proud. It seems like giant criteria, but I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to find something.

    Thank you so, so much for opening my mind to all these possibilities!

  29. @Lily: Thank you so much for all of your advice and for sharing your experiences with me! I didn’t realize it was so competitive in med-school. I guess I was just hoping that everyone would be focused on themselves, and that made me forget about competition, silly me.
    Hmm, since I’m not sure yet if I want to completely drop the whole pre-med route, maybe I’ll look around and see if I can find a degree plan that fits the Pre-med path, but can also lead me to alternative careers. That way, if I choose not to be a doctor, I can at least have a back-up plan with the credits I have taken.
    Thanks again Lily! =)

  30. lily: thank you so, so, so much for sharing your perspective — i can’t understate how important it is. i remember meeting a guy in my organic chemistry lab during my first semester of college who wasn’t doing well in the class; he said, “i thought my love for people would overcome my hatred for science.” and i shook my head, because there are a thousand ways to help people, but if you’re going to be a doctor, you better love science, because you’re looking at 8 years of science school. i’ve also learned from watching many of my friends from high school and college become doctors that in order to get through the hundreds of hurdles in med school, residency, and beyond, you have to want to be a doctor more badly than i’ve ever wanted anything in my life. so i’m glad that i got off the train early. and i’m so glad that you shared how hard the path is even if you do love science and you want to be a doctor very, very badly.

    that being said — i love that you love med school and you can’t wait to be a doctor, because that’s awesome. i’m glad you’re on the right path. 🙂

  31. AW: loved reading your story — thank you for sharing it! props to you for having the guts to change course and find a path that’s better for you. i love that you discovered along the way how much better law is for you than perhaps you knew when you started, and that you’ve found skills you didn’t even know you had. that’s awesome. i’m sorry that your dad still isn’t on board — that stinks. i hope he comes around. and i’m glad that, in the meantime, you’re excited about what’s ahead.

  32. frodo: aww, you’re sweet. 🙂 i agree that you’d be most helpful to your family and yourself if you chose a career that interests you and benefits them, and i’m confident that you could find one. so great that you’re meeting with an advisor next week — that’s awesome! that’s a great first step.

  33. Great article. I can speak from the opposite perspective.

    I studied engineering in college but switched into urban planning (definitely not a traditional Asian-American career) for a lot of different motivations. Mainly, I wanted to have a lot of impact with the communities we lived, work, and play.

    That being said, I completely can relate to finding something that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fitting our personalities. While we’re living in a tough economy (my field is still hurt by the recession), I have no regrets in my switch as my heart feels more fulfilled every time I meet other urban planners.

    Like you, Liz, I’ve tried a lot of different things, and have been to industry events (“in stable careers”) where my heart has felt like a completely empty hole. It’s a ethically terrible and horrible feeling to have, and when I look back to my work in urban planning, I feel much better and more happier.

  34. YES. This is it. This is EXACTLY the summation of how I feel. There’s this pressure into running headfirst into something you have no idea if you want it or not. This is the EXACT friggin problem Asian parents just hammer your face with.

    The problem is that there is a GOAL that needs to be seen ahead of time. The formation of that goal comes from time and experience, NOT only because of monetary or prestigious reasons. Experience comes from the child being able to explore on their own what their interests are. So parents SHOULD take time to explore the interests of their kids so that the kids are encouraged to try in whatever direction they want so that they are able to form their own goals and take steps to get there.

    I’m in this crisis as well and I feel down a lot because I feel like I’m doing something different. But this was a great read and it’s nice to know that others are like me.

  35. stinkytofu: thanks for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. and i loooooove that you chose urban planning, both because you find it meaningful and because it’s so so important — it affects everything about how we live! and from my uneducated vantage point, it seems like you entered the field at a great time, b/c people and organizations seem to be thinking about the relationship between people and their environments far more now than they were when we were growing up. (or maybe i think that just b/c i’ve become a lot more aware of it. 🙂 ) i’m so glad that you find your work so fulfilling.

  36. garcian: i hear you. you’re definitely not alone! i agree that there needs to be a goal that’s informed by what the child is actually good at and interested in — not chosen just because it’s what the parent thinks the kid should do — or else you run into the situation that we’re talking about here.

    thanks for the kind words, too — i appreciate them!

  37. Your story really resonates with me, and it’s wonderful to see how it resonates with so many others too, would love to add my contribution…

    I went to the UK when I was 3, following my parents who were both finishing their education there as post-doctorates Like you, academic excellence was never something that I had to be reminded of, the competitive atmosphere and constant need to ‘get ahead’ cultivated at home was something so ingrained and natural to me. In fact, my mum would often tell me to stop studying so hard and chill. Later, following my parents’ divorce and home life becoming more messy, instead of going ‘off-the-rails’ I engrossed myself further into my studies, it felt like the only ‘sure’ thing that gave me a feeling of control and achievement in life. It was also my ticket away from home, and I was determined to exit in style.
    My hard work paid off as I got into the University of Cambridge to study Economics (something I was at best lukewarm about initially, and then came to truly feel was utterly pointless), I proceeded to graduate with a first class honours and land an internship (and then return full time upon graduation) with a top tier management consultancy. I realised that I wanted my parents (and step-parents) to both be proud of my achievements but also to know that I could do it all without their help, in fact, DESPITE the obstacles they had presented in my way.
    Working in consultancy soon lost its glamour, the hours are unrelenting in Asia (I moved here partly to explore, partly to leave unfortunate memories behind, and partly to prove to myself and the world that I could). I could not call myself happy, nevertheless, striving is part of my DNA and I push myself as far as I can. Yet I am far too risk averse to switch to a less prestigious job, no matter the potential happiness boost.

    The day finally came when I reached beyond my depth, I was rejected after an interview for Harvard Business School. It was the first time I had truly failed, and I kid you not, I actually fainted when I read the rejection message, it was a moment neither I, nor the poor diners whose table I crashed into, will ever forget. The sense of failure crushed me, and still stings today. Getting into Wharton was little consolation despite also being a fantastic school, and very likely a better fit for my more introverted personality. I refrained for weeks from telling my parents the news due to shame. When I finally told them, they could not hide the flash of disappointment, now forever carved into my memory. They proceeded with: ‘Whar-what? Where is that?’ – growing up in the UK, US schools beyond Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT was always a mystery. In addition, when they came to learn of the cost of an MBA, their immediate reaction was ‘What?! …Are you sure you need to go?’, I don’t think they’ll ever realise the hurt caused by that statement.
    Indeed, this failure has forced me to reassess. What I now realise is that even pursuing Business school wasn’t for the right reasons, but rather:
    1) I wanted a break from a job I hated
    2) I was following the pack, this is what consultants do in their 3rd year, and the ones who get into HBS/Stanford GSB are venerated
    The last thing I want to do is drag my feet to Business school, supposedly 2 of the best years of your life, and not to mention a huge investment. If I’m honest with myself, my dream is to experience an NGO or foundation in Africa while I’m still young, single and mobile, After all, now is the time to explore exciting continents in jobs which pay peanuts – not when I’m older, settled, with a family and/or a mortgage/business school loan. And truly, there is nothing that is more fulfilling and inspirational to me than the social space. Sure, if I find that it’s not as fantastic as the image in my mind, then I’ll move on, but there is no excuse not to try…

    Today, I’m working on getting over the huge mental hurdle of making this jump and pursuing something my parents would view as irresponsible. My mind is plagued with how to ‘get back on track’ afterwards. Perhaps I just need to take this one step at a time, and a step towards your passion and even potentially your calling cannot be a wrong move

  38. nice post liz! 🙂 just wanted to join in on the fun in this conversation. i found your blog through a mutual friend…

    the short version of my story is this. i come from a long line of physicians. my grandpa was a pioneer neuro-surgeon, my uncles nearly all doctors, father a doctor, my brother a doctor… and no joke, a taiwanese newspaper article hung up on the wall of my house with a picture of my family describing my family as “family of all doctors”. initially i rebelled against the notion of conforming to the family trade, but i eventually realized that i do in fact have a lot of the traits necessary for being a good doctor. i science well, i math well, i do all that stuff well… on the side i’m an MCAT tutor right now b/c that stuff is fun for me.

    but… here’s where the dilemma was for me: is doing what you do best always the right choice? i love helping people and i still think i would make a great doctor. from a purely utilitarian perspective, i believe it would be best for everyone for me to be a doctor… but we are emotional, human, spiritual beings. we are not satisfied with merely being robots.

    so after a complicated mid-twenties of working in medical research, soul searching, re-applying to medical schools, etc. i decided to honor my God-given passions and emotions and take a leap and do what i’ve always loved. music! i started taking classes, i started a band, we quit our jobs together…. we toured the country playing shows… and here I am now in LA figuring out how to turn this into a viable career. while i still haven’t figure out how i’m going to survive doing this, my life has been far more fulfilling. and one of the things i love about LA is that my story is not unique here 🙂 i have met a number of asian-americans with similar stories and i know i will meet more and more.

    i’m well aware there will be many disappointments along this path. but when it comes down to it, you have to decide whether you’re more willing to live with disappointment or regret. i chose disappointment 🙂


  39. Seriously change is not a life crisis. A crisis is having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, your child pass away before you, or watching your loved one suffer from an incurable illness.

    What everyone is describing in this blog is a life changing event that happens to just about everyone; it’s not exclusive to Asian Americans. Since gradudating from college, I have gone through ten employeers and four career changes, all by choice. Stop blaming your parents for teaching you good displine and hard working ethics. They did what they thought was best for you. You are accountable for your own choices even at an early age. Be happy that you are educated and have the ability to make career changes. Yes..I am also an over achieving Asian American; I would teach my children the same values that was taught to me by my parents. It’s better to be an overchiever than an underachiever that financially struggles to pay the month bills. The grass is always greener on the other side. Don’t let work define you or use it as a meter to gauge your happiness. Seek work, life, and balance.

  40. Liz,

    To answer your question about whether it’s the innovativeness of the work done in the startup world that makes people happier, I think that might be partially true, aka knowing what you’re building is making a difference and is at the cutting-edge of things.

    However, the complete answer is much more complicated:

    – On startups: It’s a high risk high reward path. On one hand, it does promise a larger upside than corporate. Like Eric Schmidt’s quote to Sheryl Sandberg: “When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in.” On the other hand, the startup path can also lead to burnout, being fired quickly, paycut, etc. If a startup fails, you could still end up where you started job-wise (you would have learnt a lot regardless) after 2-3 years. Not everyone is happy with these kind of risks. But when your goals & risk-tolerance, and the environment match, that’s when you might find happiness.

    – On work/life in general: Finding happiness at work is a “multi-variable equation.” It factors in the people, company mission, work hours, pay, your priority, and much more. Basically, not all the factors have to exist, but when every or most factor in the equation is negative, that’s when most people start hating their jobs. For example, I know several people who have followed the startup path also didn’t like it because they’re burnt-out, they have no time for personal relationships, or that’s just not for them. Another example, I have friends who’re earning nice, stable livings at 9 to 5 jobs, which they don’t particularly feel passionate about, but they have the freedom to spend time with family or invest in their hobbies after work. They’re really happy, because that’s what they want. We owe it to ourselves to think about our priorities, and live life according to that. When people make choices not based on how they want to live but rather based on fear, pressure, what what others think are good, then they might regret it later. We just have to be true to ourselves. Also in any work environment, there could be bad people, dysfunctional management, or poor cultural fit, etc. We can all benefit from some due diligence before accepting an offer, and not be afraid to cut the cord when we realize the job it’s not the right fit.

    Just some of my reflections over the past year. People might have different thoughts on this. =)


  41. Liz!! My mind wants to engage with every word you write. I feel like we’re on similar journeys and it’s refreshing to say the least. I quit my six figure salaried corporate job 1.5 years ago and I made a decision to only pursue things I’m passionate about. I hated my job even though I could come up with dozens of reasons why I SHOULD be thankful and happy. I came up with a list of things I wanted to do (my dreams) and decided I was going to do them instead of analyzing everything beforehand. In the last year, I’ve hitchhiked across the country, wrote a book about it, traveled through 9 countries in Africa, moved to a small town to pursue a girl, and started my own company. I’m completely broke – have less money than I did when I was in high school, but I’m so happy!! Risk has become my friend, and I’m learning that my heart has its own voice – one that I’ve been ignoring for way too long. Our heart has the ability to listen and to respond and voice its desires. Sometimes I talk to it directly and my heart gives answers. It’s pretty sweet.

    Anyways, all that to say, thanks so much for sharing. You’re an inspiration. Keep pursuing your dreams girl.

  42. Hi Elizabeth. I’m a 27-yo engineering grad became business consultant became engineering grad student again. I didn’t like where this article was going initially but I’m glad you came back to the balance point and qualified the views of “follow your passion”. I’ve been following two schools of thought: my mom’s “develop a skill, put your head down, go to work view, and be content with your job”. Bear in mind my mom came from China which cemented her be-grateful-for-any-job you have view; thus I find myself at times scoffing at when people in their late 20’s telling young people to put off working, travel the world, find your passion … and you will ride off into sunsets on unicorns! At the same time, my old manager when I was considering doing a TFA-type job told me “it’s your life, do whatever you want” (not sarcastically). I think their needs to be a view of realism and practicality coupled with being able to find a job/career you really want. Good luck finding the sweet spot in work.

  43. Hi Liz

    I see how you’ve titled it The Asian American Quarter Life Crisis but I wanted to write to you because as I was reading I realized of how I felt the exact same way and how so many of my peers are going through the same thing but I am in Ethiopian,living in Africa.
    One thing I’ve noticed is as we are all brought up we are told to look for security and stability no one mentions to youth that doing what you love can get you both those things and more too. Instead we are told our dreams can wait and as soon as we get our first house, car, satisfy our parents and get enough money we are free to do whatever but the ugly truth is for many that day will never come.
    Thank You for writing this, its always great to know you are not alone


  44. There’s definitely alot of good points here. I hope you guys just don’t swing the pendulum too far into the other direction.

    I want to present a counterpoint to the “Do what you love” (DWYL) motto that’s so full of romanticism. Let’s be honest in that it’s a form of elitism, and it’s bad advice for most people. Alot of the reason why AAs have been so successful is because they’ve done the grind work to become successful.

    > DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

  45. Hey Liz,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I found it very intriguing.

    I guess I can’t really empathize with you that much, but I do have many questions for you if you have the time. I’m only 18 right now, and I’m just about to embark on this never-ending, hair-pulling journey with my parents. They’re your typical Chinese-American immigrant parents who claim they only want “what’s best for you.” They’re really not as bad as some asian parents I know, but they just never seem to get off my back. I’m in the midst of deciding which college to go to and what to study, and the problem is, I don’t know what I want to do. A typical conversation with my parents will go like this:

    Parent: “Have you thought about what you want to do with your life?”

    Me: not really.

    Parent: “well, you could become a doctor/lawyer/(insert stereotypical asian job here)

    Me: “well, I know i don’t want to become one of those. Their lives seem so boring and mundane.”

    Parent: “well, how about this. You go to any ivy and study finance so at least you’ll have a well-paying job. Then maybe as you grow older, you might discover your passion and then you’ll be able to support yourself. Mom and dad will even help you out!”

    Me: *scoff. No, that just doesn’t seem very exciting.

    Parent: “Well, then what do you want to do?

    Me: *blank stare* I have no clue. But I know I DON’T want to be a lawyer/doctor etc.

    Parent: “Holy Jesus, Kristine. It’s been years and you don’t even know what you want to do! How will you ever be successful? Why would anyone want to hire you? Everyone else is getting a jumpstart on their lives while your sitting at home doing nothing!

    Me: I cry for a few hours, then the day goes on.

    I don’t really know why I am posting this. It’s just that everyone I know in the asian community hates their job and pretty much their life, but is too afraid to quit and start over. I really don’t want to wake up one day and realize what you did, which is that your worst fear came true and you’re a bitter adult who wishes she didn’t abide by her parents’ requests in order to “make them happy.” Do you have any advice on how to not feel like everything you’re doing is for your parents? I’m sick of feeling guilty for no reason at all, and I hate how suffocated I always feel around them. What do you suggest I should do to discover what I want to do? I mean, I know no one can really answer that question but me. It’s just that I am on the verge of just slapping my dad in the face a trillion times when he tells me: “you need to be more efficient with your time.” I HATE him so much when he opens his mouth. Based off your experience, how do I discover my passions while getting my parents to realize they should stop making a big deal out of everything?I just feel so hopeless and am so scared that whatever I decide to do now will only make me more miserable in the future. All I want is to be happy.


    Confused Chinese teen

  46. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for sharing your story and opening up this conversation. It’s heartening to hear of so many people who are in the same situation.

    I’m 23, so maybe I’m lucky in catching the leave-work bug a little earlier. After I graduated from college I worked for two years as a payroll administrator for my alma mater. Salary was good, benefits were great, but as you said “working at a job you hate SUCKS and you don’t want to get up in the morning and go to a job you loathe.” I could see myself getting complacent, getting sucked into the day in-day out monotonous rhythm of my job, which was just good and comfortable enough to stay for but not bad enough to leave. I was already somewhat of a “disgrasian” in college for majoring in a non-STEM field (sociology) and my parents had long given up their dreams of my becoming a doctor, but I was still expected to secure a “respectable”, salaried, career-track white-collar job. I thought maybe I could go with accounting, since that was the closest approved-of track to my payroll analyst job. Funny thing is I hate numbers and I’m terrible at math, but as you said I “didn’t know what else to do” that would be acceptable, and I was ok enough to scrape by in payroll.

    In an ideal, selfish world, I wanted to go into cooking or pastry. I felt guilty (and still do), but I mustered up the gumption to move to NYC to attempt to get a career started in baking. It was hard, no lie – my resume’s all over the place, no more than a few months in one position, trying to get a sense for what would suit me best – but I’m still here half a year later, working a couple different jobs in the food industry. I’m happy to be baking and working in a kitchen, making less than half of what I used to but going home infinitely more satisfied. Yes, money’s tight, and my family and relatives are bemused and disappointed, to say the least. But I just couldn’t imagine continuing down the gray-cubicled path any longer. We’ll see how it all pans out, but for now I think I’ve made the right decision.

  47. whyiloveyou: thank you for sharing your story! you highlighted so many interesting things: how studying and achieving can provide us a sense of control (that’s eventually shattered when we do everything right and still get rejected); how earth-shattering that rejection can be, but how it can finally force us to reassess what we’ve been doing; how hard it can be to get over the mental obstacles of making a change. and i agree with you — it’s way easier to pursue a dream like the one you have when you’re young and not tied down by everything that comes with adulthood. i wish you the best as you contemplate pursuing it!

  48. claudeo: thanks for the kind words — i appreciate them a lot! and thanks for sharing your story. such a bold move! and i loved your point about needing to weigh not just at the utilitarian but also the emotional, human, and spiritual aspect of who we are and what we should do. i’m glad that you feel fulfilled and that you’ve found other people (asian americans, even) with similar stories. best wishes to you!

  49. linh: i don’t think anyone is comparing this to being diagnosed with cancer or losing a child. i do think that the quarter-life crisis is fairly universal, but it’s complicated for asian americans by the cultural factors discussed. i’m incredibly grateful to my parents for caring about my future and instilling in me a strong work ethic. i’m glad that you’ve felt the freedom to change companies and careers, and i hope that more people feel the same.

  50. RG: love, love, love your insights — thank you so much! the schmidt quote is spot-on, as is your point that happiness at work is a multivariable equation. and i couldn’t agree more that we need to think about our own priorities — whether it’s having work that’s incredibly meaningful, having time and energy to pursue our hobbies and relationships outside of work, etc. etc. etc. — before deciding where to work and what kinds of jobs to pursue. and those priorities will be different for everyone. i so appreciate your thoughts!

  51. kyungmin: you’re too kind to me, friend — thank you! i totally hear you on not being happy at work even though you can think of a million reasons why you should be (and the guilt that often accompanies that conflict) and learning to embrace risk instead of fear it. it does sound like we’re on similar paths, though yours sounds much more exciting than mine — i had no idea you had done so much in the last year and a half! that’s awesome, dude. i’m so glad to hear that you’re so happy, and i’m super-excited for you!

  52. joseph: i’m with you on needing to find that’s something realistic and practical on one hand, but also meaningful and fulfilling on the other. i think it can be tempting to swing the pendulum completely in the other direction and be like, “i can do whatever i want, regardless of the consequences, and everything will take care of itself!” but the older i get, the more i realize that that’s a little irresponsible — you gotta pay the bills somehow! so my hope is that instead of falling so far on the stable/secure extreme end of the spectrum, we’ll be able to find the sweet spot in the middle that you described. thank you for the well-wishes — i wish you the same!

  53. mahder: thank you for your insights! i had no idea that this would be applicable on the other side of the world, but it brings me some comfort to know that asian americans aren’t the only ones who experience this. i totally agree that it’s possible to find a job that’s secure and stable and meaningful — and that if we wait to pursue our dreams until we’ve made our parents happy and made enough money, many of us will never get around to it. best wishes to you as you figure out your path!

  54. jamie: i appreciate your thoughts. i read the slate article while i was writing this piece, and it gave me serious pause. but after wrestling with it for a bit, i came to the same conclusion that you seem to have reached — if my parents are at one end of the spectrum, then DWYL is on the other, and the key is to find some kind of happy medium between the two.

    also, i thought the penelope trunk quote in the forbes article you shared was perfect: “… career decisions are not decisions about ‘what do I love most?’ Career decisions are about what kind of life do I want to set up for myself.” and i imagine that for most of us, the best kind of life is one in which we can pay our bills but also find meaning and satisfaction in our work. even if it’s not the one thing that we enjoy most in life. after all, no one is going to pay me to eat or watch college football. 🙂

  55. kristine/confused chinese teen:

    oh, i sympathize. you are not alone in having immigrant parents who won’t get off your back about what you want to do with your life, even though you could probably explore it a little if they gave you an inch or two of space. i love that you’re asking these questions now, because now is the time to be asking them, and not when you’re already many steps into a career.

    a few thoughts, in no particular order:

    1. as obnoxious and suffocating as they might be, your parents really do want what’s best for you. they want you to be able feed and clothe yourself and have a place to live and consistent health insurance. basically, they want you to be able to take care of yourself and not be living on the street. and they are ANXIOUS about this possibility, especially if you’re their oldest child and they’ve never seen any of their children actually make it in this country. so they deal with their anxiety by relentlessly pounding you with questions, because they do not have the emotional awareness to know the impact that their interrogation has on you.

    2. it gets better. your relationship with your parents will likely improve if you go away for college and you no longer have to deal with their firing squad of questions on a daily basis. (this was true for me, at least.)

    3. very few people know what they want to do at 18. your parents knew what they were going to do at that age only because their test scores determined it for them and they had little choice in the matter. you’re definitely not alone.

    4. the way to feel like not everything you’re doing is for your parents is to do find something that you enjoy or feel strongly about and do it. (this applies not just to careers, but also to the rest of your life.)

    5. as you probably know already, finding what you really want to do isn’t a linear process, and it can be a frustrating, detour-filled journey. but it can also be really fun and interesting and exciting, and you’ll learn a ton of about yourself in the process. i think the best things you can do to discover what you want to do are:

    – it may go without saying, but pay attention to what subjects you like and don’t like. what are you excited to learn more about? (that could be a tentative major while you figure things out.) what would you never study again, if you had the choice?

    – do the process of elimination. are their any jobs right now that you know you wouldn’t like? (it sounds like you have a few ideas already.) cross them off the list. look at the progress you’re making!

    – ask a lot of adults about their jobs, whether or not they like them, and why. take notes.

    – go to college undecided. the vast majority of college classes are in fields that you never got to study in high school. take classes that sound interesting. if they keep sounding interesting, take more; if not, don’t take any more and try something else. you’ll get to explore a ton and learn a lot about the world.

    – when you find a field or a few that sound interesting, try to get in touch with people in that field. if you don’t know anyone, get in touch with the career center or the alumni office of your college, and they should be able to connect you with someone. ask them about what they do and what they did to get there. pay attention to jobs that sound interesting. try to get internships or volunteer positions in these fields so you get some first-hand experience for what it’s like — and exposure to all the options, many of which you will not know existed until you actually have a job in the field.

    – if you still don’t know what you want to do when you graduate, don’t sweat it. most people don’t know then, either. DO NOT go to grad school yet. find a job that gives you exposure to a ton of different fields, like consulting, or find a job in a field that you think you might be interested in (e.g., a paralegal at a law firm), or find a job that pays the bills while you figure keep exploring and talking to people on your own time.

    – once you’ve figured out something you might want to do, then you can think about grad school. but only commit once you know that you need a graduate degree in order to do what you want to do.

    – if you find at some point that you’re very unhappy with what you’re doing, it’s not the end of the world. a lot of people don’t get it right the first time. you can change, and it appears that for our generation, changing careers will be the norm; some experts estimate that people in our generation will have an average of 5-7 careers in our lifetime.

    6. i imagine that if you don’t know yet what you want to do, your parents, in all of their anxiety, might want to see that you’re making some effort toward figuring it out. so you can probably mollify them somewhat by demonstrating that you’re trying. visit to the career center at your school, or meet with an adult for coffee who does something that you might find interesting (extra points if it’s someone your parents know).

    in a worst-case scenario, you could always lie and say that you’ve chosen finance, though you’re really undecided. this could backfire if they then want you to start getting some kind of experience in the field. but it could keep them at bay while you do the real work of figuring out what you want to do.

    this is probably far more than you bargained for. but the bottom line is: you’re not alone. it may take some time, but i have full confidence that you’ll be able to find something that pays your bills and that you find meaningful and fulfilling. best wishes to you as you start the journey!

    — liz

  56. gromit: thanks for sharing your story! loved it. i totally hear you on the “good and comfortable enough to stay for but not bad enough to leave” — that’s how i felt about grad school. props to you for making such a bold move — that must’ve taken some serious guts! i’m glad that you’re so much more satisfied with what you’re doing now than what you were doing before and that you feel like you’ve made the right decision. that’s awesome.

  57. We’ve never met, but I think we could be twins. I read your blog post and recognized nearly every facet of your struggle, because I went through something very very similar. I’m also a recovering Asian-American overachiever but have a PhD in cell biology. I left the bench without any idea of what I wanted to do – only with an idea of what I did _not_ want to do. Six years later, I’m working in science and healthcare PR. Never imagined I would find my way here and it is by no means perfect, but I’m much happier now than when I was in grad school.

    I’ve written about my career transition elsewhere, so will just link rather than re-hash!

  58. THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this Liz!!

    I was born and raised in CA by parents from Taiwan. There were many Asians in the area I grew up in so I can totally relate to your story. Matter of fact I just visited my old neighborhood and gasped at a Chinese tutoring center that posts the names and colleges their attendees get accepted to. So fitting!

    In high school DJing was my life. I’d come home after school and spend hours & hours practicing on my turntables. I dreamt of DJing professionally but I always treated it as a hobby and figured I’d one day have to get a “real job.” During college I fell off from DJing and that continued after graduating as well. I after earning a degree in business w/ a minor in philosophy I was went on to work at a dot com. I still kept up with music I but didn’t have the same passion toward DJing as I did in high school. It wasn’t as exciting and I guess I was busy living in the “real world.”

    But 2007 was a huge re-awakening for me. I realized I still loved DJing and got waaaay back into it!! By then I was nearing 30 and didn’t want to wake up one day wondering ‘what if.’ I started taking every gig I could – even if they didn’t pay much. I’d work at the dot com during the day and once or twice a week I’d DJ a happy hour or party. I kept doing that until 2011 when I quit my job to pursue DJing full time. I went to school for production and devoted my full effort to DJing. And that’s continued to today!! It’s less stable than working 9-5 and my parents will probably never understand what I do or why but I know that it’s just something I had to do. The word “amazing” doesn’t fully describe the feeling I get when I’m on stage rocking a party.

    The transition wasn’t (isn’t) easy but I think it’s all about taking incremental steps. Do whatever you can on the side and keep building. Save money, talk to the right people & keep putting yourself out there.

    If there’s anything I can do to help the cause please feel free to reach out!! Watching the TV show Roadtrip Nation really helped me. OH, and check out the video I just watched.

  59. I feel compelled to reply to Confused chinese teen. You poor thing, it sounds like you are really going through a difficult time. Just a bit of background: I am in my late 20s and have been working as a lawyer for approximately the past 5 years. I too, knew more about what I didn’t want to do, than what I did want to do when it was time for me to decide on a career path. I knew I didn’t want to have to so anything to do with numbers, ie maths or science. I excelled at humanities so though that law would provide a good foundation even if I didn’t end up practising. During my degree I found my interest and passion growing. At work, I have good patches and bad patches, but that is life, I think.

    I really feel that the phrase and sentiment “do what you love” is overused and extremely unhelpful sometimes. I think instead it should be “love what you do”. I think that having the right attitude really allows you to find fulfillment in whatever it is you are doing. Your heart and soul needs to be in it, otherwise you will never get anything out. Since adopting this attitude, I have found my career so much more rewarding.

  60. Thank you Liz for your story. My name is Elizabeth too :). You’re writing is clear, concise, and has a great style–I enjoy reading your work, please share more.

    I’m in a corporate job, and despite my best efforts to convince myself otherwise, I think it sucks. I wrestle with myself each morning during my snail-paced hour long commute why I keep at this torture. Because that’s how it feels. I have a goal to stay around until a specific date about one year from now, on good terms, and learning as much as a can. My intuition tells me that this is a good place with good people and there is more for me to learn in experiencing it this next year rather than leaving early, risk burning bridges in my quest, or whatever else doom and gloom would come upon me ;).

    I do like this experience, because it’s forcing me to “let go”–not all work and project successes need to happen nor should. It’s ok if my initiative is dumb, ridiculed, or wrong, or I get taken off a project for another as has happened and will continue to happen. And don’t get me wrong, I’m experiencing success in this environment regardless of the “make every free shot in your career” and “lean in” advice that is looming out there (note: I loved the LeanIn book btw, my statement doesn’t entirely capture the goods in that book). I try not to attach my ego about the failures or the successes, but I do my best each day to have a clear intention to produce good work and make sure my interactions with co-workers make all of our days brighter, not dimmer, as I can ultimately sense: a lot of us in corporate jobs are, in matters of work and more: unhappy, dissatisfied, doing it for the stability and the paycheck, and are otherwise, tired and uninspired or here out of an financial obligation to their families, mortgages, school loans, etc.

    This experience has also forced me to teach myself, for the very first time, to realize how to relax and to learn what I really enjoy. Alas, I’m not Asian-American, however, I grew up in a similar environment in that I come from humble beginnings with my mother’s family as Russian immigrants who came to the US in-debt and who ended up leaving this earth having built true value in real estate, bank accounts, and, most importantly, helping others less fortunate than themselves. That background does reinforce parenting, in particular my parenting, in line with “ever present money worries”, career stability because “at least you have a job”, and sacrificing health and wellness and quality of life (which is easier to establish and maintain NOW rather than later) in order to fill the retirement account buckets, the real estate bucket, the emergency bucket, the next smart, successful generation of kids bucket and on and on.

    My ultimate freedom is this: instead of, during childhood/formative years, spending my parents time, resources, and psychologies learning about what makes me tick, what turns me on, and what I love and enjoy doing in life, I get a chance now to have a record of successes at a lot of things I’ve tried or endured with a unique story/resume that stands out. Most importantly, I have learned to fail on my dime and changing course in each step forward is my decision, not made to satisfy anyone else’s expectations but rather, made to satisfy my own expectations.

    Process: how this manifests in career freedom?

    1. Say Yes: I say yes to outside contract work to try new experiences, teams, and work projects–even as a beginner, even if it’s incredibly uncertain, even if I fail, even if I don’t know where I’ll have the time (I fully state all of this to each project that hires me as well)
    2. Shut Off: I shut off my full time job on the weekends and most evenings, even if it pisses people off
    3. Ask: I ask for guidance each day, and find lovely pieces like this one to read and stories to hear that feel good, and so “right on” *insert hippy fist pump*
    4. Invest: I took my stable corporate bonus from Dec. 2013 to hire a career coach (previously, successfully self-employed, I no longer fear investing in personal development, coaches, outsourced help, etc). In addition, I invest by managing my finances well, so that I won’t have “golden handcuffs”–I can choose to leave at any time…I live on 40% of my take home pay, am properly insured, and know how to continue these habits when I’m self-employed again.
    5. Seek: I seek fulfillment in as much of my life outside of my work as possible (for instance, this past weekend, I went skydiving, last week in the evening, I test drove a sports car I love, Saturday I went on a seven mile hike with friends, cooked healthful foods for meals, and shared those meals at tables with long conversation alongside family and friends, etc.)

    I will definitely encourage my children, which I hope to have one day, to learn how to teach themselves what their strengths are, what they enjoy, and how they can best be of service in gratitude for those strengths discovered. Final parting thought, parenting seems so different to my present reality and at times so difficult as an observer; I hope to do the best I can at it. I hope that I teach my future children to learn how to be healthy with daily sunlight, fresh air, physical activity, and clean food in addition to a positive outlook on life for more quality in their years. The best teacher will have to be showing them: my life as a service to their education, not my words, not my praises, not my chore lists, not my commands, but through my actual choices each day.

    What I like about your approach? It’s similar advice I received from a friend of mine when she was in a great job she didn’t enjoy which seemed to manifest similar emotions in other personal life expectations and decisions throughout her life. She responded to me by saying, “I just decided that I didn’t want to defer my happiness anymore. If I wanted to live with my boyfriend before we were married, I wanted to do that. If I didn’t enjoy my job, I no longer thought staying there another day would help anyone. We moved in together, we’re now married, I left the job once I found a better one, and I am a million times better and happier for it.”

    So I have my “end date”. Things could change before then, but staying any longer “wouldn’t be helping anyone.” Until then, if nothing else, I’m learning how to fail, in a stable environment which comes with successes too.

  61. I’ve always found myself in a strange place when it comes to this debate. I have only ever been good at one thing – English – and have been fortunate thus far to make a career that I love out of writing (one my accountant Asian mother doesn’t really get but fortunately my engineering-qualified father eventually went into journalism so it’s not a huuuge deal). That said, I am definitely not a blind follower of the ‘do you what love/follow your passion/the money will follow/you’ll never work a day in your life’ philosophy. I generally love what I do but it’s not all sunshine and roses. I am also painfully aware not everyone has a burning passion to follow; I am married to one of those people – he’s one of the types of people Barbara Sher identifies in Refuse to Choose as someone who finds most pleasure in a life outside work. So I’m totally on board with finding your own spot on the spectrum.

  62. first and foremost… thank you for writing this thoughtful piece on the asian-american quarter life crisis. i’m currently 28 and imminently leaving my stable and comfortable career as a marketing analyst, one that i have dedicated my whole post-graduate life to, one that has given me little happiness.

    at first, i believed this was merely a quarter-life crisis but you’re absolutely right… i feel this is a phenomenon that is really emphasized in the first generation asian-american community. your parents are of a special breed, ones who have come to america for a white-collar career. however my parents came to america working construction, retail jobs, graveyard shifts at 7-11 to provide a comfortable life for my sister and me. there was an unspoken pressure to improve upon their status and uphold financial stability as the paramount value in life.

    and so i happily complied, forgoing my love for art (because how in the world could i have a stable income painting pictures?) and applied to engineering school instead. i excelled in math and science, so this seemed like a no-brainer.

    i am a star child, receiving my degree from an ivy league school, earning 6 figures at a cushy job in NYC, and never once having to ask my parents for money. and yet, i felt empty and questioned what impact i was making. why didn’t this quality of life satisfy me?

    and so after much soul searching i’m giving it all up, much to my mother’s disbelief and confusion. although she’s trying to be supportive, she can’t understand why i would give up a great salary with excellent benefits to start from square one.

    well, i’ll be taking my leap of faith soon! let’s see how this goes…

    thank you again for sharing your story. reading it felt as though you were narrating my life.

  63. Hi Liz.
    Wow. Just amazingly wow.
    You so eloquently put into words a struggle I’ve been feeling for the past three years of my life. I’m South Asian (read: Indian) and I’ve had the exact same story: growing up you just try to succeed in everything, be the best at it all, and aim for some super ambitious career that will rake in the dough. And granted, I had my mishaps (and handful of not-so-stellar grades) but for the most part I totally lived up to that expectations. Now here’s how my story goes:
    I came into college VERY pre-med like that was the *ONLY* thing I wanted to do with my life. No questions asked. But as I was going through the Bio program at my school, I became more & more disillusioned with all the little hoops & circus acts you had to do to get to being a doctor { “pre-med” classes, lab research, mcat stuff, “step” board exams, residencies, etc.}. I was doing poorly in the “pre-med” classes and I absolutely *LOATHED* my chemistry classes (all of them. every. single. one.) and I was so miserable that I didn’t even see a point in living when I’d screwed up so badly in my eyes. I saw myself only as a failure, as inadequate, as a terrible “pre-med” candidate, that was ALL I saw myself as. The worst part was that this whole time I *KNEW* from the bottom of my heart that I had everything it took to not just pass those classes, but ace them.
    But I just wasn’t doing that.
    Why? I didn’t really know back then but looking back, the issues began to show themselves. The procrastination, lack of priorities, time management, etc. etc. but the real glaring highlight, the big reason was: I just wasn’t motivated. I didn’t want to do it so, I wasn’t. Mind you, the medical doctor dream still existed somewhere in my head it was just that I really didn’t want to do the grunt work that would have to be done to get me there and the more I thought about it, the more I detested every little facet of it: the amount of time it would take me (OMG 31?!?), the competition and ruthlessness and animosity it brewed among students, the people doing it for money, prestige.These same people I would have to work with, the environment they would create that I would then subject myself to for med school and residency; it just seemed so hostile that I didn’t want to struggle through that. Not to mention the weight of other people’s lives on your shoulders, one wrong decision, one bad day and you could risk a lot more than a photocopying mistake. I volunteered at the hospital throughout this experience and surprisingly, I loved it. I really enjoyed it and I have continued to volunteer because I just really enjoy that environment and the people and stuff.
    And I started to think I just wasn’t cut out for this; I couldn’t pass the classes, I didn’t like the material, what was I doing I asked myself? It was like something had been slowly chipping away at my resolve this whole time and now suddenly all that drive was gone. I was failing out of my major and I was clinically depressed and I couldn’t even remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. So I asked myself a very important questions, I thought, “How can I help other people (what I wanted to do as a doctor), when I can’t even help myself? How can I do any good in the world while I myself am this miserable and unhappy?”
    And when I couldn’t answer those questions, I realized I had to do something to change my situation. So, just this past year {December}, I changed majors. I started trying to get out of the rut I’d dug myself in and attempt to navigate in the new waters of the unknown. To accept that I was going to have a future that wasn’t laid out for me by an already in place system (cough cough, the medical field) or a nicely titled career that everyone knew about. And that’s been the hardest part: just letting go. Letting go of that dream because, let’s face it, it wasn’t meant for me and I wasn’t really meant for it. It’s been hard kinda accepting that I made a lot of mistakes and that they negatively affected my future. I still have a lot to learn and while I definitely don’t think I’ll be trying to study for the mcat anytime soon, I’m still considering pre-health as an option. We’ll see.
    Right now I’m just trying to work on self-improvement and grow as a person since I still have a few years at college to get my other stuff (career, job, etc.) in order. But I still have those days where I’m sad about how things have turned out. I constantly worry about job security and what my income will be. My parents have been surprisingly supportive and they just want me to be happy and do well in something (for a change). But I still have a long way to go. The whole “pre-med” mindset hasn’t really warn off for me. I still feel inadequate and stupid sometimes when I look at how bad I was at being pre-med. I get this bitter, resentment, type feeling whenever I happen to run into a pre-med friend of mine. It still stings, I suppose. It’s not that I still want to do that, it’s just kinda hurtful knowing I couldn’t. Anyways, I’m making this too long. Bottom line: I feel you, buddy. I’m still going through that and trying to figure it out. But it’s really really really encouraging and inspiring to hear your story because it gives me both hope and faith that hopefully, one day, it’ll work out. Thank you 🙂

  64. This is a wonderful article and I think it bears careful consideration for the vast majority of people in the world. Not everyone can love what they do, but in an ideal world everyone is on the path to doing something they love.

    That said, I find it interesting and somewhat odd that a resume can make sense, or lack thereof. While there are certainly compelling stories to be told in the job experience and expertise that leads you to your current interview, I find it hard to believe the full list of someone’s employment history is ever supposed to make sense. In fact, people are advised to leave only relevant job experience on their resume, not because there are lots of people trying to jump careers at the last minute, but probably because everyone has taken jobs they weren’t sure would lead to a lifelong career.

    And that’s just life. I think everyone should try careers to see what they like. Something like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’s strip about lifetimes. Until someone finds the job that adds seven days to their week, it doesn’t make sense not to.

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  66. I left my investment banking job at UBS in Sept 2013 after five years despite landing in the industry with a sub-par 2.8 GPA from a non-target school. I was just sick of bullshitting myself and knew I was way more resourceful going down my own path. (

    It’s quite simple really – doing ordinary things don’t bring you extraordinary results, and if you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.

  67. What a great article, Elizabeth! I found myself nodding in empathy the whole way through. I’m only a measly sophomore in college, but I really can relate to everything you put down here. I’ve already struggled with the question of personal fulfillment vs. financial stability – me on one side, my parents on the other.

    When I was in high school, I told everyone I was going into law because that’s what my parents expected of me and, to a high schooler, the conception that one day I’d be stuck in a 9-5 career I’d regret seemed so far away compared to the immediate concerns of performing well in high school that it was unfathomable. When I went to college, that reality suddenly became a lot more real. Being around kids who wanted to go into law because they ACTUALLY ENJOYED IT just emphasized the fact that I’d very likely end up miserable if I continued down the path. Long story short, I decided to piss off a lot of people and transferred from my parents’ dream college for me to another school to study film (the compromise to this “chase your dreams” thing was that I’m also being forced to pick up a degree in something more “practical” but I suppose that’s a sacrifice I can live with, haha).

    Honestly, I feel so freed now. Not only because I love what I’m studying and am stubbornly struggling toward a goal that I actually WANT to struggle toward, but also because I learned to stand up to my parents – the hardest people in the world to let down. I feel like I have more self-confidence in my ability to be independent, make good decisions and guide my own life, so in spite of the huge scandal I may have started, emotionally and mentally, it’s been great!

    I’d also like to point out something else that your article reminded me of. Since making that decision, people keep pointing out to me that as an Asian, it would be infinitely harder for me to make it in a less “Asian-friendly” field as, say, law or med or business. Which is something I was aware of, but I never considered the implications of this fact. I feel like another part of the reason why so many Asian children get pushed into med/business/law is because there has been a precedent of Asians succeeding in those fields; hence those fields are “safe” and “stable.” It’s frustrating that it’s such a vicious cycle – the lack of Asians in “unconventional” fields just discourages those who otherwise would explore those fields because of that added fear of racial discrimination. It’s not invalid, and I can totally see why immigrant parents especially would think this way, but I believe this mindset needs to change. Am I overgeneralizing?

    Anyway, that’s what I got out of your article. It was really thought-provoking and I’ll be sure to share it around. Maybe nudge my parents a little with it 😀

  68. I graduated from medical school and left for San Francisco to do software engineering and entrepreneurship. Now I am happier than ever! Email me if you are interested in my experience! You’ll probably be surprised how communal the experience of being handcuffed to your parent’s expectations is!

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  70. Frodo: Have you considered a Physician Assistant program? It’s usually a 2 year program vs. 4(+) in medical school and you’ll be doing similar things as a doctor.

    I agree with what a lot of you said. One thing I disagree on is if you’re remotely interesting in the Sciences, declare that as a major, because in some universities, the majors are impacted and hard to declare/transfer into, while it’s always easy to transfer from a science to a non-science major. Also science/engineering majors tend to have a ton more classes/requirements/pre-requisites.

    I’ve been lucky in my life to have supportive parents, but my mom still had her own opinion. Ironically she pushed me away from the medical and law school fields, because she thought they took too much time and money and they were super stressful jobs, especially if I wanted to have a family in the future. I think she was hoping for Pharmacy, which I did think about in high school and even volunteered at the local hospital pharmacy. Being the obedient daughter, I listened, and majored in Biology in undergrad, but instead followed my dreams and pursued a Masters in Forensic Science in hopes of becoming a law enforcement agent/officer. My parents weren’t happy about that, but luckily for me they still supported me. And I actually didn’t become an agent/officer due to some circumstances and fell back on being a Forensic Scientist. Even then, I only worked as one for a year, and then I got married and moved with my husband to his new job in another country. We’re returning this year, and I suffered a mini-quarter life crisis, because I am starting over again, since forensic science jobs are hard to come by unless you move for the job, but we’re moving for husband’s job. My resume is all over the place.

    To keep myself grounded, I remind myself of the people I’ve met at my jobs along the way. I remember one coworker who didn’t finish college until her 30s, because she went back to school after her kids were grown and she was embarking on a forensic science career in her 40s. It’s never too late to find a job in something you like, it’s just that you have to be willing to start from the bottom again and I think most of us have the ability to perservere.

  71. Dear Elizabeth,

    Much like others, I found your link through Facebook… and I’m so glad I did. Not only has your post resonated, the replies and comments of others have as well.

    I’m 32 now, almost 33, and one of the (un?)lucky ones with parents who don’t support her career choice. I think in some respects I disappointed them early — choosing to go to Penn instead of Harvard — and the not-becoming-a-doctor rebellion got folded into that.

    What I didn’t anticipate was how long they’d hold onto a grudge.

    It’s been 15 years, and they still haven’t forgiven me. The last time they visited, they moved a bookcase and screwed the ballast strap into the wall… on top of my undergrad diplomas (Yes, I did a dual degree. Still not Harvard.) They’ve transferred their longings over to HBS, even though I already have a Masters, and constantly tell me to quit my lucrative and successful job (first in corporate finance then in management consulting). They’d rather have me move in with them and live off of them rather than acknowledge I have my own house, my own mortgage, my own career, and my own life.

    The sad part of this is that my parents love me so. very. much. Such a common story for Asian immigrants, with perhaps a tinge of extra drama: they grew up poor, abandoned at the in-laws until 9 yrs. old in my dad’s case and without a father in my mom’s, had 7 miscarriages before I came along, came to the US with $100 in between them and an elementary school education + Korean GED, and all they had was each other and me. I turned out to be such a bright and shining part of their lives — something to be proud of, to show the world what they’ve accomplished.

    The irony is… they’re incredibly successful now. Mini moguls, in fact, and if they could only learn to derive their self-worth from their own lives they would be on top of the world.

    About 2 years ago, with a lot of therapy (which is another thing I think you should write about, if you haven’t already: Asians / Asian-Americans and the “taboo” of mental health), I realized my parents were not going to change. I may never get the support I need from my parents, because fundamentally they don’t see me as separate. Part of that is culture, and part of that is psychology; all of it is reality.

    This is an issue that I grapple with well past my quarter-life mark. I fill my days with purpose, friends, a cat, and a great degree of introspection instead and have achieved some measure of contentment. I fail at conforming to my parents’ rigid wishes, and for some days I worry that I will always feel lesser. It’s conversations like this that make me think otherwise.


  72. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I often think about how in high school and college, we were surrounded by all these Asian-Americans who looked like they were on a trajectory to change the world. Now out there in the real world and about 15 years later, people were successful (6 digit salaries with lots of initials after their name) but just not to the level that it seemed they would be. I think what you write about resonates on the reason why. I read an excellent book, “Success: Built to Last” by Jim Collins. He explained that it is hard to compete at something if you are not fully passionate about it and really enjoy doing it because out there, someone is absolutely fanatical about doing what you are doing. They will be doing it in their free time, at home, whenever.

    My background is that some fortune tellers told me I’d be a doctor when I was very little. So I became a surgeon and fortunately it’s something I actually enjoy doing. I had several classmates in medical school that after finishing school, did something completely different like consulting or investment banking. I do think there is some value in having that MD and just finishing what you started even if you don’t ever see another patient once medical school ends. It always sounds more impressive to say oh he/she is an MD, but decided to do something else. Like that Asian guy from the Hangover series, Ken Jeong who plays Leslie Chow — I always hear the remark that he’s a comedian actor, but he used to be a physician.

  73. scwai: holy cow, i think you’re right — we might be twins. reading your posts was like reading transcripts of my own thoughts. fielding questions like “so… what was all that for?” making the case for transferable skills (and thanking the heavens that my phd is in psychology and not, say, architecture — the argument is much easier to make). not wanting a life of research, which i ruled out long before i ruled out clinical work. the importance of serendipity — 4 of the 6 jobs i’ve had in the last 3 years have simply fallen into my lap. how many doors a phd can open. i’ve never met anyone else who actually finished a phd before changing careers, so reading your insights was refreshing, to say the least. thank you for letting me know that i’m not alone!

  74. Liz, really appreciate you taking the time to reply to my (and others’) posts. Just browsed through a few others and I think you’re definitely not alone in your struggles, whether it’s related to career, identity, or other topics. Keep up the great work, would love to read more about your experiences and insights.

  75. I’m a graphic designer doing motion graphics. I personally don’t find it appealing like I used to. It’s not like I tried to be a Doctor or Engineer but I became this designer to appease the voice in my head that it makes money being creative. It does in some ways provide creativity but I find that I personally can’t stand being in front of a computer all day taking orders from people and dealing with the lifestyle of working 10 hr days in small studios. I honestly rather do something with urban agriculture, culinary ventures or sustainability (all which I find is very creative. Hence creativity doesn’t mean painting as most people think). Part of the blame I make is my parents but I have to realize it’s more about me and what choices I made. It’s better to come to these conclusions by self reflection. Instead we see people never reflecting and never acknowledging and sweeping it under the rug. I find this very akin to Asian culture. Many of us develop these cultural cues due to our parents and cultural backgrounds by osmosis. It’s very old fashioned but it’s based off of our parents coming from nothing, and wanting to provide security for their children and family. In many ways you have to find the place to forgive and understand that your parents only did what they did because that is all they knew. Even in the modern era of mass info and tech and disappearing borders. But they come from a world where they would ask “Would you rather struggle and starve or have food on the table and money in the bank with a stable job?” Yes it sucks to be 30 something and to say wow my job sucks (for whatever reason) and I feel so freaking unfulfilled and unsatisfied doing whatever I’m doing. That shows how culturally and socially we latch on to “careers” and “timelines” and “youth”. It takes a mature individual to realize they need to do something different. Not based on how many PHDs or Degrees you have on your wall or how old you are. I’ve met many Asian Americans with degrees or whatever act like little children. That is also something I find irritating about Asian culture, the immature passive aggressiveness and many cases a feeling of “i’m better then you because fill in the blank. It’s even harder when we depend so much on money to live our lives and accrue massive debt from college tuition. Don’t get me started on how some parents who can’t seem to be involved with your education and interests to push being a doctor or some sort of vocation that requires mountains of debt and say to get a loan. We also live in a country where Asians have been stereotyped to death and in many ways we support those stereotypes death. I’d like to see more Asians break that mold of asexual, geek, passive, isolationist persona and especially the mold of “I’m the Asian rebel who is psycho weird!”. Both are hyper extremes on the spectrum. But we also need our country to stop perpetuating racial stereotypes as well. As more of our generation comes to terms with their identity. Their children can be raised in a way where they can accept themselves without having to live to societal expectations and stereotypes.

  76. Wow, there are some serious replies here.

    For me, I’ve loved rap music growing up, it just connected to me deeply.

    Music in general. I never had a musical background, but after graduating college and studying abroad and some personal mishaps, I had the strong desire to do some self-reflection.

    There was always a silent voice inside of me telling me to rap. Fast forward about a year and I’m in North Hollywood at the beginnings of my journey. Doing a show this Saturday.

    I’m definitely not more financially well off, but my heart rejoices in my personal journey I have embarked upon.

    Tips: The book the “Alchemist” and the documentary “Finding Joe” are great sources of inspiration when fighting an internal battle with what one’s purpose is, cheers!

  77. This post hit so hard at home. I have been dealing with this for the past few months. Every day I go to work as a corporate lawyer and I am miserable. I buy all sorts of things to help myself feel better, but nothing fills the hole. My whole life, I have been very good at “achieving”, whatever that means. I went to the top private high school, college, and law school. Upon graduating, I joined the #2 law firm in the entire country. Despite having this success, I have always been deeply unhappy with my professional life. I’ve switched jobs 2 times now, each time misery follows me. Today, and every day going forward, I am hoping to be fired, not having the courage to quit. But an end is in sight. I plan on becoming an EMT, doing something that I feel will be fulfilling, albeit much lower paying. Until then, I will keep slogging ahead, making a six figure salary, but it feels much better that there is an out for me somewhere out there.

  78. Fantastic post, Liz. You did a great job encapsulating a lot of the problems experienced by first-generation Asians. As for me, I’ve given this issue an inordinate amount of thought, and despite struggling in an uncannily similar way to previous commenters, I feel like I’m pretty happy (delusionally or otherwise).

    My life so far has been utterly cookie-cutter. I did well in high school, graduated from an Ivy, and am now a second year medical student. I inevitably encountered all the same bumps on the road that others have noted: “What the Hell am I doing?” chief among them. Naturally, I fought with my parents about it.

    But in the end, I’m pretty happy. Yeah, school can be a drag. I study a lot, and apparently it only gets worse. However, and I think someone above mentioned it, it’s about attitude more than anything else, although I hesitate to say it quite like that (it sounds aggravatingly trite). All things considered, medicine is actually a pretty good field. Obviously it pays well enough, but more to the point, it’s nice to make people feel better. Also, I have goals that I work toward outside of school, like writing a book, or competing in sports — those definitely provide a boost. At my core, I’m a happy guy in general, and if I look at the big picture, medicine is a great field with a rare guarantee of quality of life, and it seems like I still have the time to do some of the other things I like. I hate it when people say this, but think of all the other people who have it way worse than you.

    Most importantly, I’ve made great friends in school, and really it’s the connections you make that bring you happiness. I feel like I’d be perfectly happy working in a tollbooth with these people.

    All of that being said, I would take a different approach with my kids than what my parents did for me. Well, not a wholesale change in approach — more of an abbreviated stance. I would urge them to do well in school, in everything. I would tell them to work hard, to think critically, to be open-minded, to care about people, to push their limits, to fight to be the best in sports, school, etc. Still, I would be loathe to give career advice, unless they really struggled with those typically Asian goals early on.

    My reasoning: if you score in the top .01% on the SAT and are an Ivy League graduate, surely you can consider yourself somewhat of an outlier, and can expect to do at least reasonably well in any field you choose. If you’ve proven yourself to be among the best in high school and college, you can and should have confidence in your ability to outcompete anyone in any field that you enter — so it might as well be the one you like. Put another way, if someone told me she had graduated from Harvard and wanted to be a paper salesman, I’d expect them to be the best paper salesman around. By graduating from Harvard, she had proven up to that point that she could work exceptionally hard, and that she also had a good head on their shoulders. I’d expect her to succeed at anything.

    Sorry for the rambling, but in a nutshell, I guess my point is this: for the people that don’t have the gumption to jump ship (like me), yeah, it kind of sucks that your parents brainwashed you into picking a field that you don’t necessarily like. But they were probably doing it with you in their hearts, and they probably picked a pretty good field. Anyway, your job isn’t your life — your life is the people you love — and it doesn’t hurt to have some extra money lying around. As for those who are contemplating starting over, my (unsolicited and unqualified) advice would be to really ask yourself if you believe in yourself. Have you proven yourself to be the cream of the crop? If you think you’re able to outcompete, to outwork, to outperform your competition, then by all means, go for it. The top percentile of any field can surely expect a decent living.

    Thanks again for the great post, Liz. It’s been nice reading everyone else’s thoughts, and airing out my own.

  79. Thanks for these thoughts. You put into words what I’ve been feeling but haven’t taken the time to pinpoint. I’m a 26-year-old Asian (Chinese) American. I went to a magnet high school, finished college a year early, and went straight to law school. Two years into practicing law, I had a prestigious job, more money than I knew how to spend, the promise of a successful career trajectory… and was extremely stressed, having health problems as a result, and was, above all, incredibly unfulfilled. My husband, like yours, has been nothing but supportive of me finding a new career, so I’ve left law and am now contemplating other avenues.

    My story may be slightly different in that I’m a third-generation AA, and my very Americanized parents never pressured me to have any particular career, or even to be the best in school. They have always encouraged my brother and me to assess our strengths, weaknesses and passions, and do whatever we want with our lives. (Apparently the message got through to him — he works for a nonprofit and loves his job.) In hindsight, a lot of the pressure I felt to achieve academically and professional was self-imposed and perceived but not actual. I wish I had the insight to recognize this earlier and not be so hard on myself.

  80. Hi Erla,

    Thanks for the response! =)
    Actually, I did think about doing a physician’s assistant program, mainly because it would take much less time and much less money to get a pretty great degree and do a pretty great job. Unfortunately, my parents (like other Asian parents) are proud that I am studying at a prestigious college, and when I talked to my mom about transferring to a 2-year program, she completely flipped out. Long story short, it didn’t go well. She wants me to get a full degree from my college instead of a technical degree.
    While I am interested in science, my school functions a little differently when it comes to majors. Unlike other colleges, at my school, transferring out of a science major is difficult. Our liberal arts, business, and communications colleges are all very competitive to get into, as is our college of natural sciences. That’s why I am undeclared, because at my school, being undeclared keeps a lot of flexibility when it comes to switching.
    I entered the college declared as Pre-med though, so I am already getting some of my science pre-reqs out of the way.

    Anywho, I really admire your story! Your perseverance is very inspiring. =) I wish you the best of luck in whatever job you choose to pursue.
    By the way, since you do have credentials in forensic science, aren’t there laboratory jobs you could maybe go for? You said you have a Biology major, and that opens a lot of doors to research and lab jobs. Maybe you could try some of those?

  81. I rarely comment but felt compelled to on this thread because it was truly eye-opening how common these feelings of disillusionment are among our generation.

    I always thought I was an anomaly for wasting a 6-year PharmD. to pursue startups after graduation, but after reading through the comments, it looks like jumping ship after years of being overly-educated is more common than I realized (which is very encouraging!).

    At 25, I often wondered if I wasn’t already behind somehow on this race for more achievements, promotion, and money. It took me a long time to realize that after leaving school, there really isn’t any more institution to abide by. The problem is that most people don’t realize the cage door is open, and so they either stay where they are, or go on to find another institution in the form of corporate handcuffs or everlasting grad programs. It’s difficult to deal with freedom after an entire lifetime of doing what others tell you. After all, obedience is a virtue in Asian culture.

    Pulling yourself off the default track requires a huge amount of courage. For me, I don’t think I could have done it without the practical advice of startup guru, Paul Graham–particularly his article on “How to Do What You Love” –

    I really cannot recommend it enough; reading his works changed the course of my life when I was deciding if I should go to law school after pharmacy school (it goes to show how warped my logic was that I was trying to escape a degree I hated only to do another degree which I hoped I would hate less). I truly believed at that time those were my only options.

    And for all you youngsters (ha!) still in high school or college, your parents’ expectations and approval may seem like everything right now. But instead of following their advice blindly or shrugging off all responsibility, try pursing projects on the side that you think you may like. Only by slowly opening those doors of opportunity can you ever go about influencing your life towards the direction that you want. It doesn’t have to be all at once, but step by step, you can figure it out.


  82. djbluz: your story resonated so much with me! i totally agree that pursuing something you really enjoy often requires slow, incredmental steps — and, as your story illustrates, HUSTLING while you keep doing your day job. and i can relate to putting your passions on the shelf while you take a different route, only to return to it and see that you really want to do something with it. i’m glad that you’re so happy DJing!

    also, speaking of those tutoring centers you mentioned: i collected data for my dissertation at one of those centers (near LA), and i was completely overwhelmed. i had never seen anything like it, especially growing up in the midwest. my mind was blown.

  83. JW: thanks for offering a different perspective — that’s incredibly valuable. i’m glad that your interest and passion for your work has increased since you started pursuing it. (i don’t know if this analogy is appropriate, but how you said that reminded me a little of how love grows in an arranged marriage, as opposed to choosing a partner because you’re really into them.) i agree with you that DWYL isn’t always helpful and that our attitudes about our work can have a huge impact on how we feel about it. happy for you!

  84. elizabeth: hi, elizabeth! 🙂 thanks for your kind words — i appreciate them a lot!

    loved reading your story. i love how your experience is teaching you to take risks and not to fear failure — and how intentional you’re being about finding ways to make the most of your job *and* exploring outside of it. that’s awesome. your advice is great! i think a lot of people who are looking to make a move could benefit from doing the same.

  85. eemusings: so many good thoughts. love how you highlighted that some people’s strengths are skewed so strongly toward one thing that their career choice is fairly straightforward. and that DWYL is a lot more complicated than the mantra suggests. and that not everyone has a strong work calling, and some will find their fulfillment in life outside of their work. i’m totally with you on all of the above!

  86. nat (#1): thank you for your kind words! i appreciate them. and i loved reading your story. i wish you the best as you make this HUGE step — it’s a big deal! would love to hear how it goes.

  87. anon: thank you so much! i appreciate the kind words. loved reading your story, and your assessment of your performance as a premed is impressive. and the difficulty of letting go of something that’s been part of your identity for so long resonated with me a lot. i totally understand that it still stings from time to time, but from everything you’ve written, i think you’ll look back on this decision with gratitude — and you’ll be glad that you did it in college, instead of further down the road. there are a million ways to help people besides medicine, and i have no doubts that you can find one that’s well-suited for you.

  88. jonathan: thank you so much for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. i appreciate your thoughts about resumes, too, in large part b/c they make me feel better about mine. i’m a big fan of a coherent narrative, and therapist –> adjunct professor + youth worker –> consultant + bookseller + maybe a writer is certainly not that. but i suppose that’s why every resume needs to be tailored to the job being sought, so you can highlight and remove things as appropriate. and now that i know that i’m not the only one doing that, i will do so with more confidence. 🙂

  89. marchkarma: thank you so much! i appreciate that a lot. so much of your story resonated with me — the contrast between me and people who REALLY wanted to be psychologists making me very aware of how not cut out for the work i was, needing to forge some kind of compromise with your parents, the freedom and confidence that can come from making such a significant shift.

    and i totally, totally agree with you on the vicious cycle — someone else made a similar point on my facebook, and i couldn’t agree more. the relative lack of asian americans who’ve succeeded in non-traditional fields only perpetuates us choosing safe careers (e.g., my dad telling me when i was a child that i’d never make it as an actress — did i see any asian people on tv?)… which then reduces the likelihood of someone succeeding in a non-traditional field… and so on. and the cycle has even bigger consequences, like perpetuating stereotypes to society at large about what asians do and don’t do. i don’t think you’re overgeneralizing at all.

  90. phil: that’s awesome! i only know one other person who left medicine after finishing their MD, and they too are very happy with the decision. i like the metaphor of being handcuffed to your parents’ expectations. would love to hear your story — my email is under the writing tab!

  91. erla: such an interesting story! i especially like your final point — that it’s never too late to find a job you like, but you have to be willing to start over again. so true.

  92. diana: thank you so much for the kind words — i’m humbled.

    i’m so, so sorry that your parents are still not over your choices when you were younger, even though you’re very successful now (and, let’s be honest, your choices were very good). i can get why some parents get upset about their child’s choices before the child turns out to be successful — they’re just anxious and want us to succeed, and they don’t know if that’ll happen if we deviate from the path — but even after you’ve made it? that just doesn’t make sense. one million props to you for seeking therapy (it was a game-changer for me too, and i will take your advice about writing about asians and mental health) and getting the some answers and resolution for yourself. thank you for sharing your story.

  93. bob: great insights. i hadn’t heard collins’ point before, but it rings true. there is sooooo much to say about why asian americans are usually top achievers in high school and college but not when it comes to the real world — there’s the old (white) boys’ club, the difficulty that many asian americans have promoting themselves and insisting on being acknowledged/rewarded/compensated appropriately for the work they’re doing, etc. — but i hadn’t made the connection between that phenomenon and the factors discussed here until you pointed it out. i’m going to chew on that for a while.

    i’m glad to hear you enjoy being a surgeon! that’s great to hear. i agree that there is value to finishing an advanced degree, even if you don’t end up using it directly — mine has opened a ton of doors that wouldn’t have opened otherwise. but there’s definitely a trade-off in terms of time and money, so i don’t fault my peers who left before graduation (as i looked on with envy).

  94. zult1: thank you for the encouragement! it means a lot to me. i’ve loved reading what everyone has had to say!

  95. tommyjia08: wow, that’s exciting! i’m glad that your heart is happy, and i wish you the best as you continue on the journey. i’ve heard so much about the alchemist in the last few months that i feel like it’s time for me to read it — thanks for giving me a nudge. 🙂

  96. anonymouse: thank you for sharing your story. what a big decision you’ve made! i’m glad that there’s an end to your corporate slog in sight, and props to you for having the bravery to make it happen. i wish you the best as you prepare for this next chapter!

  97. This has been my fear since I was a child. I was always taught to be a doctor because I come from a poor family that immigrated from Laos and this would “save” my family. I took high school way to seriously than it needed to be. I spent too much time studying and doing extra work so I can get into a really good university. A part of me regrets not going to things such as prom or other senior-related activities, even if other kids told me they were lame, because I so desperately wanted my GPA to exceed a 4.0. When I first started college, I was a psychology major and had a ten year plan to get my PhD. During my sophomore year, after taking several psych classes, I had a complete mental breakdown. I kept questioning myself what I wanted to do with my life since I could no longer see myself in my field. It was interesting to learn but I didn’t completely love it. I no longer wanted to continue school for that long. I had to think of what I actually loved and the only thing that popped into my head was music. Even though I didn’t do the normal high school things growing up, I always went to shows and supported my local music scene. My parents would allow me to go to concerts for every A I got…I got a lot of A’s haha. I’ve always been interested in music. I used to help promote shows and even set up my own benefit show where I raised over $2,000 for one of my favorite organizations! I just loved being around it and planning/working shows. Now back to me at my sophomore year, I made a decision to switch schools. I decided to go to a private school because it had a really great music management program. When I told my parents I was switching schools, they were ecstatic I decided to go to a private well-established school because of their reputation and psych department. Little did they know that i was actually switching majors…I I switched the first day of school from psychology to music management. My parents didn’t take it well and I have been kicked out multiple times because of career choice. To make this long story short, my parents still haven’t fully accepted it. My dad is ashamed of me and calls me a burden and a mistake. My mom is trying really hard to understand and be supportive. I’m in debt with student loans. I have no loans attached to my parents. Since I switched majors, I’m behind on everything and doing three years of school in two. I will be graduating this summer and currently looking for work and possibly a new place to live depending on location. I am working two jobs just to save money while being on the executive board of a club and co-ed fraternity. I rarely sleep but I want what you have right now – happiness. I chose to not stick with my phD plans to pursue a career in an industry my parents hate but I love. I just hope I make enough to live working music…especially if I choose to have children. I think I will try to be open with whatever my future children want to do but I really really really want to encourage them to go to college. Not only for the degree, but a chance to experience life, different people and to grow as a person.
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It gave me a lot of hope and the comfort that I’m not alone. I don’t meet too many asians who have a career path in music nor those who are really happy in pharmacy, dental, engineering, etc. (Maybe all my friends just like to complain) I get judged often for being in music management but I work hard for what I want. Thank you again. I wish the best for your future and with you want to do. Sorry this was so long.

  98. cookiecutterasian: thank you for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. i loved reading your story, and it’s a very valuable one, because it beautifully illustrated an important point: everyone has different values when it comes to work. some people consider fulfilling work to be incredibly important; others, less so. some value making an impact. some are aiming for fulfillment outside of their work. some people, because of their personalities, are generally content or able to find it wherever they are (which is a gift!). and having great coworkers and relationships can make any job enjoyable, or at least more so. i love how you laid that out, and i love that you were able to wrestle with this question and come to a decision that you’re satisfied with. that’s awesome.

    really enjoyed reading your insights, too. i like the idea of teaching your children to be the best so they can outcompete in whatever they do — that resonated with me a lot. i agree that our parents were looking out for our good, regardless of the consequences. and that our lives are ultimately about our relationships, not our work. and the importance of weighing whether or not you can compete when it comes to starting over. great, great thoughts.

  99. nat (#2): thank you! loved reading your story. so interesting that you felt these same pressures as a third-generation AA, though they weren’t passed down by your parents. i totally hear you on perceived vs. actual pressure and wishing you had recognized things earlier and not been so hard on yourself (that’s the story of my life), but i’m glad that you’re able to change course relatively early and find something that will be more meaningful (and less stressful!) for you. best wishes as you contemplate your next steps!

  100. susie: thanks for sharing your story! you’re definitely not alone, though like you, i hadn’t realized how many other people were in the same boat until reading the comments here. i knew only one other person who changed careers immediately after finishing a doctorate, but i’ve now read the stories of 3 more, yours included. it’s been comforting to read them and know that i’m not the only one!

    “The problem is that most people don’t realize the cage door is open, and so they either stay where they are, or go on to find another institution in the form of corporate handcuffs or everlasting grad programs. It’s difficult to deal with freedom after an entire lifetime of doing what others tell you. After all, obedience is a virtue in Asian culture.” yes. a thousand times yes. i also love the advice about not going all-or-nothing with what your parents want you to do, pursuing side projects, and figuring things out step by step. so true!

  101. Thanks Liz. Glad to share and thanks for sharing your story. 🙂

    Hey Frodo,

    I read your response. I wish you luck in whatever you do. I understand what your parents are thinking. It’s true, you do need the Bachelor’s degree these days just to get hired at job sometimes and one from a prestigious university can be very helpful. Just hope you get it in something you like. If you’re crazy enough and have enough time, to balance it out, you can pick up a minor or a double major. 🙂 That’s what I actually did, I had time to add History as a 2nd major. Though in all honesty, my history grades probably balanced out my not so super bio grades. You can still do the Physician Asst program after undergrad, or you can find something else to do. I recommend finding an internship or volunteering in fields you’re thinking about if you can, because getting that on your resume/cv will be very helpful in the future.

    Thanks for responding to me. I’m looking into lab work as well. I think it’s just that there isn’t as many companies/laboratories in the area that I’m moving to and they aren’t hiring. Oh well, I’ll be applying and networking and hoping I find something I like!

  102. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I usually never leave comments but as a fourth year college student who is graduating in a few months with a psychology major and computer science minor your story really resonated with me. When you talked about your experiences struggling for a semester through organic chemistry and other courses I couldn’t help remembering that one quarter I took physics, organic chemistry, chemistry lab and genetics–I managed to survive but just barely. I felt that I was trying to prove to others what I could do. Throughout college and even now I can’t help feeling that I need to keep my major a secret in fear of being thought of as the “psychology major”. I don’t know about you but at my school being a psychology major (and I guess any humanities/social science major for that matter) is something that is looked down upon. I guess the idea is soft science is for anyone who aren’t smart enough. I currently work as a tutor in my school’s computer science department. All the other tutors around me are computer science majors. The course I mainly tutor for is the beginning computer science course which is usually taken as a GE and required by for the psychology major hence many of our students are psychology majors. Sometimes I would sit in our tutor meetings listening to my fellow colleagues complain about the students and poking fun at the psychology majors/students. Hearing these things from your parents is one thing but when it’s your own peers it makes it even harder. I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone to pursue something other than engineering careers or careers in the field of science even if it isn’t something that interests them.

    I still don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life but for the next two years I will be in New York teaching through Teach for America. I am using this as a way to discover if teaching is the right thing for me as well as work with a population that I am particularly passionate about but have not had much of an opportunity to work with. Thanks again for sharing your story. It feels comforting to know that one day I will find something that I will be happy doing. Good luck in all of your endeavors!

  103. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for sharing your story and insights, and I am happy to hear that you are finding yourself on a more personally fulfilling and rewarding path. As an Asian-American who felt similar pressure from my immigrant parents my entire life, I guess I fall under the category of being a unique case because I ended up defying them in ways and choosing the field of Social Work and am on the road to pursue a graduate degree in the field of Human Rights or International Affairs, because this is where I discovered my passions lie and I am very happy with it.

    You touched upon this quarter-life crisis as being universal and that there are Asians who figured out and pursued what interests them, but that there are many more Asians who struggle with this issue. While this may be true, as someone who has more friends who are non-Asian, I see this issue with many of my non-Asian friends as well. In total, I really believe that this is not unique to Asians–yes our culture surely values education and financial stability–although can we really generally speak of all Asian culture this way? Nonetheless, is there any culture who would say that they do not value these things?–I believe this is something across all cultures and found within families who press this onto their children more so than other families.

    I wish you would have touched more upon the fact that your Asian family seemed to grow up with certain privileges such as having had parents that both obtained their Ph.D’s, having the means to be sent to all sorts of prep schools and such, etc, because this is not the case for all Asian families, and I think these kinds of socioeconomic factors can also play a large role in feeling the pressures that you have described.

    Although you briefly mention the obvious fact that not all Asians fit this paradigm, I feel that dubbing this as the “Asian American quarter-life crisis” is problematic because it creates an unnecessary exclusion of the many other people and cultures who experience this same thing because of having similar familial values and resources, and it also perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians do indeed excel and get good marks. I ABSOLUTELY do believe that being Asian creates an added element to this struggle, for many reasons, and your story provides a lens into your unique experience in which many Asians can relate. But I am also sure that many non-Asians can relate just as well, because I think the root of these struggles are having parents who inculcate the importance of success into their children while excluding the importance of happiness and self-discovery. Overall, while more Asians may be able to relate to this than not, I believe it is still problematic to generalize this as the Asian American quarter-life crisis, especially based on the sole fact that not all Asians experience this, and that many non-Asians also experience this as well. I hate to sound so critical but as someone who works in the field and is deeply passionate about racial justice, it’s always tricky to discuss racial experiences, and it is so important to be mindful of the ways in which we may generalize our experiences or perpetuate stereotypes. While the whole harm of stereotypes is that we are judged by them to begin with, perhaps more emphasis on the other side or less generalizing Asian Americans as a whole in relation to your experience would be more fair.

    Please let me know your thoughts, I am always open for discussion. Thank you again for sharing this.

  104. I wish I could edit my post, but to elaborate, I feel that this piece unintentionally others Asians who don’t fit this mold because you have dubbed it as the Asian American quarter-life crisis. Additionally in calling it so, it also perpetuates the stereotype that most Asians do feel and experience this. I’m trying to think about the Asians I know who had parents who worked in factories for most of their lives, who didn’t press them to get a Ph.D, and who never excelled in school. Because of the variance among Asians and their experiences, giving it this label might also be harmful.

    On another note, I’ve read some of your other posts and I absolutely love them. I don’t mean to undermine you here or tell you you’re wrong because this is your experience and many have clearly found your words very helpful. As someone who also cares deeply about these issues and the race and culture discussion, I am sharing my thoughts. I look forward to your reply!

  105. Pingback: Career Trajectory: Quarter Life Crisis | Matcha Bunny

  106. I’m 23 and Asian American. I was always lucky growing up to have parents who had high but reasonable expectations. I was encouraged, but not forced, to take up music as a kid. I wasn’t expected to get straight A’s – but definitely expected to get mostly A’s with only a few B’s here and there. Getting a C, of course, would still have meant a stern talking to.

    When I was in high school, music was my life. The majority of my friends were from band/orchestra, and I spent a lot of time practicing, participating in outside youth orchestras, and thinking about music in general. In time, I got pretty good at it, good enough to consider majoring in music performance. I told my parents about my plan.

    My parents of course said no. My parents both grew up poor in China, and immigrated to the US over 20 years ago with barely any money in their pocket. Today, my dad has a phD in physics and my mom a phD in chemical engineering, and they’re both engineers now. Having experienced firsthand the transition from being poor to living a fairly comfortable life, they were insistent that I not pursue something as non-lucrative as music. Unless you’re phenomenally good, they said (and phenomenally good I was not), we strongly recommend that you not pursue music.

    I think it was important that rather than forbidding me, they gave me their reasons why they genuinely thought it was a bad idea. I listened to my parents and gave up on my idea of going to music school. I eventually got accepted into a Top 30 school and majored in economics because I didn’t know what else to do. I hated it.

    I switched to statistics the spring of my freshman year because I found that I enjoyed my introductory statistics class. Nevertheless, I meandered my way through college, not knowing what I really wanted to do. I didn’t work particularly hard. I got internships over the summer because I “had to”, and I absolutely hated them. It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized my passion for theoretical math. It was too late to switch my major by then. Fortunately, I was still a statistics major and realized that statistics at a phD level relied heavily on theoretical math. I applied to a bunch of schools, got rejected by most of them (but accepted by a couple), and I’m now a second year phD student in statistics.

    I’m glad I listened to my parents and didn’t major in music. I joined the orchestra in my new university and love playing my instrument without any pressure to become better. I can’t say that I enjoy statistics more than music (you could say that I “love” the latter and “like” the former), but I am definitely enjoying my program and I can definitely imagine enjoying a future job as a statistician.

    I still have a lot of life left to live and with my minimal life experience I am certainly not one to talk. But in my experience, a balance between what you enjoy and what is lucrative is important. If you really don’t like medicine or finance (or even arguably mildly don’t like), then it’s probably best not to pursue those fields, even if your parents insist upon you doing so. On the other hand, I had friends who majored in what they were passionate about – music, mostly, and now they’ve moved back home and are working part time jobs at the local supermarket. They’re none too thrilled about that, and were considering pursuing a post-bac or master’s degree in a different field entirely. One, they emphasize, that makes money.

    I think people might find that they enjoy something that they didn’t expect to enjoy if they give it a try. I thought I hated math, only to I find out that I really liked math. I took a computer science class in high school and hated it, only to find that it was largely because my teacher had ruined it for me with his unclear explanations and poor choice of what to cover. I realized a few years later that I actually did enjoy computer science, despite what I used to think of it.

    So I’ve abided by the following philosophy: Out of all the fields in which job prospects/prospective income is acceptable to you, explore around and figure out which ones you actually like. From my experience, it’s likely that you would find one.

    To this day, I agree with my parents. They really didn’t think music would get me a job (or one that would support me financially), and were looking out for my best interests. Growing up in an Asian-American community, I knew my fair share of parents who plain insisted that their child go into one particular field and that field only, and it rather seemed that they were looking out for their own best interests (or perhaps they were narrow-minded and could not imagine that any field besides Field X could be good/stable/happiness-granting). Those are the parents that usually pop up in our mind when we think of unhappy Asian Americans. And those are the parents, I would think, that it would make the most sense to defy. I got lucky in the parent lottery.

  107. Hey Elizabeth,

    Really insightful!

    It seemed as though the transition from high school to college and onward wasn’t as smooth and beneficial as you hoped. I have a quick question. I am a senior in high school and was wondering whether or not it was a good idea to maybe take a year off and discover what I actually enjoy doing before I go off to college. I just feel that I’ve never really had the time to discover what jobs are out there, since I was so busy with grades and sports and other extracurriculars during my high school years. I thought I could maybe do some volunteer work in some third world country and get some mini internships/job shadows at different firms-really see what this world has to offer. Am I too young for that just yet?

    Some people tell me it’s a great idea, and that you can learn a lot in a gap year. Others disagree and think that a gap year is just a waste of your life and that laziness may kick in and I’ll be ridiculously bored. I know you may not have much experience on this topic, but what do you think I should do? Did you ever think about taking a gap year? I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

  108. Oh my gosh! I totally empathize with your story! Except my quarter-life crisis came (I’m fortunately still working on my undergrad) before I even turned 20. I haven’t necessarily tried out careers yet, but man I spent my entire life, literally, dreaming and totally thinking I’d become a marine biologist. Luckily my parents never really tried pressuring me to become a doctor, although they’ve constantly dropped hints as I got older, simply because I was so adamant about becoming a marine biologist. I spent 17 years of my life pretty much, utterly convinced that I was cut out to a marine biologist/biologist in general. I’ve never been good at history or english and since forever, I just naturally gravitated towards life sciences (I would spent my weekends back in 1st grade reading every kind of book I could get on animal life histories).

    That was all fine and dandy until I came to college, made the hasty decision to declare during my 2nd quarter of freshman year as a marine biology major. I kept going down that path for another year, but then for some inexplicable reason, all my biology classes that were supposed to get me all excited and stuff actually made me more depressed. I was so miserable for that year and all during that time, I simply convinced myself that it was because I was taking generic classes that everyone had to take and that once I took my major-specific classes, everything would be fine. That was such a lie. It didn’t get any better once those classes began; it actually made me feel even worse. Going to class became such a drag that I started skipping out and stopped trying.

    I was also starting to worry about after college because I realized how much I began to dislike my field. I had no feel for what I was doing and I had long since stopped seeing my future self in that field. I don’t think I had been more terrified with the future than at that time, when after so long knowing exactly what my future would be like, I had ended up hitting a dead end. Luckily, though, I managed to get into an internship that doing completely unrelated research. Originally, I had hoped to be placed in a more marine biology related lab in hopes that my interest for the subject would be peaked once again, but I ended up in a microbiology research lab and I really questioned whether I would even enjoy my time there. Luckily, I managed to convince myself to go in with an open mind and not expect too much. I never realized and would have never imagined how much I enjoyed research until then. Apparently, I had a knack in doing lab research that I never knew existed because I kept telling myself that I could never take a job that meant seeing 4 walls day in and day out.

    The most ironic thing, though, the two classes I enjoyed most during that miserable year turned out to be classes I originally did not want to take–my advisers forced me to take them “because grad schools want them”. They forced me to take the organic chemistry series and I’m glad I didn’t try to resist their urging. I realized midway through the first quarter of organic chemistry that this was my thing and all I would look forward to was going to class and going to the chemistry labs. During that time, I was also trying to convince myself to take on education as a minor since I kind of liked teaching, but after the second class in the series of organic chemistry, I realized there was no way I could pursue learning about education when all I could think about is Chemistry. I went on to tack on a Chemistry minor and realized I could not be okay with just taking the handful of classes I would gain access to, so here I am now, complaining about how I’m killing myself with a double major because I didn’t want to waste my 3 years worth of marine biology classes (I had 3 classes left before completing the major), but I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I never knew I’d turn out to be a chemistry person, but I would say, not speaking up for myself has never turned out this well for me. I have since stopped dreading the classes I would have to take the next quarter or year because I know all my quarters involve Chemistry, regardless of whether or not they have a reputation for having the highest fail rate at the school. I haven’t been so delighted for class and the future to come. I can’t wait to go into the Chemistry field, whichever kind of research that may be.

  109. Liz,
    Thank you for this post. I can’t begin to inventory all of my friends and family–even myself–who have collaborated with their parents’ requests and demands for career choices and the education trajectory to fulfill those choices. Obviously, your vivid description has touched more than a nerve!!!

    If you get the time, please contact me by email: I’m in the middle of a PhD (my choice!), and my topic is how Asian-American freshmen make faith decisions during the first year of university life. Your story has an interesting resonance with the students I’ve interviewed. Thanks again for your post!

  110. Hi Elizabeth,

    Your story really resonated with me. My parents were the typical hard working immigrant family and they did impress onto me the importance of education. I pretty much suck at science and math (though I honestly did want to be a doctor out of pure interest) but was always good with my words so on that basis alone, they decided for me to be a lawyer. I fought them all throughout high school and college but when I graduated and was about to set off to do a master’s in Education, reality hit me hard. My parents were right: being a teacher was tough, frustrating, and severely underpaid. Of course in today’s economy, it seems crazy to consider going into law (where there are so few opportunities for non-Ivy leaguers) and saddling yourself with an 100K debt that you might not be able to pay back. On top of all that, I was the oldest of 4 kids and my parents were expecting me to help raise them. So I probably will pursue a high-paying career but I am lucky in that I do have an interest in law. Maybe I’ll regret it when I graduate but seems like I’ll have to go down this well trodden rode for now.

  111. Before I went into my 1st year in college, I spent a whole summer asking myself “what the heck do I want to do with my life.”

    It honestly seemed like everyone else knew and that I was an idiot, the last one to figure it out or something.

    But for me, I was very hesitant to pick a major or “shoot for the stars” in terms of trying to get into a good school. I just didn’t want to waste time. I didn’t necessarily enjoy high school, so 4 more years of school honestly didn’t seem appealing.

    I already spent most of my childhood doing what my parents signed me up for. I felt like I was well overdue to have my own opinion (mm. that’s supposed to be a no-no)

    Any how, long story short, after a year of community college, and then 1 semester at a private where I transferred to, I finally had the conversation with my parents, “hey uh.. I think I’m gonna take a break from school.”

    In the back of my mind, I really had no intention of continuing, but I had to ease my parents into it (duh. I was committing the ultimate Asian fail).

    I ended up giving my parents the ultimatum, “Mom/dad, I’m adult now, please let me make my own decisions. Let me try this for 3 months and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do it your way.”

    The last 4 years of my life, I would never trade for anything else.

    I traveled for 3 years, working with non profits all around the world. Went to South Africa, Finland, Thailand, visited a handful of states in the midwest (it’s like a whole other world compared to the asian bubble I grew up in — 70% of my high school was asian). I got a ton of perspective, I had a lot of opportunities to talk to a lot of folks much older and wiser. I spent a LOT of time getting a better and better idea of what I actually wanted in life, what I deemed as important, what was worth pursuing, and what made me come “alive” — what inspired me, what I could do day in and day out and never consider it work.

    I realized that teaching/mentoring/coaching was going to be an indisputable part of my life and how I wanted to spend my time — but that’s not necessarily the most profitable kind of career in the traditional sense. Plus, you need to have mastery over something in order to teach it.

    Being a “big picture” guy, I decided, “How about, I make a ton of money, create a financial foundation, and then that can be my platform to really pursue what I want to after the foundation is built.”

    So I started reading books on business and investing.

    That was 2 summers ago. In November 2012, I started investing in real estate full time — flipping houses like they do it on TV, and I’ve enjoyed every second learning, teaching the guys I’ve brought on board, and it’s gonna pave my way for financial freedom.

    I frequently challenge the people around me — often regardless of their age — to ask themselves what they actually want to pursue in life, and then what exactly they are doing to achieve them.

    It seems like we hoped that we’d “figure it out” while were were in college, and then now we hope to “figure it out” as we go into grad school or get our first/second jobs, but the reality is, if you never take intentional time to do it, you won’t do it until you have your midlife crisis — which is when you finally have enough resources to take a break and try to actually figure it out.

    This is backwards. It’s inefficient, and quite frankly, most people don’t enjoy it. Having a clearly defined purpose and direction is what gives more meaning to every day that you wake up to.

    Thanks Elizabeth for the article, I’m sure it resonates with many people!

  112. Forgot to mention: often times, personal wants are a luxury. There is huge financial pressure for me as the eldest to gain a secure and well-paying employment. I would like to be a teacher but that is not possible if I want to support my aging parents and my younger siblings. I know there’s a lot of happy talk about pursuing happiness instead of wealth but it just seems incredibly selfish and unfilial for me to do so. Each person is different but in the end, all Asian parents want is to make sure their kids don’t struggle with financial burdens like they did, even if they don’t particularly enjoy their jobs.

  113. Definitely sounds like an interesting topic. I worked for Merrill Lynch for 1.2 years and I felt miserable and hated it. It was basically a repetitive high class sales job, with excessive cold calling, but the pay was reasonable and potential was great. I had to relocate for northern california, san jose for that job, which is an area I loathed because there was absolutely nothing to do. So i had the urge to move back to socal and continued my education in finance to do something more meaningful and at the same time, I took intiative and found a flexible Fianancial advisor assistant work , which i was grateful for while studying a post bach. certificate for finance at UCLA. In so doing, I started my own business venture and started an electronic cigarette store, it is a running operation that can take care of itself now and I am read to sell to my partner make a premium off my months of effort and move on. It was one of the most fulfilling things to start my own business. Now I am confident I can learn any trade or skill I desire and have the ability to produce results out of nothing. And I am ready to move on to something along the lines of entertainment and requiring chinese, acting, producing, directing, and writer. I want to change the way people perceive Asian males, because there is a huge disparity in social value amongst us and I think its time for asian males and females sharing the chinese culture to take more the the spotlight. This is something I believe in and this is pretty much going to be my new path….

  114. I disagree. I like my job as a physician. My mom actually tried to convince me out of it, tried to push me towards pharmacy but that’s hella boring, counting pills. I have the option of working part time, but I’d rather do my job, helping people, contribute. Yeah, it’d be nice to have more time to work on hobbies, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather be doing my job because it’s so much more rewarding. Sorry to say I don’t fit into your stereotype

  115. jetle25: i appreciate your thoughts. i agree that at some point, we have to start taking responsibility for our own decisions instead of blaming our parents; that our parents instilled the values they did because it was what they knew; and that self-reflection is super-important, especially in this process. thanks for sharing your insights!

  116. There are so many good stories and reflections here. But would you have done the same (as your parents have done for and to you) to your children? – my guess is ‘No’. But for those who did not grow up in a decent family or an environment that our first gen parents provide, I bet they’d wish to trade their places with you. Grass is always greener on the other side. There’s no fault in our parents trying to make us ‘BEST’ at what we do as we don’t have any slightest idea what our ‘potentials’ are. Most of our parents have had the unfortunate experience of having work their asses off to provide a stable income and put food on the table for us. – often we don’t see that and we are never a part if it. I have – and I really appreciate what they have tried so hard to do – provide everything to us.

    The thought of them for us to become ‘successful’ isn’t just through prestigious careers or having going thru one of the best schools or be the best at what we do – they are hoping to shape and help us to be ‘competitive’ in reality and hopefully we will have better skills and a competitive edge to get started once we finish our schools and trainings. Indeed, what they often encourage isn’t always something that we enjoy or accept – I.e. going thru med, law, MBA, Ph.D, etc. but I know that from what they have seen in their lifetime of experience, these are better choices that will both provide a ‘STABLE & SECURED’ life (notice that I didn’t mention ‘stressful’) and along way ‘prestige’ as well. This is what they know.

    Some replies aforementioned stated to go thru ups and downs in their lives – I think that’s precisely what our parents would like us to avoid (not that it’s not a good thing). Sometimes, I wish to be better in life experiences than just a med student, an intern and then a doc but I never regretted that my choice (or what it may seem to be coerced to be my only choice) is medicine. In fact, I do enjoy it. And the best part of all this is (someone also mentioned) that I now have the resources and time (you have gotta make it for yourself) to do what I want to do aside from medicine. Am I stressed? Oh, yes. But is there a career out there that’s not stressful? Is there a career out there that would guarantee comfortable lifestyle forever? I bet the answer is no. And for those who have to struggled thru their lives, they’d probably tell you that they wish they didn’t have to go thru certainly things in their lives. – is that stressful? Oh, Yes.

    Embrace what you have and what you’ve been given, and make it a tool to construct a life you really want and enjoy. You will be fine.

  117. patty: thank you for your kind words! i loved reading your story. such a bold move! props to you for changing course early on instead of after you’d started building a career in psychology. i’m sorry that your parents haven’t come around; that must be super-stressful. i resonate with the hustling that’s often required in order to do what you want to do and also with wanting your kids to go to college, whatever they decide to do. you definitely aren’t alone! i wish you the best as you balance everything you’re doing and prepare for life after graduation.

  118. steph: thanks for sharing your story, and thanks for the kind words! your stories about dealing with the psych major stereotype TOTALLY resonated with me — in college, when i told people that i studied psych, there would often be an audible change in tone (like, “oh…”), and i would just have to grit my teeth a little. i was also in a few conversations where people were ragging on psych majors — and then remembered that i was one and were like, “oh, but… not you…” more teeth-gritting. similar to you, i think i took organic chem and multivariable calculus to prove that i wasn’t just a dumb psych major, and while i proved that to myself, that’s not exactly something you can bring up in these conversations without sounding like a weirdo. so i hear you!

    congrats on the opportunity to teach for TFA! i hope that it’s a great experience and that it’s helpful for you in discerning your path. best wishes!

  119. helen: thanks for your thoughts. i’m glad that you’re pursuing something you enjoy! and you don’t need to feel bad for bringing up a critique. i appreciate it, actually.

    a few thoughts in response:

    – i agree that what i’ve described here isn’t unique to asian americans and that there are asian americans who don’t experience it. i called it the asian american quarter-life crisis because of the cultural values and factors that play into it, but i think your point — about how the term can other-ize asian americans who don’t experience it and perpetuate stereotypes about asian americans — is fair. my caveat about how not all AAs experience this was an attempt to address these things, but i see how the term itself can be problematic, and i appreciate you bringing that to my attention.

    – i agree that my parents’ education and SES had an impact on my experience, certainly. however, i think the pressures i described are also common in working-class families, as illustrated in some of the stories above. i think the common goal of financial security and stabiliy, and seeing education as the way to achieve that goal, makes the pressure fairly universal in asian immigrant families across SESs and levels of parental education.

    it’s hard for me to speculate exactly how SES influences the pressure. is it worse in white-collar families b/c there’s an expectation that you’ll live up to your parents and you have all the resources to succeed? is it worse in working-class families, because you feels pressure to “save” the family and to validate your parents’ long hours and sometimes physically demanding work — and your parents can’t really sympathize with the your experience of pursuing higher education? i’m not really sure.

    as always, any thoughts you have are welcome!

  120. justin: loved reading your story — thank you so much for sharing it! i love that you and your parents were able to have a rational conversation about why they didn’t want you to pursue music and you’re happy with the course you’ve charted. i totally agree that there needs to be a balance between what you enjoy and what you can make a living doing — you gotta pay the bills somehow. but as you said, so many asian americans aren’t given the chance to explore what they might enjoy even among stable fields. so i like your philosophy of finding something you enjoy among fields that can support you. you still have a ton of options that way.

  121. caroline: thank you! i freaking love that you’re considering a gap year, because i think it’s a great idea. you get a chance to see a bit of what the world is like, you can explore what jobs you might enjoy (and what kind of education/experience you need to get there), you can then go to college with a sense of what you want to do, and you’ll probably get a ton more out of your college experience as a result. since most people have no idea what they want to do at 18, i think that most would benefit from a gap year to explore before committing to a field of study. i’ve heard that it’s the norm in europe, and i wish it were here too.

    obviously, there are “wrong” ways to do a gap year; if you spend the whole year sitting on your couch, or if you don’t have anything planned by the time it starts, you’ll probably be bored and you won’t get a ton out of it. but if you plan it well, it could an incredibly rewarding — even life-changing — experience. i didn’t think about taking one b/c i didn’t know that the option existed, but if i had to go back and do it all over again, i totally would. (i took a year off between college and grad school, and it’s one of the best decisions i ever made.) the ideas you have for your gap year sound awesome — and, amazingly, you could probably do all of them in a year. and if you’ve already applied to college and are able to defer your acceptance, you have the security of knowing where you’ll be in a year and not having the stress of applying, and that gives you the freedom to enjoy it even more. i love that you’re even considering it!

  122. ellen: i’m so happy for you! so great that you figured out relatively early that marine biology wasn’t for you and that you’ve found something that you’re so happy with. that’s awesome! best wishes to you as you look ahead to the next chapter!

  123. k: thanks for sharing your story. i agree that everyone is different and needs to make the best decision for themselves and their circumstances, and our parents are looking out for our good. i hope that you find a career in law that you enjoy and helps you support your family. best wishes to you as you continue on your journey!

  124. brandon: loved reading your story! dang, you were BOLD! i feel like you should drop the mic, b/c leaving college is such a bold move. so awesome that you got to explore the world and do such interesting things and actually figure out what you wanted in life. (on a side note, as someone who grew up in the midwest and then moved to california, we could talk about the differences for days!) i totally agree that we’re expected to figure out what we want to do while we go to college and start working, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense (not to mention that by the time you get to midlife and have the resources to figure it out, you probably have a mortgage and kids to support). it would make a lot more sense for us to first invest time in figuring it out and then pursue it. the opportunity cost at the beginning would be more than worth it.

  125. anthony: thanks for sharing your story! so awesome that you took the risk to change course and found something that was so fulfilling for you. i love that you want to get into entertainment, too — there’s such a need for asian americans on both sides of the camera to tell our stories, to change the way that society perceives us, and to open the door for other asian americans who want to get into the industry. best wishes to you as you start this new chapter!

  126. kel: i’m so glad you like being a physician. that’s awesome. i hope that more asian americans find work that’s as rewarding to them as yours is!

  127. Frodo, I read your response and I was deeply touched. I feel like I should talk to you. My parents divorced when I was young and I supported myself and my family throughout college. I am in graduate school now and I have some things that will be easier said through chat or call. Don’t just brush these feelings of uncertainty aside, deal with them now. If you want to talk skype me (live:tiftle).

  128. I immigrated from mainland China when I was 10. We lived in a mostly white middle class neighborhood and I didn’t grow up with many Chinese contemporaries. My parents’ English wasn’t great so they only had Chinese friends (although none were close) so I definitely hear the “blah blah blah’s daughter/son got into this/that”. My parents struggled mightily in their finances (they did earn a good living for a while, but they weren’t good with money and frittered it away on useless things) and never integrated into society. There’s definitely an alienation there.

    My parents never asked me what I wanted to be, nor did I ask that of myself. It was more about doing well in life to have financial security. They didn’t push me (maybe because they were too out of touch with what it takes to get into college) and I am the only Asian that I know that didn’t play an instrument growing up. I was kind of surprised to hear that there’s so much pressure for Chinese kids to be doctors. I thought Chinese parents are happy as long as you are making good money, no matter if it’s in tech or finance or whatever.

    I ended up getting an engineering degree from Berkeley (thank god for good grades because I had no extracurriculars whatsoever). I think my mom had aspirations for me to attain higher degrees, but seeing how I struggled with my classes, she definitely morphed into the “just do your best and graduate” mom. It definitely wasn’t easy. Like the author, I enjoyed the challenge (being one of the 10% of girls in my class at one of the top three engineering programs in the world) but it was also crushing to be so decidedly average. Maybe if I was more passionate about the subject, I would do matter, but maybe not. I don’t even know what “passionate about technology” means. It just rings hallow to me.

    I felt pretty aimless and lost after graduation. After all the classes and tests are over, you’re kind of stuck with the rest of your life ahead of you. There was this roadmap was getting good grades in high school to get into a top notch college, find a great job thereafter and a good guy to marry, the end. But what’s all the empty space between the mile stones? I really disliked my job, but there wasn’t anything that I was passionate about that I would sacrifice the cushy tech job to make a new career. I think it’s also different for a girl than a guy, because girls get married and have kids and (most times) the axis of their world tilt from the corporate ladder to the little league carpool.

    My parents divorced when I was really young. I think the most important thing for me is to have a solid family so I feel a sense of belonging. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I don’t think I need to “make a difference” to be happy. In fact, I think I make plenty of difference in the lives of the people I interact with by offering kindness and companionship. I don’t think I need to invent the next gadget or app to mark my place in the world. I know I will also live on in my kids and their kids. And yes, early on, I did feel this guilt because I was one of the few female engineers and I should make waves, but I’m just not ambitious, at least not in the business sense. I do think people need a balance between work and personal lives to be happy. I don’t think I could be an extension of my kids and husband, but there’s joy in that. I feel that even though Chinese kids are very respectful and responsible toward their parents, how many are actually close to their parents? Maybe what we need is more personal connections to be happy.

    I know I’m rambling and everyone is lost in their own unique way, but just offering my two cents.

  129. And by the way, my husband majored in poli sci and went to a top 40 public school. He’s in finance and he earns 3-4x as me (and no, he didn’t get the job through daddy). You don’t need to be in a STEM major and go to a top 10 school to achieve financial success. There are plenty of other ways to skin the kitty 🙂

  130. Hi Elizabeth. Your article has given me mixed feelings. On one hand, I can relate to the PhD side of you as you write this article. On the other hand, I don’t agree completely with your view on education, and I don’t feel that people know what is education really worth.

    And what bugs me more, is that most of our society has accepted our parent’s old definitions of what education and career is.

    You wrote: “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.”

    It sounds like that this, to some degree, implies you’ve made a mistake and your PhD was (on some level) a waste of a degree because you didn’t want to work in the “psychology field” and it did not contribute to the career you want.

    I have a different view on this. And I would advise my children in such a manner:

    – First of all, to some extent, you’re suffering and you’re not alone in this. You’re human, just like the rest of us. In an alternate reality, you’ll be feeling the same no matter what degree letters you have or not have, or career you are in or not in. Because ultimately, it’s not the world that makes you feel like shit, it’s you.
    – Secondly, Learning to learn is the ultimate reason for getting a “degree” or “edu-mah-cation.” Something like this (although not a rigid description in the following): BA/BS means I know how to learn shit that people teach me. Masters means I know how to learn shit from whatever resources, on my own without anyone teaching me. PhD means I can find the answer to a question that the world has not been able to ask or answer. And this is regardless of what major your degree is in, therefore you can apply this “edu-mah-cation” to all aspects of your life. (in your case, not just in the psychology world).
    – Third, a career can be ever changing. Once you’re at a master level of whatever you are in, you can very quickly become a master level in another area. It’s not really starting over in the same sense that you were 18. You can learn better now. You can read good now. You can write stuff betters nows. You can thinks a whole lot better now.

    (I’m running out of time and have to be somewhere soon, so I must cut this short for now.)

    – Basically, i would not tell my kids shit. I would show them through example what true education is good for, and how a career can be whatever you want it to be. I would be there for them and guide them to realize that their human suffering would only on the surface seem to be related to these things (career, wrong choices), but deep down it is I that lacks awareness and proper realization that leads to my suffering as a human being. And that life is about “mistakes” and that it is ok. “This too shall pass. Be here, be now.”

  131. Hi Le,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write back, it really means a lot.
    Um, I don’t have Skype. >.< But if you have any other method of communication, I'd love to hear your side of the story and the things you would like to say.

  132. @None: In your post, you wrote “There’s no fault in our parents trying to make us ‘BEST’ at what we do as we don’t have any slightest idea what our ‘potentials’ are.”

    That’s not true. Parents THINK they know what’s best for their kids, but the person who probably knows better is the kid themselves. My older sister is horrible at math, and she knows this. But for some reason (not really “some reason”, pretty much for the reason most Asian parents push their kids into respectable jobs), my dad declared to my sister while she was still a kid that she would grow up to be an engineer.
    By the time my sister was in high school, she was failing math because she was so horrible at it. But still my dad kept pushing her to be an engineer. It made no sense, my sister made it QUITE clear that she isn’t fit for the engineering occupation, and she would even voice opposition and honestly let my dad know that she was incapable for the job/degree.

    In contrast, my sister is fantastic with art and graphic designing. She has won several awards for her artwork and had even sold multiple pieces while she was still in high school. A few people even offered her very promising careers. Art and design was my sister’s passion, and that was her talent. That was what she enjoyed doing.

    And my dad said no.

    Now, several hours of failed coursework and dropping out of college and into a community college later, my sister has reverted to the one type of degree she CAN pass (and is willing to work hard for): art and design.

    This story was just an example; I’m sure other people can give you other examples of how they KNOW their talents and desires, but their parents struck down their dreams.

    YES, our parents want what’s best for us. And YES we appreciate all the hard work they have done to bring us here and to be able to take care of us properly, no one is dissing them for that.
    But does it hurt for them to take our wishes and considerations into perspective sometimes? Many of my Asian friends joke around and sometimes talk about how they asked their parent if they could pursue a certain career, and the parent outright said, “NO.” We joke about it, but it’s also painful because we are forced to face the reality that our parents are very narrow-minded when it comes to career choices.

    I think Alice describes this very well when they said that even though Asian kids are respectful and responsible towards their parents, many are not actually close to their parents. And this lack of closeness is why our parents don’t know our potentials, and why they aren’t open-minded when it comes to expressing our dreams or goals.

    Also, just because you have an MD, MBA, Ph.D, or whatever whatever doesn’t guarantee a STABLE & SECURE life like you said. I’ve known several people who worked their butts off in law school at the insistence of their parents, only to be in a limbo-ing and financially unstable occupation post-graduation. I’ve also known some people who earned Ph.Ds but are having trouble scoring a job because of the wide market of competition. These degrees sound fancy and nice, but just because you have one doesn’t mean you can have a stable and secure future. It takes more than a higher-level degree to make it in the real world.

    And lastly, while I praise you for being able to come into acceptance and appreciate and enjoy your “coerced” career path, some of us don’t share the mutual feeling. It’s easy to slap an occupation label on someone and say, “That’s what you’re going to be” without analyzing them; it’s like sticking a shiny sticker onto a clean slate because you believe it will look beautiful. That’s kind of what parents do. They tell the kid, “This is what you will be” because it looks beautiful and wonderful. However, there’s so much to consider when doing that, and parents don’t take into consideration their children’s thoughts, opinions, goals, and talents. It’s just whatever sounds cool and showoff-able. Not all of us are cut out for those career paths, and even if we are, some of us have talents that would be much more beneficial to us in other occupations.

    I just think you should consider the perspectives of those of us leaving comments on here. We’re not blaming our parents for messing up our lives or anything, we just wish they’d be willing to be more flexible about our choices (or choices we want) in life.

  133. none: thanks for sharing your thoughts. i totally agree that our parents were looking out for our good and they wanted to make sure that our lives were better. i don’t doubt that at all, and i’m grateful that mine were looking out for me and instilled in me a strong work ethic. the point of this post was simply to illustrate some of the unintended consequences.

    i appreciate reading your story b/c it illustrates, as a few others have as well, that we all have different priorities when it comes to our work and what we want from it. i’m glad that you’re satisfied with the work you’ve chosen. that’s awesome.

    “Embrace what you have and what you’ve been given, and make it a tool to construct a life you really want and enjoy.” i like how you worded this, b/c ultimately, it’s not just about finding a career that we want but building a life that we want. i finally feel like i’m doing just that.

  134. alice: thank you for sharing your story. you highlighted so many good things: the difficulty that many of us have transitioning to work life, after all of the hoop-jumping of education is over; the fact that everyone has different values when it comes to work and how we find meaning in it (i agree that being a kind coworker is a way of making a difference), and also when it comes to life and what’s important for us; the importance of personal connections; and that there are plenty of ways to be financially successful outside of the STEM routes. totally agree.

  135. larry: i appreciate your thoughts. i do not think that my phd was a waste. it has opened a ton of doors for me (the career i have now would not be possible without it), my grad school education completely changed the way that i understand people and think about the world, and i’m grateful that i have something to show for my 6 years of busting my ass. you’re absolutely right that this education applies to every aspect of my life (and, thankfully, to many other careers, as psychology is directly applicable to everything) and that society has taken a utilitarian view of education, which is a shame. i just wish that i had a better sense of what i wanted before i started grad school instead of waking up midway through and wondering what it was for. i didn’t quit because i realized that the education was valuable for its own sake, regardless of what i did in the end — though that was still not an easy pill to swallow, as the cost of staying in school (in terms of time, money, energy, and income lost by not working) was significant.

  136. chuc: that’s a great question, b/c it seems so simple but is actually quite complicated. here, i’m loosely referring to people of asian descent who live in the US, though i recognize that not all asian americans experience what i’ve described and that many who are not asian american do.

  137. I am a 40 year old Korean American artist. I’ve done whatever i’ve wanted to do my entire life. Parental figures were pretty much non-existent in my life so I wasn’t under much of the “1st generation” type influence. Growing up with a lot of non-asian friends and more of a western upbringing contributed a large part to my life outlook and career choice. As I grew older I embraced my Asian American heritage but found it difficult to bridge the gap between western and Asian American sensibilities. Becoming accepted within the Asian American community was a challenge. I was surrounded by overachieving friends that set high bars for themselves in terms of financial/social status. Often times driven by misplaced values. A grand shit show of who was who and who had what. Aside from close friends, I found that I was constantly being judged by other Asian Americans, made fun of and looked down upon for the things I represented and the choices made. I was always the outcast. Because of this, I grew to resent Asian Americans in general and found myself becoming equally judgmental.

    It seems that all those things are finally starting to change. A shift in the Zeitgeist, as a generation of millennials forge new paths in “unconventional” careers. I see so much emerging talent in art, music, film, all from the Asian American community. It’s an empowering thing for many who have lived in the shadow of their own personal passions and wants in life. I see so many friends and those in the community re-evaluating their own lives and finally taking initiative in pursuing what it is they were really meant to do. I now find myself embraced and praised for who I am by the very community that shunned me not too long ago. It definitely feels like the spring is upon us and i’m hopeful of what the future holds. Thanks for the great read and thanks for reading.

  138. I like this statement, “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.”

    I feel like this hypervigilence on security and stability hurts an individual’s confidence. Later in life, this lack of confidence hinder’s the pursuit of one’s happiness and manifests as fear, anxiety or depression. It’s important to have a sense of curiosity, adventure, and creativity.

    Thanks for your article.

  139. It was never a question that I would go to college, so when I went, it hardly came as a surprise I had no idea what I wanted to study. So I followed my suitemate into a psychology degree and upon realizing I would finish it in three years due to A.P. credits, declared a double major in history and a minor in music to try and buy more time. My senior year when some other friends started talking about law school, I started studying for the LSATs too. I want to be a politician and understanding law would help me make it someday, I reasoned.

    I can’t explain to you how great it was to hear all the accolades about going to law school. How much easier it was to respond to the question college students get asked roughly fourteen thousand times, “Oh what are you doing after college?” But you should only go to law school if you want to practice law. Law school wasn’t engaging and easy like college was for me. It was a constant toil amongst fierce competition. An hour to read 10 pages. Another day I didn’t see the sun because I was at the library instead.

    I couldn’t face the disgrace of dropping out, so I graduated law school and passed the bar. Still, I couldn’t imagine committing my life to another sentence of legal analysis, even if that’s what my mother wanted. So I didn’t apply to any of those positions, under ever increasing pressure. I did follow my heart- make a difference in the world. So I only applied for jobs that I believed in, even if they were temporary, even if they didn’t pay well.

    Today, I’m executive director of Juvenile Hall Auxiliary, a small non-profit which gives youth a second chance. I recently wrote an op-ed piece published in the Sunday paper. Our work changes lives through mentorship, scholarships and jobs. I am challenged and fulfilled constantly. I don’t think anybody loves their job everyday, but I still think I have the best job on Earth.

    When you love what you do and your financial basics are covered, you will love your life. It is worth stepping outside the box and evaluating what truly makes you happy- it’s different for everyone! Even if it seems impossibly terrifying now, it is absolutely worth it. You can live on less, you will find inspiration, and you will make a difference.

  140. Hi Elizabeth,

    I’m 28 and it blew me away how much this resonated with me. I work for a Fortune 100 as an Analyst. I once wanted to be pre-med but decided it wasn’t for me. Obviously, this has never really settled well with my parents but they could live with it, as long as I got my Masters Degree in something (which I did). I guess it’s ended up fine but to your point, what I do now…am I happy? It pays the bills and I guess I’m good at the job so why rock the boat?

    I recently picked up photography and ever now and then, I let my mind wander and wonder what my life would be like if I did that for a living. But then more often than not, I am jarred back to reality once I realize how much dispproval such a career path would entail. Your story is an inspiration and it definitely gives me thought that, hey – it doesn’t have to be just this job. There can be something else I actually enjoy.

  141. Elizabeth! I wish we knew one another in real life after reading this. Gosh, seriously, it was like reading a (very close) version of my life. I left the profession that I went to college for yearssss ago, and have struggled since to figure out what it is I want to do exactly. I won’t make this long, but I’m 29 now, and I can’t help but get down and feel like a complete and utter failure in my adult life when looking at where I could be if I just persevered and miserably went to work anyway.

    But this line you wrote really made me realize something. “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.”

    I admit, I’m currently working at a retail store that pays me…well…let’s just say I fall in the category of “over educated, underemployed”. But I like working there, and now I don’t feel embarrassed about it. You’ve actually made me feel like at my age, it’s ok that I don’t have that salary job, that secure career, basically every check point that I’m supposed to cross off my list as a Korean American. After reading some of the comments here, I’m glad to know that I am not the only one that should have figured some things out when I was in the earlier part of this decade. Thanks for sharing. It’s helped put some things into perspective.

  142. Whenever someone asks me about why I am an artist, I mention this quote:

    “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” -John Adams

  143. Hello Elizabeth,
    I read your article.
    Your story is something for people to consider.
    The suggestion should be automatically taken, not foced.
    People have their freedom of choice.
    Good to see your article and saying about this issue.
    Thanks for sharing.

  144. @frodo

    One, I do see what many of you are trying to express because I am sure I’ve walked that path down already. I appreciate when you said you just wanted your parents to be more flexible about your choices because I said that to my parents too. You say that now – but at different stages of your life, you’ll think differently. I was not saying that our parents were always right about their advises or choices they made for us, because i had proven them wrong. A good example is that some parents do not even know if their kids are homosexuals until news break out when they bring home their same-sex partner. – maybe it was an acceptance issue – maybe they just knew but they thought the kids could ‘outgrow’ it.

    Your story about your sister who unfortunately did not fulfill your parents’ wishes was kinda like what I mentioned above. Your parents perhaps could not accept the fact that their beloved daughter ‘could not’ be an engineer so they tried and tried and tried. – I can totally understand that. But again ‘in general’ people tend to believe that ‘practice makes it perfect’. And I don’t wanna preach but in some cases, ‘psychological influence’ really can mold a person into someone different or potentiate the ability once not seen. We do that to all our peers all the time. – encouragements and believes. Our parents just unfortunately nag and ‘force’ us to do something that we might not enjoy from our point of view.

    I agree that more degrees or abbreviations after our names don’t promise a good and comfortable life – but what degrees are you talking about? If you can find an MD who’s certified and qualified to practice but is unable to sustain a ‘normal person’s living standards’ – I’m talking about making ends meet around 30K/yr – while his salary is generally 5-10 times as much if not more- please do let me know. Cuz the people I know have already buying cars and houses the first year after they start their work. – I think that defines ‘secured’ and ‘comfortable’ at the minimum. And I think that’s what our parents want for us – not necessarily being a big name lawyer or MD but able to have a secured and comfortable life. And unfortunately, the WRONG impression that only docs, engineers or lawyers are some of the choices out there would guarantee such life might be all they know like you mentioned before. And for sure, by being in an ivory league school or be someone in the mainstream career choices, parents can in a way ‘show-case’ their family/ children and their success to others – but who doesn’t do that?! One day, you’ll be bragging to your friends/family about how smart your kids are at books, how agile your kids move through a sea of other layers and score a goal, or how graceful your kids dance and win the hearts of the audience. You will be like that. But by living through what you experience right now, I hope you would not encourage similar behaviors as your patents have to your career choices when your daughter tells you that she thinks exotic dancer is who she really is. – I know I’m exaggerating but I hope you see the point.

    True, not everyone would enjoy being a doc, a lawyer, an engineer, a PA, a teacher or a politician. But that’s career choices. All I was saying is parents generally ‘think’ they know what’s best for us because that’s what they know about giving us a more stable and comfortable lives. Yes, they should be more considerate about your choices. But can you also guarantee success in your choices?! No one knows.

    One thing for sure though – if you are equipped with a certain skill that no one can take away from you, you can use that as a cushion and build your life as you see it. Because if you fail, there’s a safety net that you can fall back on – your parents have just done their duties.

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  146. Liz, I agreed with your reply to my post. I just wanted to post this recent NYtimes op-ed from none other than Amy Chua aka the Tiger Mom. It struck a cord with me and my pursuits in life. It is a bit of a tangent to a quarter life crisis but it hints at some of the possible reasons as to why Asian Americans especially get on the ambition train and find themselves lost somewhere in between the journey from being a kid to becoming successful in your own way. This piece resonated a bit with me as I use my failures to often drive me toward success and become hellbent on it. Interesting piece that articulated something I’ve felt and known all my life but never could put it down in words.

  147. Thanks for sharing! and for the thoughtful responses and continuation here.

    I luckily uncovered my interests in STEM while I grew up in Canada – one of the reasons why my parents emigrated was to escape the narrow-mindedness of Hong Kong, where “success” is measured by wealth and the “preferred” careers are finance or medicine. I was also lucky to benefit from improved socioeconomic status so that I will not be relied on to sustain my family. It is important to note that many immigrant families don’t necessarily do well financially and are depending on children for the future because they have sacrificed everything for their kids i.e. starting their lives over because their foreign credentials and work experience are unrecognized. Gap years and risky non-lucrative careers are not viable in these cases. Besides, there’s no guarantee of happiness and a real risk of poverty when going into risky low-paid careers.

    Here’s a possible range to think about: lucrative and/or stable e.g. STEM/law/”professional” – mid-range e.g. non-STEM/grad school/academia – risky/low-paid e.g. sports, art, music, cooking, start-up/entrepreneurship. It seems like parents being for or against the extremes is the problem: some parents could be too restrictive in defining successful career as lucrative and/or stable and in forbidding the opposite low-paid/risky careers. Moderation is definitely needed!

    Another important thing to reflect on are your values: how much do you value money, wealth, financial security? will you mind if you are underpaid or overworked (for either a job you love or don’t love doing)? do you have obligations to your family?

    Also, it will be useful to think of all of this beyond a “job” or specific position, but a career, trade, vocation, expertise, place in society. It is annoying how society emphasizes the job but think about who you might want to be besides a job i.e. family member, hobbyist, community member – and then think about how that might or might not fit with your career

    Another point that resonated was the idea of wasted education. Personally, I have pivoted away from conventional engineering and I have found myself worrying if I have wasted the time, effort, status, and success in that field. The relevant economic concept that might help is “sunk costs” – the time and effort already spent should be irrelevant to what you decide to do now. One should decide on the basis of the present, on what is remaining, and whether it is worth finishing a degree or to start something new. A degree does prove that you have completed something and it often open doors and might be worth completing. Anyway, today’s careers are definitely much more complicated than in the past and we need to help those Asian immigrant parents understand this 🙂

    Thanks again for raising the topic for discussion!

  148. I forgot to mention that I agree there is a hyperfocus on security and stability and that it comes from the insecurity and instability faced in Asian cultures and by immigrant families. It is important to recognize the extent of the financial need/stability/security. Then, at some point, as Maslow’s hierarchy points out, the higher needs of life fulfillment and satisfaction should get appropriate attention – and this requires serious consideration whether one will be satisfied with a risky and/or poorly compensated career.

  149. d: thank you for the kind words and for sharing your story! i loved it. i can only imagine what kind of resistance you must’ve faced in the asian american community as you forged your own path, especially before this shift in the zeitgeist that you described. i’m glad to hear that you’re seeing an influx of asian american artists and people reevaluating what they want for themselves — and that you’re being affirmed for the choices that you made, too. that’s awesome. thanks for blazing a trail!

  150. amy: thanks for your kind words and for the insight! you articulated something that i see all the time but didn’t really have the words for: how the obsession with security and stability can eventually turn into FEAR of doing anything differently. great point.

  151. janet: thanks for sharing your story! so much of it resonated with me: all the accolades about going to grad school (which can keep nagging questions about your future at bay, at least in my case); not being able to face the disgrace of dropping out; using your degree in ways that are rewarding and meaningful for you, even if it means diverging from what your peers are doing. i’m so, so happy that you found a job that’s fulfilling for you — that’s awesome. and i totally agree: when you love what you do and you can pay your bills, life is pretty sweet.

  152. v: thank you for the kind words! i loved reading your story. i’m excited to see where your journey leads you, and i wish you the best as you continue on it!

  153. casey: that’s a great quote — and, when you look at generations of immigrants in this country, a pretty accurate one. thank you!

  154. takeittothemax: thanks for the link — that was an interesting read (and it seems like it summarizes the book, so i don’t have to read it 🙂 ) i resonated with the quote from rumbaut about kids feeling “‘motivated to achieve’ because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem their parents’ sacrifices” and louie’s finding that parents’ expectations make children feel that family honor depends on their success — i feel like those ideas have come up on this thread over and over again. i also agreed with the point that “the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator,” which you echoed. it is remarkable that though failure is often viewed as something that decreases motivation, some are able to use it as fuel to do better. interesting thoughts!

  155. arthur: so many good points! to name a few: that parents’ SES can have a significant impact on the range of career options that children have; the importance of recognizing that there’s a range of jobs, not just ones that pay you a lot and ones that pay you nothing, and the need for moderation. as you said, careers are a lot more complicated than they were in the past, and our parents sometimes don’t understand that.

    i agree that each of us needs to reflect on our values and what we want in our careers and make our decisions accordingly. and those will be different for everyone. and i totally agree that we also need to think about our lives as a whole, and what we want in life, and make our career choices in light of that — because our jobs are only a part of our lives.

    i have mixed feelings about “wasted” education. on one hand, i don’t think that any education is really wasted, as it shapes how you think and you can bring that, as well as the skills you’ve developed, to whatever you decide to do. that being said, pursuing education has significant costs — time, money, energy — and people certainly need to consider those things when they’re deciding whether or not to continue. but i agree that sunk cost should not be the deciding factor.

  156. Liz, I am happy to see that you understand the implications of that John Adams quote. The “Asian American quarter life crisis” is definitely a common immigrant story that has repeated itself for centuries for numerous other ethnic groups. And this problem will eventually become less common due to demographic trends. If it doesn’t happen in this generation, it will happen in the next.

    Lots of good points have already been made, so I just have one thing to add. One cannot choose their parents, but one can choose their friends. I chose to change from engineering to art and ended up realigning my social networks. Social support is an important factor to take into consideration.

    If you’re surrounded by people who dislike their job, then it becomes difficult to justify liking your job. If you’re surrounded by people who accept you despite choosing an uncommon path, then it becomes easy to go that route. To trailblaze nowadays there’s no need to become a complete outcast, but I also consider it impossible to garner universal support. It’s important to evaluate how much one cares about peer approval, which varies by person. Personally, I think life is too short to worry about what people think about my choices.

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  158. Lizzo,

    This is a really good article and I’m so glad that you’re sharing this and your thoughts. Sometimes I feel the exact same way. I try to push myself to be more motivated at work, to be a better worker, but frankly when I look at what I want to do with my life, in 5 years, in 10 years, I have no idea? I don’t know what I’m good at anymore and if it even has anything to do with engineering. But I am so afraid that at 31 years old that it’s too late! It’s too late to try anything else and it’s too late to find out and to discover what I even am good at.

    Thanks for your blog. I think I have a lot of thinking to do.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  159. I’m almost in tears reading this. I’m almost 40, managed to successfully dodge medicine (which I knew early on I didn’t want), only to get stuck in a series of well-paying technology-based jobs doing work that I not only find dull and uninteresting (not to say unchallenging, these are DIFFICULT jobs).

    I have no debt, have decent savings, and can afford spend a year or two finding whatever it is I would like to pursue. I’m pursuing a plan to get out before I’m forty. I will break my parents’ hearts when I do so, but I’m so goddamned TIRED.

    Tired of working in an office I find tolerable at best.

    Tired of working with people I heartily dislike (despite the ones I like, when you hate your job, the people you hate weigh more heavily on you).

    Tired of having to compromise my values to further the company’s goals.

    Tired of working endless weekends and nights at a job I dislike.

    This essay resonates heavily with me, because it’s taken me so long to defy my parents’ expectations of me, to accept that they’ll be disappointed in me and feel that THEY failed ME, to resign myself to their endless worries and knowing that they will feel shame at the path I’m choosing.

    But I have to do it. Because the other option is simply to wait to die, and 50 more years is a long, long time to spend not being happy.

  160. Hi Elizabeth! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. I think your message really resonates with a lot of Asian Americans who are trying to strike the right balance between following their passions and respecting cultural ideals.

    After working in a stable risk management job for a couple of years out of school, I realized that I was not reaching my full potential and decided to quit and start FriendTailor, a company that helps people make friends in San Francisco.

    Granted, I did have enough saved up to be able to start this venture, my parents still worry for my financial well-being and would probably want me to take up a 9-to-5 ASAP. But that’s what money is for, right? To give you opportunities to pursue things that you want in life. What are we saving/working for if not to make our lives and our family’s life better?

    Working to your full potential, which, hopefully, will happen with something that you’re passionate about, is what I think I owe to my family for giving me such great opportunities in life.

    I think our generation is extremely lucky to be able to shift the conversation towards personal passions and dreams and away from the idea of surviving. I know there was no way my grandma or my dad could ever do what I’m doing at the age of 24, due to financial restrictions.

    So, I see it more as a responsibility to take advantage of the extremely fortunate situations we’ve been given to live a fulfilling life and really do something good for the world. I expect every generation to keep progressing and hope that one day my kids are able to realize their dreams and make an even bigger impact because of what I built with my life.

    You gained a new follower today! Thanks, again, for the post and keep up the amazing work!

  161. Thanks for sharing this interesting topic Liz! I definitely think there are a lot of Asian Americans who fall in this category of discontent but well compensated young professionals. I have to say I am very fortunate to leave out the “discontent” and “unhappy” label when it comes to myself, but I know not everyone is that lucky. I finished pharmacy school 2 years ago, completed a 1-year residency, and currently have been working for half a year doing clinical work with a specific subset of patients where I adjust their medications and follow them through the course of that adjustment. Now I think I am extremely blessed to have found such a job in this market because most pharmacists traditionally don’t end up in ambulatory care jobs straight out of residency. They’re hard jobs to come by. And I love helping patients get better and working with them so closely. I love teaching them and though it’s hard sometimes because they don’t always want to take your advice, the ones who truly experience a change are what makes my job worthwhile. What I think led to the success of my more content career is the fact that I have a good work life balance because I don’t work full time and I always gave myself the opportunity to back out of this in undergrad. I didn’t enter a shortcut 5 or 6 year program because I wanted a true college undergrad experience and I wanted to be able to opt out if I didn’t like my bio major as much as I thought I was going to straight out of high school.

    More importantly, I think it’s really important for people entering the fields of medicine to really like what they’re doing or studying. Otherwise it’s misery. It is a lot of hard work as pointed out by commenters above to be a is no less tough either but perhaps a few years shorter because residency requirements are not as mandatory. Still 4 years of pharmacy school and long hours at clinical rotations plus two board exams and 1500+ intern hours before you can take your boards. You are getting a doctorate of pharmacy after all.. But honestly, I tell people who are considering this as their career to truly reflect and see if this is what they want to do because it’s a lot of hard work and you accrue a lot of debt along the way. The job market hasn’t been great for awhile either and unless you really love this and know this is what you want to do, then pursue it. Your drive and passion will get you through. But I see too many people in pharm school who don’t really like it and probably will be that grumpy pharmacist you see at your local pharmacy.

    For the sake of the profession and the sake of patients, we don’t need lackadaisical clinicians (pharmacists or doctors or nurses, etc.) We don’t need people there just for the money. (And take a look at that benbrownmd wordpress article…the money after loans and taxes isn’t all that fancy). Of course there always will be that person. But…Wouldn’t you want a doctor who didn’t half ass his/her way through medical school for a paycheck? I’d like to see more people doing what they liked and not putting themselves through the tortures of a bar exam or MCATs or memorizing the top 200 drugs in the US when they rather be doing something else or could see themselves doing other things with their lives. I know it’s easier said than done especially when there might be financial situations to think about; i respect that. But time is also valuable in a non-priceable way. These are years you’ll never get back…some will put their other life goals on hold, like finding a partner and having kids and buying a place. Maybe those aren’t everyone’s goals but they sure are a majority of people’s goals.

    Having gone through the journey and seeing friends go through medical school (still in their first years of residency!) I will say that it is a grueling process that you better be prepared for. I think my friends actually genuinely like it though. But back in high school, and even in college!, I really had no idea what going through professional medical school and pharmacy school looked like. Keep in mind too that it’s not so easy to get into these schools either. And to be competitive in the pharmacy world now, to get more clinical work, a residency is strongly recommended. And not easy to attain due to very limited sites.

    So I think this article is great at raising awareness about the problem that people more themselves in things they don’t like…if you have doubts in what you’re doing, if you’re miserable, perhaps reflect a little on what the rest or your life might look like. All hardships aside, this is a very idealistic and more selfish way of looking at things. But if one can afford to do it, it’s definitely worth thinking about! 🙂

  162. I’m sorry, but I did not fit the college prep litmus test set by most Asian American parents. My parents couldn’t care less about me. Don’t know that my degrees (BA & MA) are in Asian American Studies. Couldn’t care less to know what my dissertation was about. This is the problem with Asian American Studies. There is no agenda except a constant mind numbing pursuit of suffering in the hope to dismantle the model minority myth. Even the term “Asian American” remains foreign to most Americans. I left the discipline. Asian American Studies failed and I would ask anyone to prove otherwise. Research your instructors backgrounds further, especially the stars, and you’ll see that the professors are from wealthy backgrounds. This combined with the outrageous cost of higher education on top of trillion dollar student loan debt reveals Asian American Studies is nothing but a middle class entreprise.

  163. pn: thank you so much for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. you’re DEFINITELY not alone; i have days when i go to work at the bookstore and i’m like, “what exactly… is happening right now…” but then i think: would i rather do this or be a therapist? and the answer is clear. i wish you the best as you as you continue on your journey!

  164. casey: oh, i absolutely do. most of my friends growing up were jewish, and we realized that basically, i was in the same boat as their parents — most of whom were pushed by their immigrant parents into medicine and law — and my friends were in the same boat as my future children. they’re all running non-profits and doing historic preservation and things like that, so i’ll be interested to see the kind of work that the next generation of asian americans takes up.

    i couldn’t agree more about the importance of social support and the friend networks you’re in; it’s so much easier to make big changes if you’re around people who are doing the same (or at least supportive of it). what you wrote reminded me of this article by william deresiewicz that i love ( “People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.”

  165. pris: thank you so much! your words mean a lot to me. i totally, totally hear you. for what it’s worth, i don’t think it’s too late — in the great scheme of things, we’re still relatively young, and it’s way easier to change course now than, say, in 10 or 20 years, when we have kids and we feel even more strongly that it’s too late.

    hope you’re doing well too, dear. miss you! i’ll be thinking of you as you contemplate.

  166. twofisted scientist: thank you so much for sharing your story. it was an honor to read it, and you did such a beautiful job of describing how brutal it can be to work a job that you hate. i commend you for having an exit plan (if the choice is between this or spending 50 more years being unhappy… you’re definitely making the right choice). i hope that your time of exploring is rich and full and rewarding — and that you find a job that’s more satisfying. i wish you all the best as you embark on this next chapter.

  167. jluk23: thank you for the kind words! they mean a lot to me. i’m glad to hear that you’re doing such interesting work — your company sounds super-interesting, and there’s definitely a need for the kind of work you do! i totally agree with you about what money is for and how lucky our generation is to have the options that we do. i really appreciate your perspective of living a fulfilling life (and giving back to the world, of course) as a responsibility in light of the opportunities you’ve been given. i’ve never thought about it that way before, but that’s an excellent way of looking at it — living a life that’s meaningful as a way of honoring our parents and the opportunities they’ve given us. i’m going to chew on that for a while.

  168. jay cee: thank you for sharing your story! i love that you’re so happy with the work that you do — that’s awesome. you brought up so many good points: the importance of giving yourself opportunities to change your mind; the importance of liking your work if it’s going to be a grueling path to get there; the fact that we don’t need more apathetic clinicians; the fact that your time is also valuable; so that’s something to consider when contemplating a career path. sage words.

  169. (h)academics: thanks for sharing your story. it sounds like you’ve done some unique and interesting things, and i wish you the best as you continue on your journey.

  170. Pingback: A New Beginning | sungkim72

  171. I’m a little behind on commenting, but wanted to let you know that you have spoken into so many peoples’ experience as an Asian American (which I’m sure you’ve already heard from the thousands of people who have read your post). In my own experience, I have found it interesting that I still struggle with questions about my career, even though I’m in a field that I love! What i mean by that is that my love for psychology and being in this field is one thing- choosing what to do within the field is another. I am constantly asking myself whether I am just jumping through hoops to get to the next level, or if I’m actually passionate about the choices I make (now that I have the option of being more picky!).

    You are amazing Liz Lin! Miss you friend.

  172. One thing I find amusing about a lot of the comments is the prevalence of humble-bragging in them. A lot of Asian-Americans (myself included) tend to talk about their accomplishments in a look-at-how-great-I-am kind of way, even when they’re saying bad things about themselves. It’s great that we’re all a bunch of winners, but we need to get over ourselves.

    That aside, I totally agree with this post and enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks for voicing the anxieties and problems of a generation that dislikes owning up to imperfection. It’s such a relief to know that I’m not alone in the world regarding these issues. I’m 21 years old and I’ve switched majors in college three times already (History to Psychology to Journalism to Biology) because I can’t discover a prospective career in any field I enjoy which will also result in financial stability.

    When I meet people who have Liberal Arts degrees, I envy them just as much as I think they’re dumb for pursuing something so useless (which is a horrible way to think, I know). I wish I had the social freedom and money to do something as frivolous as getting a Lib Arts degree. I love History, but there’s just no way I’m ever going to get a career pursuing it. I know a guy who has a History degree and he delivers pizzas for a living (he’s in his 40s too). 😦

    I wish we could all just do what we want without societal/familial pressure. Another thing that upsets me is that Asian immigrant families don’t think you’ve amounted to anything unless you’re making six figures. Why isn’t having a cottage in the suburbs enough? What am I going to do with a penthouse apartment in a high rise? Man, I just want my four walls and IKEA furniture.

    Great job! Thanks for raising a discussion regarding a topic that desperately needed to be addressed.

  173. You seem to have succintly summarized all those things I wanted to say to my peers when I was in high-school : There is no mould that accomodates everyone the same way. Not everyone can be a perfect fit for that mould. I’ve always wanted to do law and thankfully my parents didn’t see anything wrong with my leaving the most dominating field in my country-engineering/medicine- for a field that hasn’t yet fully matured- law. I was that same kid, struggling with maths and physics and chemistry and constantly being derided for enjoying pursuing other things : dance, music and writing. If it weren’t for my parents’ absolutely impertubable disposition, (that they hardly raised an eye-brow when I suddenly switched guns and went to psychology and then to law), I would have never retained even a smidge of self-worth. The fact that I’m a social media activist at 21, have done a part-time job teaching, am doggedly pursuing a degree that will fetch me a job in nothing less than 6 years- has never been an issue with them and I really thank God for the fact that I don’t have any responsibilities that would have otherwise precluded my going after what interested me. I’m glad someone (who is gratifyingly from asian-descent) has written about the absurdity that is the current educational system which gives absolutely no chance for individual interests. Aptitude and interest are always better qualifiers for a suitable career than convention and custom. Really thrilled to have read this!

  174. On reading this thoughtful, articulate piece, I was both elated and depressed. Elated because finally, FINALLY, someone is saying all the things that I’ve been noticing, questioning, and thinking about. And yet at the same time depressed, because I too have seen more than enough of this phenomenon among my peers and I have no answers either.

    Growing up, I always thought there was something wrong with me because math and science were NOT my strong subjects and instead of trying harder at them, I just focused more on the things that I was good at. Not that I stopped trying altogether or failed those subjects (though I did Asian-fail most of those them) but I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged me and my sisters to just do our best and work at the things we actually were interested in. In college, I spent the first two years trying to decide my major because I was adamant I would study something I LIKED instead of for the potential career security it would offer me in the future. Like you, I watched many of my peers pityingly as they slogged through series after series of math and science classes.

    Come graduation though, I realized the tradeoffs I had made in choosing to study something I liked but that did not provide any kind of stable career. (I got a BA in World Arts and Cultures. How’s that for most non-lucrative-sounding major?) As many of my friends went on to med/law school or jobs in the finance world, I scrambled around trying to find a job that wouldn’t completely undermine my abilities and would also fit my interests. Long story short, I spent two years working overseas and in that time, discovered a budding interest in the media and communications field. Now I’m currently a grad student in the field and frustratingly, have hit another wall. While I love what I study, trying to figure out how to narrow down my focus (media and comm IS a very broad field after all) has proven so far to be the biggest obstacle yet. I can only take comfort in knowing that I haven’t spent years doing something only to realize I didn’t want to do that and that I have parents who fully support me realizing my dreams and passions rather than only chase after stability and security.

    All my best to you and best of luck on your future endeavors. I really hope more Asian-Americans can find the courage to really think about what it is they want and do something about it, rather than sit back and passively watch from the sidelines.

  175. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad you found happiness.
    Right now, I’m a third year undergrad, working through a Bachelor of Arts program in psychology. I cringe at the prospect of being jobless after I graduate, which I hear is happening to many people in my generation. Once in a while I hear in the news something about how many people are very highly educated yet more are unemployed. I don’t really have any concrete plans for my future either, yet my parents have high expectations for me. They want me to start working right away after I graduate, but in Ontario where I live, I can’t do anything with my degree without a masters. Even stronger is their expectation that I would acquire a job related to what I studied. I tell them that I want to do a masters in social work for two years, and that’s fine with them. However, at the same time, my mom is getting tired of wasting our money on rent, so she wants to buy a house. Currently, though, she perceives that she’s the only one with a full time work (she doesn’t count my brother who’s doing co-op, and me who works every summer). And whenever she expresses that fact, I sense the frustration she’s holding. In turn, I feel some kind of pressure in my chest, reminding me of what my parents want: that I must find a job asap after I graduate. It doesn’t help that my dad’s unemployed either.
    So, here I am, a psych major thinking of going on a master’s level on social work. But that’s NOT what I want to do with my life. I want to be a writer. I want to be published, or simply get my stories out there. I want to have a nice quiet life and a lot of time to write. At the best of days, I feel optimistic about my future as a writer. On my blue days, I just curse my choices.
    My cultural background is Filipino. Given that, I think my parents would perceive it as a kind of betrayal if I just do what I want. I know that the limitations on what I can or cannot do is purely mental, that I put it on myself. And yet, they feel so real that my actions are guided by them. As a result, I continue on my psychology education with my parents’ wishes in mind.

  176. Hi, liz. I want to quickly comment again on this post, after I read through some of these comments. I want to comment on what it is like to pursue a non-traditional career as an Asian-American.

    When I switched out of engineering into urban planning, I got TONS of strange looks from many of my close Asian-American friends. Many have never heard of urban planning as a career (which is one of the reasons why looking at the graduate student statistics, majority of planning students are Caucasian), or knew what I do.

    The reason why a traditional career is easy to cling and fall back under is because it’s well-documented and there are stats to back up your success. Get a 4 year degree in a professional degree, work at a large Big 4 Firm, get an MBA, head into management, etc.. the path is much more linear and doesn’t require much crafting.

    Whereas a non-traditional career, you have to craft your own career and be entrepreneurial. For example, many of my friends and fellow alum who graduated from planning are doing a lot of interesting things: working in design, working in a start-up, taking on a Fulbright, doing fellowships, working at planning consulting, etc..

    For me, I would like to pursue an international career in urban planning (with a focus on transportation planning / public health / built environment), with a focus on China and the developing world. The question is, how do I get there? The career path isn’t the most linear, and there’s very little information on salaries for a career that specific.

    Whereas it’s a lot easier to find statistics on salaries, career path information for doctors, lawyers, engineers, management consulting, banking, etc. . So in some ways, it’s a lot easier to “plan a career” based on what’s been already done. Whereas for me, I’m like: I need to ask around, network, etc.

    My decision still stands to pursue planning as a long-term career as it aligns with a lot of my personal values and how I want to contribute to society. It will definitely be a bumpy road, but it’s one that I’m willing to take.

    For me, I look back and I can’t imagine doing anything else (and this is an understatement! I think about urban planning 24/7 in my life!).

    If anybody wants to get coffee (I’m in the SF Bay Area) and talk further, leave me an email!

  177. Well, I know I am not the only Asian-Canadian who did their major in the humanities –English literature. But then I got practical for myself, and did my 2nd degree in library sciences. Even with electronic we deal with now, it still sounds geeky.

    But I’ve loved my career –and feel immensely privileged to have worked with such a varied set of clients : firefighters, engineers, judges, lawyers, acccountants, sr. managers, etc. …you wouldn’t have thought working in private and public sectors as an engineering, then law librarian and now a knowledge management specialist, but I’ve learned so much along the way. I’ve never worked in a public library.

    I don’t entirely agree that in my personal experience, the face to face Asian Canadians I’ve known are risk – adverse. The ones, I’ve be good friends, have not fit this mold at all.

    I would suggest that if you join a group of them with a commitment to social justice issues, you will meet incredible gifted and creative (hard working, yea the stereotype) individuals. I did: those who carved in the areas of work on race relations issues in Toronto, those who came forward to say they were gay (this was 30 yrs. ago), those who are artists and those who pursued PhD in English literature. These are people who speak out in a crowd of naysayers, sometimes a crowd of hostile/disbelieving non-Asian Canadians.

    True a career is never circuitous, if you allow yourself to take some risk. And if possible, allow yourself to be mobile. Leave the city that you grew up in…and another world presents to you.

    Sure, my jobs are to earn money but it also allows me to pursue other personal passions.

    Happy new year of the horse and best wishes!

  178. I always thought I would go down the conventional path to a good job. School, college, university (that’s the norm in England where I live). But then I got ill and had to study from home.. The options of university courses that could be done from home were limited but there was a psychology degree which had been my favourite school subject so it seemed an obvious choice.. Part way into the second year I was bored. I was pushing myself despite being ill to get assignments in on time. I was making myself more ill by doing that and I wasn’t even enjoying it. So I quit. Having an illness made it easier to quit I guess. It wasn’t that I was giving up, I figured I would go back to study in the future when I felt better. I’m 21 now. My friends are just finishing uni and I’ve decided I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go back. I want to work with animals (my dog helped me through my illness and became my best friend so I’ve experienced the wonder of animals first hand) but don’t want the responsibility of being a vet so I don’t need a degree for most animal work. Right now I’m still not very good health wise but I’m getting better. I’m reading up on animals which I enjoy and have started a blog on here which doesn’t even require additional research. It’s just a way of recording the research I do anyway. (By research I mean putting together information from various different places, not actually doing experiments or anything). I’m thinking one day I might be an animal journalist, or a dog groomer, and if I do decide in the future I want to use my brain more I might consider training as a veterinary nurse or going to uni for an animal behaviour degree and working in a zoo. I’m lucky to have realised fairly early in my life that I would rather be happy and poor than unhappy and rich. I’m currently doing a bit of study- I’m teaching myself sign language incase I ever get the opportunity to work with guide dogs and their owners, but I’m on a path I’m happy with and I feel lucky to have found my path so young, though I’ve still got a long way to go. I think working out what I enjoy has made me relax and feel less need to plan everything.. I’ll get there in time.. But I have my boyfriend to thank.. We were walking max one day during my first year of uni. I was already having doubts about my course and he asked me what I enjoyed doing more than anything, not just academic subjects. I said my favourite thing was walking max, cuddling max, brushing him and generally looking after him to the best of my ability. He said ‘so work with dogs then’ and it seemed so simple yet I had never thought of it. Sometimes people just need someone to ask them what they enjoy outside work to find what they would enjoy as a job.

  179. Hello! I think you have some interesting observations about achievement and age. However, I wish you’d not lumped all Asian Americans together in one category and made lots of sweeping generalizations. What is your ethnicity? My guess is that you, like me, have parents who immigrated in the 2nd wave of Asian immigration, which means we have parents with college degrees. This is really different than my friends who are SE Asian American and have refugee parents, for example. There are dozens of cultures that make up “Asian American” with uniquely different backgrounds… not everyone is a “model minority”!

  180. I fought with my parents for the chance to go to Japan to teach English as a break from school. I was certain that I’d go to grad school for genetics or something similar in the biosciences, but the JET Programme really appealed to me. At one point, I even considered that a possible career. Well, my parents let me go to Japan, and being an Assistant Language Teacher wound up not being my thing. I came home to an “I told you so” from my mom.

    After much fighting, I got a job as a lab tech since it was too late to apply to grad school and I wanted to see if research really was what I wanted to do. I’m glad I didn’t rush into getting a PhD because I still don’t know if that’s the path I want to take. I get a lot of hell from both my parents and my friends’ parents, and I do feel like I’m the only one wandering aimlessly among my Asian-American peers. However, as I’ve told everyone, I don’t want to restrict my options. I love how being a lab tech gives me time to build my writing career and do dance performances; I don’t think I could be happy if I had to choose just one of these things. Even if Japan didn’t work out as planned, I am thankful I made the choice to step away from studying.

  181. Beautiful and articulate post, Elizabeth. Wonderfully put.

    I’m Filipino-American, but I didn’t find my parents to be as Tiger-parent-ish as some of my other Asian American peers’. I dropped that corporate drone life as quickly as I entered into it, and now I teach English in Thailand and bubble around the Internet trying to think of clever digital projects I can make with all the travel-stuff I’ve collected. I’m back in the States for a little bit to be with my sister and her husband and babies as she goes through chemotherapy, and am back living under the roof of my mother’s.

    I used to think my hard work and independence and money-making schemes were in the name of everything, all that work my parents and aunts and uncles did to get us over here, all the sacrifice and assimilating and building new, improved lives here in America. I thought I was paying it forward by paying off my loans ahead of schedule and working myself to the bone in a job that simply wasn’t for me. When in reality, I was the only one who was putting all that pressure on myself.

    We are the only ones that put the pressure on ourselves. It’s part of being an American. Independence and self-reliance are highly valued in this hyper-productive culture. And when you are not independent (read: living in a separate physical place from your parents, earning your own income), you are deemed unsuccessful. When the irony is Asian cultures accentuate the family unit. Thai children stay with their parents (some even stay in their parents’ beds) well into their 30s, until they themselves begin families. Only then to they move out and sustain something for themselves.

    I’m now beginning to realize that my parents worked their tails off so that I could have the freedom to choose my own path. They never thought about which careers they wanted because they couldn’t afford to. It was a matter of survival. They’ve allowed me the chance to afford to make the choice. I make pennies. I live with my mom. But I feel successful.

    Anyway, this post definitely resonated with me. Keep on, girl. You’re doing great work here.

  182. Hi Liz, First thank you for your post. I found your post through a friend who shared it on Facebook and I can honestly say that it had a quite significant influence on my life. Like one of the examples that you described, I studied engineering and then got my MBA to find a management role in a big bank. Fast forward 4 years, the misalignment between my contribution in the job and the impact that I wanted to create in the world caught on to me. I felt quite unhappy in my job.

    Given the dilemma, I gave a lot of thought to what change I needed to make to be happy again. I have been reading books and talking to friends and yet I couldn’t figure out exactly what I wanted to do and how I’d transition into this new life that I’d think up. Just a day after reading your post, in no small part due to the encouragement that I got from reading your post, I made some breakthrough on what I’d want to going forward.

    It involves some drastic changes in my life which I am both excited and scared about but nevertheless I am very relieved that there is a clearer direction on how I’d like to narrate my life story next.

    In addition to this, I started a blog (again with a token of inspiration from you – although I have always wanted do this). Please come and visit my blog and I’ll share more about how I am progressing with my new adventures.


  183. Nice article Elizabeth. it feels good to read such a refreshing article. Most of us are going through this ‘quarter life -crisis’ but very few have the support to quit the well paying stable jobs to take up something they love in the fear that they will be judged by their peers and relatives.

    So they end up working boring jobs and losing interest in life altogether!!

  184. Hi Liz,

    This is one of the most honest and refreshing personal stories I have read in a long time. Thank you. Thank you for articulating some of my greatest fears as a young Asian American adult and providing a narrative that is both humbling and inspiring. I am currently an undecided business major at a highly respectable university, and I can relate to the process — the math workbooks, the gifted programs, the AP classes, the extracurriculars. I also relate to the result.

    Here I am, working my way through college courses in every conceivable topic — engineering, Spanish, business — and wondering whether or not I’ll be able to find a job that suits me, that makes me happy. (Funny enough, I was just working on updating my resume before seeing this article.) It has been a concern for quite a while, but coming to college has made me realize just how difficult it is to know what it is I love to do and what it is I want to do, and even harder for me to pursue it.

    My parents have been nothing less than the most supportive and encouraging role models in my life, they provided me innumerable opportunities to take lessons in what interested me and hardly ever forced me into anything if I found it even the least bit interesting. And yet here I am, wandering in this crazy collegiate world, talking to professors, advisors, career center counselors, etc., hoping that something someone says will spark a fire. And nothing yet.

    While I can’t say with confidence that I will ever be able to do what you did, to let go and actually try the things I’ve always been curious about, I do want to thank you for addressing the issue so candidly. It’s scary to feel lost. It’s scary to feel like I don’t know what I’ll be doing 6 months from now, let alone 1 or 5 years from now. It’s scary to not have the structure given to me as a young child, but it is reassuring to know that I’m not alone, that my fears are not unfounded and that others have gone through similar experiences and come out all the better on the other side.

  185. Hey jluk23,

    I really liked reading your story; Friendtailor sounds really cool! Has it been working?
    For the future, I think you should consider branching friendtailor out to other states, I think it’d be really cool! =D

  186. Hi Frodo,

    You have an awesome name! Yes, FriendTailor is doing well. We have created a lot of friendships among the 100 users we have so far. The best story we’ve heard is from a pair we matched over 3 months ago. They thanked us for matching them up and told us that they ended up spending the holidays together since they were both from different parts of the country and did not have enough vacation days to go back to see their families.

    We are still working hard to develop a solid user base, which has been more challenging than anticipated. If you know anyone in SF that is looking for friends, I would definitely love to help!

    Thank you so much for your support! It would be my dream to be able to build the business out successfully in SF and then roll it out to other states. What state are you in? Maybe we’ll go there first! 🙂 Take care and feel free to keep in touch! I am always curious to hear what people say about this venture and possibly get ideas on how to improve it!

  187. I’m Asian and find I also face this kind of crisis.Well,I choose to persist on the job now for a period of time,maybe 1 year or longer.After I save enough money to start my own favorite career I could quit my current job.Really got resonate things from your word.Like your word:)

  188. One more thing, Liz! I hope it’s okay that I repost this blog. I love the message and want my followers to get a chance to be inspired by your journey as well! Thanks for the awesome reply! I know it’s not easy with so many passionate people responding to your post. You’re creating a whirlwind of very deep discussion and necessary reflection!

  189. Agreed, stinkytofu – I am going for economics and policy, different from the more common finance and law… there’s definitely stuff out there, just not as common, especially for Asians – go for it!

  190. You have hit the nail on the head. This is so true. Not just for Asian Americans but for pretty much everyone of our generation. I am 26, have a bachelors and masters in engineering, plans of pursuing PhD – all in different fields. I have worked four jobs so far – again, all in different fields. There have been times when I have asked myself – “Where the hell am I headed” and there are times when I have told myself – “I will get there”, only thing being – I don’t know where. I am figuring it out.
    Thanks for the post. I would love to go through the comments too, was too tempted to comment after reading. Reblogging this!

  191. This is so similar to my story, it’s scary. My parents were rarely around – I was what some would call a latchkey kid – but the expectations were definitely present. I didn’t think that getting perfect grades and excelling in academics was anything special; it was just another objective to complete. But I always had doubts about my interests, mainly because analytical reading and writing – not medicine, finance, etc. – have always been my greatest skills. While most of the kids in the family – the Filipino side anyway – had jobs in accounting, programming, and engineering, I was the weird one who enjoyed stuff like literature and history. Unlike the majority of my peers, I paid for my college education entirely out of my own pocket, with no parental help or student loans. I also happened to graduate from college in 2008, *just* before the economy crashed. I was broke, but I didn’t owe anyone a cent. I was lucky enough to have a part-time job at a major bank, and I knew I had to play it safe if I wanted to afford to live and eventually go back for my MA. So I buckled down into a job that went against every instinct and interest I had, simply because my degree was useless at the time.

    I worked for the company for a dozen years (yeah, you read that right) and grew to despise it more and more. Oh, I learned tons in terms of leadership, organization, business, finance, procedures, logistics, audits, etc., but it slowly chipped away at my well-being. I dreaded the monotony of it all; this dull, constricting, unrewarding office realm had taken over everything. All because I was too afraid of leaving my successful job to do something more fulfilling. Where was the passion? What did I really want to do with my life? Was *this* how the rest of my life was going to be?

    Skip forward to late last year, when the company put me on medical leave in order to get some much-needed anxiety and depression therapy. That’s how bad things had gotten. After weeks of sessions, the company decided I – one of their most experienced workers – wasn’t worth the trouble. I was unceremoniously axed, and it felt like someone had ripped out a part of me. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I’m unemployed. It’s terrifying, because I’m 29 and have no idea what do with my life. I’m nowhere near starving – I’m actually in a much better financial situation than most Millennials – but I can’t stay like this. It drives me crazy just sitting here all day; I *know* I’m disciplined and capable of accomplishing so much more than that. And the worst part is the shame in knowing that I’ve really failed. My parents (and most of my extended family) don’t know yet. What’s a guy like me supposed to do with that?

  192. Thank you for sharing your story! I’m about to turn 26, and I found this so immensely relatable. Growing up, my Vietnamese immigrant mother told everyone I was going to be a pediatrician, because I loved kids. 1) I had never wanted to be a doctor. 2) I did not like kids.
    To please her, I joined the clinical rotation program at my high school and suffered through two years of hell. I managed to dodge the medical bullet by promising to go into law. I too, studied Psychology in college as my major, and worked at a law firm for a summer. Back in school, I realized I didn’t like law, either. I tried to speak to my mother, but she vetoed every career option I suggested.

    And then, after years of depression, I finally had a huge mental breakdown—which could have been the best thing to have happened. My mother had to face that either I was going to do what I wanted to do, or I might not survive.

    I moved a timezone away and enrolled in a creative writing program. Now, I have the opposite problem. I love what I’ve studied, but I have no stable career path. Even with all the stress, I have no regrets for changing my trajectory. My road is going to be a little rockier, but at least I’m in control, and I know I’m pursuing my dream.

  193. Asia people like to have wrong social value for comparison.
    I read Korea American life crisis.
    I need to say that it is not wise to put yourself into a group of wrong social value people for comparison. They only make fun of you and you are only the target to be attack.

  194. m: thanks for the kind words, dear! i appreciate them a lot. you raise a great point that even in fields we enjoy, we continually have to assess the trajectory we’re on — are we just jumping through hoops, or are we doing what we really want to be doing? especially in a field with as many options as the one we were/are in.

    miss you too, dear! can’t wait to see you in june!

  195. queen a: thanks for your kind words! i appreciate them. you’re definitely not alone, and i think your changes in major reflect the difficulty that so many of us have finding jobs that we find fulfilling but will also pay the bills. and i agree that our parents’ definition of success is often a lot narrower than ours, and they often don’t see that we actually can be happy on less than what they think we need.

  196. abby: thanks for the kind words! so glad that you’ve found a path that interests you and that your parents are so supportive. that’s a gift.

    i loved this line: “Aptitude and interest are always better qualifiers for a suitable career than convention and custom.” well said.

    i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  197. lillianccc: thank you so much for the kind words! i appreciate them, and i loved reading your story. i’m glad that you found a field that interests you (relatively early, as you observed) and that your parents have been so supportive. your story illustrates a good point — that even when we find a field that we enjoy, we still have choices to make about what we’re going to do (especially if you’re in a broad field, like you are) and what kind of life we want to have. i wish you the best as you discern your path!

  198. thedreamings: thanks for sharing your story. you illustrated so many of the tensions that we have to balance when it comes to career choices — finding work that we find fulfilling, our financial situations (and those of our parents’), the economy, our parents’ expectations and cultural values, the pressure we perceive from our parents vs. the pressure we put on ourselves. it sounds like you have a lot to consider, and that must be stressful. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey.

  199. stinkytofu: excellent, excellent point. when it comes to “traditional” careers, the safety and security isn’t just in the job itself — it’s also in the path that gets you there. a non-traditional career requires a lot more risk and unknowns and innovation, and there are far fewer models for what that looks like (if any at all for the particular path you want to take). thank you for articulating that — that’s super-helpful.

  200. party floats: thanks for the thought. your point illustrates that everyone needs to figure out what job is best for them, based on their values and the kind of life they want to have!

  201. jean: thanks for sharing your story. i’m glad that you found a career that you enjoy! and a community of risk-taking people. that’s great.

  202. nikkiharvey: thanks for sharing your story! you are lucky that you figured out the direction you wanted to head in so early, and i love that you’re being so intentional about figuring out what you want to do. that’s awesome. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  203. elisa: thanks for your insights. i agree that asian americans are not a monolithic group and that SES, parental education, and reasons for immigration can significantly shape our experiences. however, i don’t think that what i’ve described here can be isolated to a certain ethnicity or SES. in my experience (and in many of the comments above), there are many asian americans from more working-class backgrounds who experience the same pressures to achieve — sometimes even more strongly than i did, as they felt pressure to “save” their families and redeem all of the incredibly difficult work that their parents were doing. i know southeast asians who faced the same pressures; i know other taiwanese americans who did not. so while i do think that this phenomenon is most prevalent in second-generation asian americans, i don’t think it can be isolated to certain ethnicities or SESes.

    also, i don’t think that any of us are a model minority; that’s a myth that was propagated by some white people to blame certain racial groups for their experiences of institutionalized racism and to keep people of color from unifying.

  204. WOW. Just. WOW. I have been wanting someone from the Asian community publicly acknowledge this and question this for a long time. This is so refreshing to hear.

    I’m a 20 year old, so I’m still in college and haven’t made too big decision about my career yet, but this mentality has completely affected how I view things. It turns out I’m one of those Asians (actually, half asian… vietnamese, but still completely lived through this) that are NOT interested in math and science and that reliable lifestyle or career after all. But I’ve had an incredibly difficult time trying to let go of that mentality. I’m still struggling with it right now.

    I don’t mean to be blunt… or maybe I do, but I have this huge anger towards this mentality because I suffered long and hard abuse from it! I basically have diagnosed complex trauma from such extreme circumstances with this mentality included. I know the mentality isn’t 100% to blame… but I can’t help but do that. I’ve always wondered and visualized how great I would be in a creative, passionate, adventurous profession… and yet, because of the extremity of how much this was pounded into my head, I can barely take those steps towards that without experiencing some heavy anxiety or backlash. I just know in my heart I’d be successful, but every time I try I punish myself just like I was punished for wanting to try something different. Oh geez… this is really starting to open up a dam here so I’ll cut it short.

    But THANK YOU for saying this. writing about it. I can’t tell you enough how much this means to me to have someone who’s been affected by it say it’s okay to do the opposite.

  205. Reading through the comments I am just shocked. Frodo’s comment… the third one. That is my life. I am the older sister who came home from university and am now attending community college courses. My mother would say the exact same thing to me. That I’ve disappointed her. And my sister I’m sure is definitely feeling the burden of being the only daughter left who can be the reason for mother’s happiness and satisfaction. And my parents are divorced too… in 2012 TOO. But I live with dad, sister with mom. And I made myself try to understand science… I even told myself I was going to major in PHYSICS. The complete OPPOSITE of my true dreams of creativity, design and communication.

    It sounds like you are taking on a lot from all of this, sacrificing yourself for the sake of the family. and if it is true I just want to tell you some words that have helped me release the burden if you want to hear them too. (I don’t know exactly your life so take it as you relate), 1) Mom is being selfish. It is not your job to make her happy. Parents shouldn’t rely on kids to make their dreams come true. It should be the other way around. I have been through the divorced parents and the demanding mother. It is not your job to be the sole patch for a conflicted marriage either. You have so many dreams and it sounds like capabilities that are just waiting for you out there! I believe in you if you you do. I hope everything ends up okay.

  206. hibari: thanks for sharing your story! i totally hear you on battling with your parents to take time off of school — i had to make a case with mine after undergrad, too — but i’m glad that you did the JET program and found out for yourself that teaching wasn’t for you. that’s awesome. i also love that you’re taking time to discern whether or not research is for you instead of jumping right in — that’s so, so wise. and that you’re getting to do things you love when you’re not working! it sounds like your life is rich and full, and i wish you the best as you continue to discern your path.

  207. teresa: thank you for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. i’m glad that you’ve found such interesting work, and i appreciate how you view your parents’ hard work as a way for you to have the freedom to choose your career that they did not. that’s beautiful. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  208. girin: i’m honored and humbled by your words — thank you so much! i’m so glad to hear that you’ve made a breakthrough about where you want to go next — that’s so, so exciting. i look forward to reading about how your journey progresses!

  209. babithablogsite: thanks for the kind words — i appreciate them! i agree that fear of how others will perceive our choices is a big part of what keeps us in jobs we don’t enjoy.

  210. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am only in my 3rd year of university but I can’t help questioning why I am doing my current degree. I feel like a lot of other students feel the same way, most of us have a “work to live” mentality. There is so much external pressure and knowing what you really want to do is so difficult that finding what’s a good fit for you can be hard work.

  211. miranda: thank you for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. you did a beautiful job of articulating how scary it can be to have so many options and not know which to choose. i’m glad to hear that your parents are so supportive — that’s a gift! — and i love that you’re trying lots of different things and talking to as many people as you can. though the process can be scary and your path may not be linear (which is okay!), i have full confidence that you’ll come out all the better on the other side, as you said. i hope that you’re able to feel even the slightest bit of excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead — the best is yet to come!

  212. rachna: thanks for the kind words! i love that you’ve tried so many different things. and i love this line: “there are times when I have told myself – “I will get there”, only thing being – I don’t know where.” i totally hear you. that belongs on a t-shirt. best wishes to you as you figure it out!

  213. polymathically: thank you so much for sharing your story — it was an honor to read. SO, so terrible that you were let go like that; that’s a travesty, and they should be ashamed of themselves for canning you so coldly after your years of service to them. i can’t even imagine how horrible that must have felt. you did not fail — they failed YOU.

    i hear you on how frustrating and crazymaking time off can be, especially when you’re used to working tirelessly. i’m sure that this will be little consolation now, but i have no doubts that you’ll land on your feet — you clearly have an incredible work ethic — and i hope that you find yourself in a job that you find more meaningful. i hope that your time off, unwanted as it is, gives you an opportunity to figure out a better fit. i’ll be thinking of you as you embark on this next chapter.

  214. mandala: thank you for sharing your story! i loved it, especially this bit: “Growing up, my Vietnamese immigrant mother told everyone I was going to be a pediatrician, because I loved kids. 1) I had never wanted to be a doctor. 2) I did not like kids.” i’m sorry that it took a breakdown for your mother to give you room to decide your path for yourself, but i’m so glad that you’re happy with the one you’ve chosen. and i totally hear you on being able to choose your own path, even if it’s bumpy — those bumps are yours and not someone else’s, and that makes all the difference.

  215. sarah3an: thank you for the kind words! they mean a lot to me. i hear you on how deeply ingrained this mentality can be and how hard it can be to let go of it (and the psychological consequences we can experience when we try). i hope that you find a path that’s fulfilling for you — and taps into your creativity and passion and adventure, at least somewhat.

    loved your wisdom to frodo, too — so true. glad you were able to find a way to get in touch with her!

  216. talk to trina: i hear you. and i totally agree — when you consider the external pressures on one hand and the internal discernment that you have to do on the other, figuring out a good career choice is hard work indeed. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey.

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  218. This really changed how I think about things; thank you for that. I’m only a student, so I’ve never experienced a job I don’t like. However, I do tend to come up with a five-year plan and be unwilling to deviate from it, and I’ve found myself in situations where I’m taking classes I don’t want to take or I’m pushing myself into something that doesn’t interest me simply because I think it is what I should be doing. I was vaguely aware of this, but I didn’t see any other option because, while it didn’t feel right, it felt like what I needed to do.

    I definitely need to do some replanning- well, not replanning. Unplanning, I suppose. I guess you really don’t always need a plan, and that is what makes life worthwhile.

    This post was very inspiring, and it definitely made me realize that I’m possibly headed in the direction that will eventually lead me to a quarter life crisis. Thank you for allowing me to learn this now and take a look at the bigger picture- I’m glad you’re happy with where you are right now, and thank you for showing me the type of life I should really strive for: the one that will make me happy.

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  220. Hi sarah3an,

    Thanks for leaving a comment in response to my comment. I’m blown away by how similar our stories are, and it gives me comfort to know that people understand my situation, and it helps me feel like I’m not alone.
    Thank you for the words of wisdom. I’m not going to lie, I teared up (a little).
    I hope things work out/are working out for you too, and I hope your situation is better.

    One thing: if you feel that your younger sister is feeling any pressure, I’d advise you to talk to her (if you guys have a good relationship with each other). Sometimes the feelings of younger siblings get forgotten because people think “Oh, I’ve been able to figure it out, so the younger one will end up figuring it out too.” But sometimes it’s nice to have some support. If you’re younger sister is under pressure and hasn’t said anything, it might be because she’s afraid of letting anyone down. Personally, that’s the reason I don’t talk to my older sister about my feelings because I feel like I’ll make her upset by making her think that it’s HER fault I feel the way I do, and that’s not true!
    Chances are, if your sister feels pressurized, her emotions will probably flow out like a fountain if you give her a chance to express them, and in this way, the two of you can understand each other’s situations better, and can possibly help each other get rid of those feelings of guilt.

    I wish you the best of luck on your journey; I’m sure you’ll be fantastic! =)

  221. Hi jluk23,

    Lol, thanks for the compliment on my name! ^___^
    It sounds so cool that FriendTailor is doing such a successful job! =D

    Unfortunately, I don’t live in the SF area (I don’t live in Cali at all!), but if I did, I’d totally recommend your site. =) I live in Austin, Texas, and I really think places like Austin and Houston could help expand your userbase. There are a lot of online sites that get used a lot around here to get people to come together (ex: online dating, singles’ events, and there’s even some website that helps bring together groups of people who have similar interests).
    I guess my point is that online businesses like yours tend to do pretty great in these areas. If you do have plans on expanding, I’d definitely recommend you to try out the major cities in Texas.

    Best of luck to you! =D

  222. Hi Miranda,

    I really love the way you articulated your emotions; they express how many of us feel right now.
    I kind of feel the same way you do, and when I posted my response to this blog, I had actually scheduled to speak with a career advisor, hoping, like you, that they could perhaps help me find a new path that would light my future for me. But no such luck.
    Though I am still kinda lost, I am also giving more thought to my future, and I am doing research on different degrees and jobs I may be interested in.
    I’d advise you to do the same. Sometimes people won’t really be able to create that “spark” of interest for you. We all have our own stories, journeys, and goals, and we probably know which things interest us the most/least. Do some research, and you’ll start finding things that interest you. You’ll start your own sparks. At least, that’s kind of the process I’m going through now.
    I’m doing pre-med, but i’m unsure I want to be a doctor. From the research I’ve done thus far, I found that I can stay on the pre-med path if I study Human/Child Development, but if I choose not to become a doctor, I will be able to do some Child Advocacy or Social Services or even teaching. I think I might have found my dream degree, but I’ll do a bit more research.
    Likewise, I think you too will find what interests you if you search for it. People may try to persuade you to be interested in random degrees that don’t interest you, but if you take the initiative to find what you like, you’ll probably be more satisfied with the result. =)

    Meanwhile, if you find time, take part in activities that interest you. I have always been an avid writer (I guess you can tell from my long post), and when I have time off from studying, I write. Currently, I am writing a short story/screenplay for a contest. In the past, I have edited scripts for videogames (videogame developing is another interest/hobby of mine). I highly encourage you to do some activities geared towards what interest you. That way, you can get an idea of what you like and don’t like. Feel free to explore your interests, I’m sure you’ll find something that satisfies you! =)

  223. Hi Liz,

    Thank you for your reply!

    I agree with you about the Asian cultural factors as well as the pressures described being common in many working-class families.

    In terms of SES, you bring up great points and there really is much variance within all SES and families in terms of pressure to excel and pursue higher education, although I would say that the likelihood of success in education for children who have both parents graduate from college or say obtain their Ph.D’s is higher than children whose parents have not attended or graduated from college. But causation is not correlation, so these parents may very well push their kids just as hard or even harder.

    On a side yet relevant note, over the past several months I have been collecting research concerning Asian American cultural experiences and Asian American civil rights because I would like to write a blog post about it in the near future. I find it very difficult to speak about Asian-Americans as a whole because we are incredibly diverse and have such a variety of histories and cultures. Here is an article really stuck with me, and it touches upon the concerns of Asians being seen as the “model minority” but moreover, Asian-Americans in education. I think you may find the facts interesting.

    I think this is why I feel pretty strongly about this stereotype being reinforced because as much as many Asian-Americans share the story of exceptional hard-work and a firm push towards higher education, there are many Asians who do not fit this as well.

    I appreciate all of your insights! Thank you for sharing your experience and your encouragement to others!

  224. thank you for posting this. i’m still in the process of discovering what i want to do (there’s always a nagging feeling of restlessness, thoughts like is this where i really want to be?). it’s nice to hear from someone who went through the same thing.

  225. I loved this post. For me, I’m in my last year at uni and I feel like I’m getting closer and closer to having to decide between living a ‘big’, ambitious, adventurous life OR being content with living a normal life similar to what I live now (which will still be pretty flipping awesome).

    In addition to that, I have lots of friends in their early-mid twenties who are a few years into working full-time and so many of them are unhappy and I really find it a scary prospect… I guess I won’t know what my experience will be like until I get out there, but it feels daunting, nonetheless.

    So, at the moment I have a little triangle of career-related stress:
    1. Do I want to aim for a big, successful life or a more normal, low-key one?
    2. Will I like marketing when I’m doing it for 40+ hours a week?
    3. Will I even find a job??
    At the same time, I’m trying to keep in mind that either way I’ll be very fortunate and that fulfilling work is a luxurious concept.

    I think what my dad casually said to me this evening agrees with your sentiment, “Life’s not a dress rehearsal.” I don’t want to waste years of my life doing something I don’t enjoy and I’m so glad for you that your work is making you feel so happy and fulfilled – I hope I’ll experience the same feeling after I graduate.

    Alex x

  226. For a different perspective, I am not an Asian-American, but an American who now lives in Asia and sees where you’re coming from. I teach English in Thailand and my students are mostly from Chinese families, families who want them to know English so they can have good-paying jobs. These kids are constantly cheating off each other so they can pass and please their parents, or else acting up in class because they don’t want to be there. Very few of them are in there because they actually WANT to learn English. I know the ones who actually do because they attempt to talk to me using English, asking what words mean, and show some interest in it.

    When I went to college, I had a teacher tell us, “You are not here just so you can get a good job when you leave. You are here to learn how to THINK and decide things for yourself.” When I told my parents I wanted to teach English overseas, my father commented that I wouldn’t make money but, “at least you’ll be doing what you want to do.” My father does have a good paying job, but even he changed jobs several times before he found the job that he actually enjoyed. And as he actually enjoyed that job, he stayed there for 40 years.

    I’m an American and the “pursuit of happiness” is one of our basic rights. It is a right ALL Americans should have. It is not the “pursuit of wealth” or the “pursuit of status”…it is the “pursuit of HAPPINESS.” Asian-Americans have just as much a right to be happy as the rest of us.

  227. This is phenomenal. I’m 18 months into a career change at 36. I have more I’d like to say here but I need to sort out all my thoughts and read through all of these awesome stories your readers generated. I’ll be back!

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  229. Hi Liz

    It was really an experience to read about what you have been through and are trying to fit in. I am an South -East Asian mom, but living in Australia. I really do try as to not to implement the same routine we were under with my kids. It’s a challenge, let me be frank, my extended family is also based here and they are not happy with my liberal way of bringing up my kids. I am the eldest into family and the rest of my extended family is not happy- just for the reason that I am setting a bad example for the next generation! I trip so very often with the values and ethics of doing the tight thing for my kids and honestly, I let them win. It’s a strange battle where we know, in our hearts doing the right thing for the child is the utmost priority for the parent, but society, culture and background are trying to butt in too. Kudos for your courage and I hope my kids will thank me sooner for being the odd Indian mum.

  230. a creative soul: thanks for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. props to you for being open to unplanning — that’s a big, scary deal. i wish i had been open to it earlier, and i think the fact that you are, relatively early on in life, will be a huge asset for you. best wishes as you continue on your journey!

  231. helen: thanks for your thoughts. i agree that the likelihood of educational attainment is probably higher for those who have parents with post-secondary education — i think the higher SES that comes with parental education, and its accompanying resources, would play into that.

    i agree that it’s very difficult to talk about asian americans as a whole because there’s such a diversity of experiences in every regard — language, values, SES, reasons for immigration, education, etc. — in contrast to the fairly narrow way we’re portrayed in the media. the article you shared is great, and you could add that discussion the fact that asian americans have a higher poverty rate than white americans.

  232. alex: thank you for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. i totally, totally hear you on feeling torn between the big, adventurous life vs. the normal-but-still-pretty-good one. (for what it’s worth, i’m finding that it’s not either/or — you can find a middle ground.) and on the number of angles that need to be considered when it comes to your career — it’s a lot! i love the quote from your dad — you only get one shot at life, so you may as well enjoy what you’re doing. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  233. amandachwa: thanks for your insights — i enjoyed reading them. your students sound just like me when i was a chinese school student. 🙂 i agree with your professor’s perspective on college — learning to think is really what it’s about, but it’s increasingly becoming a means to an end, which is a shame. i’m glad that you find your work fulfilling!

  234. meensi: thanks for sharing your story! i often wonder how i’ll raise my children in light of how i was raised, so i loved reading about the path that you chose with yours. i wish you and your family the best!

  235. I am in a similar situation now. I am willing to take the risk just like you. Wish me luck! 🙂 For your reference, kindly check my article titled “What’s in a Title?”

  236. great input! enjoyed reading your academia life. As an asian american, i can second what you are saying. 22 and going to be a fifth year and oh I am scared for what will happen to me once I graduate. Go to work, grad school, or stay home. I have no clue. only time will tell.

  237. Yes, Yes, Yes but No, I can’t leave yet.
    Sometimes it takes someone else telling their story to realize facts about your own, facts you have failed to acknowledge. I am 24 and currently in a job that has been very exciting until about two months ago. It’s become drastically different, boring, demotivating.
    I don’t have a family and kids yet so I am bursting with energy wanting to bring change to the way things are done… However I hit roadblocks that demotivate me incredibly. Rest of the folks are mostly parents with kids, for who work is never the biggest priority.

    It’s depressing to work with them as they have little drive and energy.
    However, after spending time observing and thinking, I have come to realize it will be this way at 90% of companies that I go to with the same job profile. I would have to take drastic measures to change my job profile, be more risky and try out new environments and roles.

    However, due to needing financial security right now, I wouldn’t be able to.
    Thank you very much for sharing because I think you made me realize some aspects of my upbringing that are so engrained in me that I never question them.

  238. I relate to your experience 100 percent and I hope to find a job that I enjoy, just as you have. I am 22 and after completing a masters in pharmacy i am employed as a pre registration pharmacist (this is a year post). I now know i do not want to work in the field, but i do not know what I want to do!! As some one who has achieved a fulfilling job, do you have any tips on how to find a suitable job/advice as to what to do. I am so very confused and find honesty in career advice rare. Thanks, confused british asian!

  239. Hi Liz. Wow. Just wow. This piece captured so much of what I have been feeling the last couple of years. It’s interesting to see that Asian parents the world over (I live in Australia) have the same goals and aspirations for their off-spring and for the same reasons (migrating for the better life).

    I studied a business degree at university and have been working for a large finance company as an Analyst for the past 10 years. It is all spreadsheets and data and it bores me to tears. I am a creative soul by nature and would love to pursue my dream of writing and graphics but at 37 with a great job (because you know it’s a big company, it pays well, it’s stable and I work from home) I’d be “crazy” to give it up. As much as I would love to give it up, as a 37 year old who has been conditioned to listen to their elders I just can’t seem to do it *sigh*

    Again, fantastic post. Thank you Xo

  240. I’m a senior at college, not Asian-American. My roommate freshman year was a Chinese-American guy, and I used to be so self-superior to him – with his aspirations to a degree in Computer Science which he really didn’t care about. And now I find myself, three years later, setting myself up in the exact same situation, and knowing that even if I’m successful in my professional field, I’ll likely be miserable. I don’t know what to do, plain and simple. I don’t know what to do.
    Thanks for writing this piece. Reading it helps me to remember that my college career does not have to define my life. I know that objectively, I’ll be okay, and find a way to do what I love. Subjectively, though, it means a lot to hear from a person who has passed through the struggle.

  241. SK: thank you! i appreciate that a lot. and thanks for sharing your story — you really highlighted some of the tensions that we can face as we decide what route to take. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  242. skimmedread: thanks so much! i’m glad that you’ve figured out that you don’t want to be a pharmacist — better now than 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. i can only speak from my own experience, but if you aren’t sure what else you would want to do, i would do as much research as you can in your off-time — talking to people in other fields, asking about what they do and what they like and don’t like about it; doing some serious self-reflection about what makes this job so unpleasant for you, what you want out of a job, and what kind of life you want to have; meet with a career consultant, if you can, to help you explore your options; be willing to try a lot of different things and don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time, b/c you probably won’t. if you can find something that directly utilizes the skills that you’ve gained in pharmacy school, awesome; but if not, you can always market your transferable skills.

    i hope this is helpful in some way. really, i think the biggest thing is being open to new possibilities and being willing to risks. i wish you the best as you discern your next steps!

  243. so syd says: thank you so much for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. and i loved reading your story! it’s so tricky to weigh out the pros and cons of staying vs. leaving a job that’s not super-interesting but provides income and stability. i totally resonate with that struggle. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey, and i hope that one way or another, you’re able to satisfy your creative soul 🙂

  244. phoniel: thank you for the kind words! i appreciate them a lot. i totally, totally relate to those feelings of superiority — and then realizing that you’re in the same boat as the person you were looking down on. and to the feeling of not knowing what to do, of course. you’re so right — your college career will not define your life, and after graduation, you’ll have a world of options that you didn’t even know existed when you were in school. i have full confidence that though it may take some trial and error, you’ll be able to find a job that’s satisfying. i wish you the best as you continue on your journey!

  245. People can tolerate different levels of crud in their lives. For some, it’s the work they do, and they can’t wait to get home to their kids. For others, it’s a boring job that has to be balanced with a hobby or a career dream. And from what I’ve seen, most parents can put up with almost anything as long as their kids are safe and relatively happy.

    If you can’t find something in your life that gives you pleasure, it’s going to be really hard to make it all the way to old age — not finding any pleasure in life is a textbook definition of depression, and if there is nothing good in your life and no prospect to find anything, well, that’s when people start to think about more extreme responses.

    There is a certain irony in that people who have relatively good lives overall find it hardest to live with the crud in their lives. Many immigrants or people who grew up in the Depression will put up with horrible jobs in exchange for financial security because they know how horrible it is to not have that security. If you’ve always had a safety net, you may not be willing to face 30-40 years of boredom or frustration. It may upset your parents to see you taking risks with your career or future, but that’s because they’ve done their jobs so well that you really don’t know what it’s like to be poor or oppressed. Acknowledge their fears even if you can’t share them.

    “Do what you love” isn’t the same as “do whatever you like to do” — the love part is *hard*, you need to find something that you want to do so badly that you’re willing to eat mac&cheese and instant ramen, but that you also love so much that you can work 10-12 hours a day, every day, and still be excited to get up in the morning, that you can work at various McJobs to pay the bills so that you’ll have at least some time to pursue your dream.

    It’s nearly impossible to do this with kids — if you’re doing it right, there may only be enough room for one grand passion in your life. And you may get to a point when you decide that whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t love you back. Ask your friends who wanted to be actors or writers or dancers about this.

    Good luck. Don’t lock yourself into a future you can’t live with. Eventually, if you’re mostly happy, your parents should be as well.

  246. I’m studying medicine. It was my mother who sparked this career goal and I always believed it. At least my head told me. But back as a child, I wanted to be a painter/animator, especially since art was a natural talent. Now I’m wondering what would happen if I had gone the other way. The thought is such a weight on my shoulders. I’m turning 28 soon…this crisis really sucks. Reading your article just allows me to relate- didn’t realize many Asians felt this way.

  247. The kind of asian parents and children in your article exactly reflects me and my family, unlike you guys, I live in Shanghai. The standard for GOOD job seems never change in asian value: well paid, got respected and decent–at least it seems. Security system in China is still on its way to completed, so if I left myself options of jobs like chef, news reporter, etc, it’ll be impossible to buy houses in the coming 30 years…Luckily I graduated from the first-tier univ and got myself a job in the bank doing IT work, but the income is still impossible for me to have my own flat in the next 10 years or some… believe or not , I dont hate my job, but compare to those who got passion in my industry, I’m just a so-so guy. These days there is saying in Chinese to tease about good job: well-paid, little work to do and home nearby. Although it seems unlikely for me to achieve some great accompliment in computer science, it doesnt get in the obstacle way for me to do things I like, playing musical intrument, travelling, study constellations ,reading and cook, I also learn how to make purses/ bags and study Italian and Japanese in my leisure time. hope u good luck 😛

  248. I agree very much that we are brought up with the mentality of there always being a way to overcome an obstacle, that the presence of obstacles and hardship is never taken as a a sign that maybe whatever you’re pursuing might not be suitable for you.

    The generation of parents who lived through the cultural revolution in China is also prone to believing that failing to go for the “best” (best in their opinion, which is at best a relative measure) is usually a testament to laziness, weakness, impracticality, and selfishness, because back then during their time, they couldn’t choose or afford to do anything other than taking obstacles head on and aiming for the best in terms of money and stability (same as immigrants), as doing so would affect more than their own wellbeing, their entire families depend on their success. We’re in a fortunate time that this mentality is, albeit productive, becoming outdated and unsuitable for our happiness. We’re usually generally told to work towards these ends for our own good, because most of our parents are already make a stable enough living for our contributions to be meaningless to them. But because fighting for this end loses this value in our more prosperous generation, they feel less fulfilling to us and our fight towards these goals become more difficult–not because of the actual difficulty in the process, but because we don’t have the adequate motivation for what we’re trying to do.

  249. Perhaps I’ve been a little more willing to be reckless or adventurous with my career choices than many Asian American Gen Yers. During college I tried 8 different internships and part-time jobs, often three or four simultaneously, and held roles in five different types of on-campus clubs…all in an effort to figure out what I really loved and wanted to do!

    When I graduated, I became a management consultant. I loved many things about it, for a stable well-paying job there was still a lot to love about it that fulfilled a need for constant change and variety. But it didn’t satisfy all of my professional needs and what’s more the unhappiness I felt started to manifest into physical symptoms. There was a singular point where I had a staph infection, bronchitis and pink eye all at once…from dissatisfaction and stress! To top that off, I witnessed two major events that impacted my outlook on life. I sat alone after hours with a close senior exec who was already unhappy with his career as he dealt with the tragedy of being laid off (with two expensive mortgages and a small child at home). When I left his office, I was given the news that a close childhood friend would be fighting cancer for the rest of his life, starting at 18 years old (he fought it for seven years before succumbing to cardiac arrest). It was in that moment that I realized there were so many things in and out of our control that could happen at any moment…the only way i’d have a fighting chance at picking up the pieces to keep going was if I gave a damn about what I was doing…out of desire and passion versus obligation.

    So…I left. To be an actor. Act! What the heck. Talk about jobs our parents disapprove of and our friends don’t understand! But I did it, nonetheless.

    Without going too much into it, I won’t say acting was the magic solution that fulfilled the happiness void. But it does make me happy in ways that my other job wasn’t able to. It has it’s downsides too. A lot of things are completely out of your control. There is rarely ever a direct correlation between the quality and effort of your input and likelihood of success that we are used to in so many “traditional” jobs and careers. And as an asian american who was raised on the ethic that hard work = success, that part drives me totally nuts.

    To fulfill the gaps that I found in acting, and to serve as supplementary income (I do attribute that sensibility to my financially conservative asian american parents), I work four part time jobs outside of acting all in different industries. And to be honest, I think this makes me happier than acting on its own really could. Like the writer, each day for me too is completely different than the other. And the broad sum of factors which I find I need to complete my own workplace satisfaction and happiness pie, I get in small slices from each of these jobs, but not any one of these jobs would manage to fill the whole pie tin. So yes, I make significantly less and am less further along in any one particular career path than I may have been had I stuck with any one safer, more stable, more lucrative job, but my quality of happiness and health and love and interest for my work life has never been higher. And this impacts my relationship with others and how much joy I am able to bring into the lives of the people I care about because I myself am happy.

    On a side note, I think because many of us are well educated and ambitious with a strong work ethic…we are not only capable of handling a lot at once, but it takes a lot more for us to reach personal and work satisfaction, including a lot of change and variety that a singular job often cannot provide. I hope that job roles in all industries will adapt over time in efforts to retain the growing population of young high-achievers who have a strong need for variety and change to reach work satisfaction…but for the time being I encourage EVERYONE of all ethnicities not to fear job change or taking a few risks and detours in the name of exploring what will make your long-term relationship with work gratifying.

  250. Pingback: Clueless? | Quarter-life crisis in the media: What are the papers saying?

  251. I found your blog because I was wondering if I was in the wrong field. You see, I’m in a field you see few Asians in: library science and information services. It’s the one I chose after a year of pre-veterinary sciences didn’t work out. One of my high school teachers told me he thought I might fare better with library sciences and he was right. My classes made sense. I agreed with goals of library science and information services. It was finding where my puzzle piece felt like it fit. My parents were rather supportive of the first career choice; this current one I was able to defend against my own family, which is usually prompted by the question of “isn’t that what Google is for” to which I point out to all medical, engineer, business and legal cousins and older relatives that there are specific libraries and databases they consult for their fields run by people like me.

    But for the last few days I wondered if I was in the wrong field. Should I have gone into sciences which yes I enjoyed but I couldn’t see myself working strictly in? Part of the reason I loved library work was how many fields came into play. I’ve worked at university and public libraries and archives – I get to dabble for the knowledge of science and art. Many of my Asian friends give me this weird look when I tell them which field I was in and if maybe they were right all along. I work in library programming and circulation for children but hope to be young adult services librarian. I spend more days working on crafts and storytime than serious research.

    After reading your article, thank you. Because I don’t regret it. I went to a job-related workshop yesterday and found that same feeling I got the first time I went into library classes. I realized I was lucky in catching earlier that I wouldn’t have been happy with the science and business degrees my friends have, despite some familial and peer pressure. I have spent the last six years in my field and I’m reminded that it’s something I could enjoy for the rest of my life; I was just going through a bit of a rough patch with the comments thrown my way that I wasn’t “built” for this career.

    So thank you Liz for reminding me that I did choose this happily even on days I didn’t.

  252. Clearly, this post has resonated with many folks! Nicely written, Liz. I came to it by way of a friend’s Facebook post. I do resonate with many things you’ve written, but I also think that we, as a generation (and perhaps as Asian-Americans), take “fulfillment through career” WAY too seriously. As a couple commenters have pointed out, a job is not the sole source of happiness in life, nor do you need to “do what you love” in order to be happy. Personally, I subscribe to the Cal Newport camp of “do what you’re good at” for job satisfaction. I also notice that for friends of mine who have become parents, a lot of this angst fades because their child(ren) helps them put their career in perspective. Something to think about, Gen Y.

    In the past 3.5 years, I’ve worked in 3 different jobs in the exact same field, all with relatively similar functions, and I can honestly say that yes, the job and the field are important variables, but so are your coworkers, your boss, your organizational culture, your projects, the degree of flexibility and autonomy that you have … and really, your mindset as well. Do I choose to build a life with meaningful relationships outside of work? Do I learn to laugh when things don’t go well at work – because let’s face it, every job has its shitty pieces – or at least to compartmentalize and leave it behind when I get home?

    This is not a “blame the victim” speech, because believe me, I was so there. I used to cry in my car every day at lunch, that’s how much I hated my job … and then lunch would end and I’d dry my tears and go back to work and pretend like everything was OK. I had no energy left for anything else (OK, I was doing 2.5 people’s jobs, too – and still unwilling to pull myself out of the situation, that’s how much the idea of change petrified me!)

    I knew I needed to change my situation, but I also needed to change ME. Because you take the same girl and put her in a new situation, she’s still going to make the same mistakes, repeat the same patterns (ask me how I know. THREE jobs in 3.5 years. It took me awhile to learn.). The book “Transitions” by William Bridges really helped with the process. I also took a 3 month sabbatical from paid employment to sort things out. I imagine this is a lifelong process, so it’s good that we not only recognize the problem, but begin to act on it. Because the best way out is through action, painful though it may be.

  253. To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity…The command to grow up at once was more bearable than the faceless horror of wavering purpose, which was youth.

    – Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing

  254. Pingback: Theme – Honestly | only one

  255. Hi Liz,

    Unlike you I’m a first-generation Chinese Canadian who never adopted a white name, but other than that we were both in the same boat. For me, realization that I’d been chasing the wrong things (hoops instead of happiness) hit me in Grade 11 and I spent three years dismantling my work ethic and then three more getting it back when I found something I loved doing!

    I think Asian parents don’t intend to push dull, risk-adverse lifestyles. After all, they took huge risks themselves coming to the West. Instead, they simply have a false impression of how people in North America succeed and find happiness. I wrote about it here:

    Look forward to more.


  256. Pingback: Speaking of People Who Avoid Failure… | tales from the arena

  257. Pingback: My Queerean American Quarter Life Crisis | zoom zoom zoom

  258. Word. I started off premed bc of my parents, then switched to cog sci bc I love that, and then used premed to get a second major in neurobiology. I was Valedictorian of my High School for them, lots of pressure growing up to be the best. Then I went to an Ivy grad school in cog psych, but dropped out, bc the massive disappointment I had in my head about not being a doctor/lawyer ate at me so much I couldn’t do what I wanted even when I tried. Then, I went to law school (a crappy one, but cheap at least!), did great, but 2nd year got insanely suicidal and depressed. Then I stood up to my parents, told them I was going back to cog sci and never going to be suicidally unhappy ever again, not for anyone. I also came out as gay as finally standing up to them about anything I thought they might disapprove. They actually took it better than expected, esp. since I’m Asian, lol! They then supported my cog sci career (mostly, some regressions, lol!). I got my PhD, which was better, but you know, its def. better overall, but doing what you like has challenges too. Mainly, creative fields have less job security at first, and you still can’t do ‘exactly’ what you dream up in your head. You can do something closer to what you like than other fields. I can’t create any cognition based software I was in academia or industry unless I get a grant funded (working on it for sure!), and they are always people in power to please who control you. Its still overall better, at least you know what you’re fighting for and you care about it. If I were to “sell out” for a time, I would excel at finance or business consulting (esp. in tech industry). User experience design is close to what I do, but not quite, because I make STEM Ed Software, very nice and uncommon actually (surprising given our nation’s crisis, but so is the world). Ultimately ,what I’ve found is you should do whatever you think is best at each stage of your life. Then the next stage, you’re happy with, whether its what you really want to do, or a safe, selling out situation because of life’s necessities (sometimes you switch as needed). All of life is a negotiation I’ve realized. Just make the smartest decisions based on YOUR neural machinery, you can’t go wrong. The answer is built into you, just give it time to unfold through life’s learning experiences. Its also easier to do what you want/try stuff out when someone is supporting you (spouse, parent’s), etc. Harder for those w/o that luxury. Married people have it good in that way (noticed that a lot with people in my field), but can’t force that either. Thanks for this post, it helped me remember what I’m doing/searching for, and its okay if its hard, as long as its the right path. One last thing, everyone thinks everyone else has it better, trust me! People who sell out, envy those who don’t and struggle to make it in what they’re naturally best at. People who struggle with what they’re naturally good at, envy on some level people who sell out and have security. If you just keep trying long enough you will find both on some level and stop envying anybody! But the path is rough until you get there, but it gets better. Just have to keep at it, and know the silver lining is always there if you follow your feelings. Destiny is always realized. God Bless ❤

  259. Hi Elizabeth,

    My name is Gabrielle C. I’m 18, on my first year of university, entered into the directly into the facutly of commerce. To start, I’d like to take you for this article. As a young adult who feels completely losts. It’s somewhat assuring to know that a phD doesn’t guarantee hapiness, that it’s ok to not know what you want to do, and that it’s normal to not enjoy what you’re doing. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t know what they like or don’t like. Maybe the people I’ve met just haven’t realized whether or not they actually enjoy what they’re doing. Your article has helped me feel not alone, and gave me the virtual “Everything will be ok.” hug that I so badly needed.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share my story with you.

    First, I’d like to point out a few things. Similar to you, I’ve always excelled at anything and everything; just like you, I was taught that laziness is the sole reason for not being successful. However, I’m now stuck in this terrible mindset that I just can’t shake. I feel purposeless for the first time in my life.

    Yes, I’ve been sad before, but now I just feel terrible in my classes… I’ve always enjoyed school. I always loved waking up in the morning knowing I’ll be learning about math, science, history, and english. I enjoyed being in gym class, hanging out with my friends, talking to my teachers. I revelled in school. There was absolutely nothing about it that I didn’t love, but now I find that when I wake up in the morning the only thing I can think of is, “why bother?” Everyday I kept on asking myself “Do I really want to be here?”

    I find myself always tired now, even with 8-10 hours of sleep. I find that I no longer think as well as I used to, or work as efficiently as before. I’ve even accepted getting really low marks. I just stopped caring… And to be honest, it’s what led me to your page.

    Now, I come from a family of successful people. My parents grew up in the provinces of the Philippines, worked their butts off, became a successful engineer and account, left their home country to gave my sisters and I everything we could ever need and want, and even helped pay for my cousins’ education.

    My sisters (I’m the youngest) are all pursuing or have pursued amazing carreers paths. One’s an accountant, the other is a nurse, and the third is on her third year of engineering. When I started having this dreadful feeling, I asked them if they ever felt this way. None of them did…. They all said that once they started their studies, they either loved what they were doing or they learned to like it. None of them felt sad or lost. They didn’t feel any lost energy or sense of purpose.

    I started to question myself. My sanity, my personality, my choices. Am I just being lazy? Did they go through what I went through and just dealt with it? Am I being selfish and ungrateful for not becoming a doctor? I am given absolutely everything I need to become a doctor or a lawyer or an actuary. So why is it I feel as though I can’t do anything anymore?

    I’m feel lost and have no clue what to do. I’ve spent hours and hours of web surfing, finding different careers, trying different personality and career tests, and the only thing I’ve come to learn is that I really don’t know what I want to do with my life. That made the feeling worse.

    It took me awhile but I’ve come to accept this feeling. It comes back from time to time but when it does I like to read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. I find it’s helps take my mind off “career” and “success” and instead lets me focus on myself and my feelings.

    I’ve decided to just finish this year and see how I feel at the end. I’ve also decided on really trying to find what it is I like and don’t like. I was told of the Strong Interest Inventory and will be giving that a shot soon. I still feel as though I lack purpose, but now I’m no longer thinking of my life after university. I’ve changed my sight to just this upcoming summer, where I plan on spending four months of just being aware with myself. Everyday, thinking of the things I like, I dislike, and just making a point of doing something everyday.

    It’s nice to take a break from thinking about the future.

    Thanks again for your lovely article, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

  260. Pingback: The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis - | Diversity Jobs

  261. Elizabeth,

    First off, I enjoyed reading your blog. I also feel that you’ve captured how I feel after 20 years of nursing in the United States. Unlike you, I’m in my 40’s now. But like you, I’m in a turning point in my life… feeling like things are going in a different direction but not sure what to do and which way to go.

    Secondly, I resonate with fellow readers of your post… Jessica, in particular, who wrote: “I hope that job roles in all industries will adapt over time in efforts to retain the growing population of young high-achievers who have a strong need for variety and change to reach work satisfaction…but for the time being I encourage EVERYONE of all ethnicities not to fear job change or taking a few risks and detours in the name of exploring what will make your long-term relationship with work gratifying.” If job satisfaction is all there is, then it’s time for me to move on… unfortunately, it has taken me years and (lots of) tears to really admit that my job doesn’t make me happy or fulfilled.

    Lastly, I will try to make a decision very soon. Why not take a risk? If I don’t do anything now, it might take another 20 years before life changes for the better. I’m tired of feeling miserable and I’m not getting any younger!!!

    Thanks Elizabeth for sharing your observations and opinions. You’re wise beyond your years…

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