in the 7 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/an investment banker/a project manager at [insert name of large firm here].”
“oh, cool! do you like it?”
[shrug] “it’s work.”
“not really, but… i guess it’s okay for now…”
or maybe just:
i’ve had this conversation so many times that i feel like this problem is epidemic: virtually every asian american i know has a great job. virtually none of them like it.
i have 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 this 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 manifests uniquely in asian american communities. asian cultures are 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. 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 it is we might actually enjoy. that would be indulgent, if not completely unheard of. as i’ve mentioned in the past, there is 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 an science person,” because excellence in any area can be attained through hard work. nothing 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; however, 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 who support them regardless. i have friends who are graphic designers, actors, singers; who are rethinking math pedagogy for teach for america and doing campus ministry; and yes, even a few who enjoy being doctors and lawyers and engineers 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 the quarter-life crisis is. it’s a crisis, after all, because there are strong 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 that 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 for 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 didn’t know what else to take) 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 that i wasn’t sure i wanted. meanwhile, those 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 last year, when i found myself in 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 depression 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 only for half-time post-docs, which are virtually nonexistent, thinking that maybe i could do what i was trained to do part-time while still having time to pursue something i actually liked. the few half-time opportunities that popped up 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.
so here i am. i’m 28 and i have a phd in a field that i don’t want to work in. the next few months, maybe even years, are going to be interesting as i try, from this unique position, to do the work that i should have done 10 years ago and figure out what i want my career to be.
a few thoughts as i wrap up:
- i’m not saying that what i’m doing is the right thing to do and that every asian american unhappy with their job should leave immediately. i am lucky to not have children (in these circumstances), to have a husband who is entirely supportive and as eager to see me in a job i love as i am, to have some buffer time before i have to pay off my student loans, to have no house payments, to have parents who’ve had ample warning about this sea change and who’ve 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.
- i will be chronicling this journey here with a dear friend of mine from college, chris, a columbia-educated corporate lawyer who finds himself in a very similar boat. we’ll be processing our conundrums about our careers and a number of other cultural and social issues that we find interesting. if this piques your interest in any way, we’d love for you to join the conversation.