The Unexpected Primary Caretaker

“I just love being with Spencer all the time,” she said as she crawled up the play structure, on the heels of the child in question.

I was at a neighborhood playground with a new mom-friend, our toddlers happily ignoring each other.  We had met at a preschool open house the weekend before.  Our sons were less than 3 months apart, we lived mere blocks from each other, she had an engineering degree from the prestigious university down the street, and she was a full-time parent.  Excited to find another high-achieving mom who spent a lot of time taking care of her kid, I got her number immediately.  I had so many questions for her:  I wanted to know how she made the decision not to work.  I wanted to know if she still had professional ambitions and, if so, how she was keeping them at bay while she raised her child.  I wanted to know if the same drive and intellectual curiosity that had gotten her that degree ever made it frustrating to read the same Elephant and Piggie book eight times in a row.  I wanted to ask her all the questions I’d been wrestling with for the last 21 months, questions that neither my working-mom friends nor my stay-at-home friends could answer.

Five days later, we were having our first playdate, and I was quickly learning that we might have less in common than I thought.

“I can’t imagine having another kid for at least three and a half more years,” she continued. “We’re just having so much fun.”

I looked at her as she animatedly chatted with her son.  Then I looked down at mine, furiously turning the steering wheel of the plastic car he was sitting in, and sighed.  I was in my eleventh hour of the day with him, and there were still two more to go before bedtime.

So much for a friend in a similar situation, I thought.  I could not relate to anything she was saying.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

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On Careers, Kids, and Living Up to Mom

A little bit about my mom: She went to the best girls’ high school in Taipei and the best university in Taiwan, and then she moved to the US and got her PhD in 5 years – in a language she could barely speak at the start of her program. She got a faculty position at her alma mater and earned tenure in 4 years. (Most professors take 6 or 7.) She would go on to become a full professor and the chair of her department while co-founding a business on the side. Meanwhile, she cooked dinner every night, drove my brother and I to nearly all of our after-school activities, and attended all of our recitals and concerts. She and my father also had an active social life, hosting elaborate dinner parties and hanging out with friends multiple times a weekend. And she managed to do all of these things while being a warm, lovely, hospitable person, with nary a complaint about stress or her myriad responsibilities. In some ways, my mom is a bit of a machine: She doesn’t eat much or need a lot of sleep; she loves her work and thrives on being busy. She’s one of those people who seems to have a limitless capacity for work.

Thus, when I was growing up, this was my prototype of a successful woman. It wasn’t consequence-free – I was doing full days in preschool by the time I was 18 months old (my brother started even younger); I spent many an afternoon in elementary school latchkey, which I loathed; I had recurring nightmares where I’d be chasing my mom but never able to catch her, dreams that were ripe for even the most amateur analysis. But all told, I think I gained far more than I lost from this upbringing. I learned to read and write very early, I was socialized young – but most importantly, my model for womanhood was strong, capable, and ambitious. I cannot overstate the impact that this model has had on my life, on everything from my academic and professional achievement to my sense of self-efficacy to my identity.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

How Good Is Your Organization at Diversity?

Everyone claims to care about diversity; it’s written into every piece of HR paperwork that any organization could have.  But for all the lip service that’s paid to diversity and multiculturalism these days, there are precious few organizations who do it well, and most don’t do it nearly as well as they think they do.  So how good is your organization, TV show, or church at diversity?  Here are a few benchmarks you can use.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis.

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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:

“No.”

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.

unemployment, month 3.

i’m now in my third month of unemployed living. even though three months isn’t a long time in the great scheme of things, i’ve noticed that this period has taken on some distinct phases:

1. the reverie. in the beginning, it was perfect. i loved being unemployed so much that i didn’t know if i’d ever be able to hold down a job again. getting enough sleep, having time for things that i’d wanted (and needed) to do for so long, being outside when the sun was out… it was glorious. i could hardly believe my good fortune.

2. the drag. after about six weeks of euphoria, unemployment started to get old. even though my working self from a year ago would punch me in the face for saying this now, it became, dare i say, a bit… stressful. and not in the “i’m running out of money” kind of way, though that would have infinitely compounded it. no, it was more a sense of “since you’re unemployed, you need to be doing something,” and then putting exorbitant amounts of pressure on myself to accomplish an unreasonable number of tasks.

i recognize that i have a hard time receiving gifts. i constantly feel like i need to be earning or justifying the things i have, regardless of what they are. for example, i am free to look for new jeans now only because i have 3 pairs, one of which i bought in high school (13 years ago), one i bought in college (10 years ago), and one that has a hole in the butt and needs to be replaced. (those i only had for 2 years. gap’s quality isn’t what it used to be.) the new phone to replace the one i had for 2 years and barely worked anymore? it can be a present from mom and dad for christmas. a case for said phone? err… maybe this can be robert’s christmas gift to me. i have a hard time coming up with things i want for birthdays and christmases because i don’t feel like i withhold from myself throughout the year, so why do i deserve something… extra? can’t you just retroactively gift me something i already got? otherwise, i feel like i’m being indulgent.

and i guess, in the same way, this whole period of time felt indulgent. the vast majority of my peers didn’t get a break between graduation and post-doc, and if they did, it was most likely spent moving. but i had the luxury of time off — months off, even. so i had to earn it, in a convoluted way, by being productive — by finally unpacking those boxes that have been collecting dust in the closet, by finally writing back to the 85 people i’ve owed emails for months, by finally reading the tens of books on my ever-growing to-read list. i had an ongoing list of things to do and a general sense of how much i wanted to accomplish that day. i always expected that i’d get a certain amount done. i never even came close. and as a result, i felt constant stress and guilt. at least when i was working, as long as i went to work, i had some sense of productivity and accomplishment. it didn’t matter if i didn’t strike anything from the to-do list. but now, it was a different story. the fact that i wasn’t working produced even more pressure to get things done. you’re not even working, my superego would say, and you couldn’t respond to these 40 emails?

so that’s when i got over being unemployed. i realized that i was the harshest, most critical boss i could ever have, and maybe i would be better off (and get paid more) if i worked for someone else.

3. the renaissance. but then, something remarkable happened: i got a job. suddenly, my unemployment had an end date… and i loved it again. i felt this renewed appreciation for this time, a sense that i need to enjoy it because it’ll soon be over. i went back to my old schedule of reading and walking in the morning and setting the to-do list aside until the afternoon. now that there’s an expiration date, i can go back to feeling like this is a vacation — a break — instead of an extended period of time when dangit, i should get things done.

so that’s where we are. the pendulum has swung back; i love being unemployed and am already lamenting that in the not-so-distant future, i won’t have this abundance of free time. so enough beating myself up for the unfinished to-do list. tomorrow i’m going to read, have lunch with a friend, and write. (and… maybe clean the apartment. we can’t let things get too out of hand now.)

i want to be you… i think.

i freaking love atul gawande. he’s a surgeon, he’s a professor at harvard, he did health care policy work in clinton’s administration, he’s a macarthur fellow, he’s been on the time 100, he writes best-selling books, he writes for the new yorker… and since i started following him on twitter, i’ve found that he knows sports and has fantastic taste in music and books. (he interviewed the national at the most recent new yorker fest.) in other words, he’s a complete badass and i kind of want to be him.

i keep a running list of people who bring up these feelings in me. gawande is on it, of course. others include neil degrasse tyson, michael crichton, ken jeong, and david pogue, as well as my former professors rick beaton and barry taylor. the dominant theme is that all of these people have very interesting, varied careers — they’ve done a little of this and a little of that, often crossing between highly disparate fields. (many of them trained in one area but made their livelihoods in another, which tells you a little something about where i am.) they’re renaissance men, and they’ve been able to make careers out of their widely-ranging interests.

as i consider this list, a few things strike me:

– it’s comprised entirely of men. i have a number of hypotheses about why this is: in general, women who want to have children don’t have the luxury of having such lengthy or storied careers (or their careers are multifaceted in that they’re amazing in one field and they have families as well); many fields are still highly male-dominated, and maybe there are amazing renaissance women in there somewhere, but their stories aren’t as well-known; maybe i feel threatened by such successful women and deliberately overlook them. (though even if that last one is true, i think the first two are difficult to dispute.)

i don’t feel good about the fact that the list is all male, being the feminist that i am, especially because it doesn’t bode well for me; it makes me feel like emulating their careers in any way is going to be difficult if i want to have children.

– they must be busy out of their minds. i can’t fathom what gawande’s daily to-do list looks like. any one of his roles could be a full-time job, so how does he manage all of them? does he not sleep? is he hypomanic? most importantly (and condemningly) for me, how on earth is he cranking out books and articles while he’s being a surgeon at one of the nation’s best hospitals and teaching america’s best young minds? i get the sense that careers like his require tons of energy and very little sleep. and i fell in love with downtime years ago, so… i’m not sure if this is within the realm of possibility for me. or maybe i could do lots of different things, but not nearly so well or so famously. who knows. i wrestle with this a lot — i want to be excellent, as many people do, but excellence requires sacrifices (to rest, to family, to relationships) that i’m not sure i want to make.

– many of them are experts in one field, which facilitated their transitions into others. i don’t know if i’m ever going to reach that level — if i’ll ever be able to sustain interest in anything long enough to become truly expert. i don’t think this is a dealbreaker, but having lots of street cred in one area seems to be helpful.

anyhoo. i know that careers like these are extremely rare and largely based on circumstance, so aiming to be exactly like them is futile. and i know that all i can do is whatever is right for me at this point in time and see what unfolds. but sometimes, man, i just wish i were atul gawande.

dr. unemployed

when we got back from the midwest six weeks ago and my period of time off started for real, i told myself this: i would give myself one month to enjoy it, to finish the things that needed to be finished, and to not think about finding a job. come october, i would start looking in earnest. but not until then.

though i would like to pretend that i was completely zen about this decision, there were moments when, against my better judgment, i would start searching for jobs online. “just to see what’s out there,” i thought to myself. “just dipping my toes into the ocean of possibilities.” this was a foolish thing to do. it’s not a good idea to start searching out of nowhere, with no goal in mind, completely unprepared for what you might or might not find. these decisions were always impulsive, fueled by my own anxiety and yielding even more.

because what i found was this: i am simultaneously under- and over-qualified for about 95% of jobs out there. i spent my twenties earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate. this means that while i’ve completely maxed out on education, i have virtually no work experience. entry-level positions — the ones that people with no work experience are supposed to apply for — require no more than a bachelor’s degree. most of the job postings i saw asked for 3-5 years of project management or fundraising or leadership development, none of which i have, and a master’s degree at most. the jobs that require a phd are either 1. ones that i don’t want — the ones that i’m leaving my field in order to avoid — or 2. ones that also require a whole lot of other work experience, because they’re meant for someone who’s, like, 45 and interested in parlaying their knowledge and experience from their current career into a new one.

ergo, those sporadic, uncalculated dips into the job-searching world were usually discouraging. but even in those moments, i still had to laugh: of course i would be frustrated with my options. i’ve spent the last 6 years walking in one direction, which got me exactly to this point. now i want to be somewhere else, and i’m annoyed that all this walking in one direction, toward this destination, hasn’t taken me elsewhere. of course i’m not qualified for anything out there; i’ve been preparing so extensively for this. and now that i don’t want this, of course things are going to get tricky.

so i guess the moral of this story is this: the more time you spend walking in one direction, the harder it’s going to be to change course. so when you know that you’re not going in the right direction, STOP WALKING. the earlier you correct, the easier it’ll be.

i don’t regret going to grad school or staying in the program after the doubts started to surface. (of course i wouldn’t; the cognitive dissonance would be too great. but i digress.) and thankfully, my job hunt is going much better now, thanks to some reflection and more focused searching and gifts that dropped out of the sky. but i certainly see how things would be easier for me professionally if i had stopped earlier. i know people who changed course drastically after attending prestigious undergrads. i know people who changed course after earning master’s degrees. these are significant, difficult decisions. but when you’ve seen your education to the end and gotten a doctorate degree and then decided to change course… it just doesn’t make sense to people. “why didn’t you stop sooner?” “why do you want to change now, after you’ve specialized so much?” these are the questions i’m going to have to answer in whatever comes next. i hope whoever hires me gets that this is a journey and that the decision to change course at this point in time wasn’t easy. i hope that “i found that i didn’t like it” is a sufficient answer for them. but i can only hope.