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Career Advice to My Younger Self

Thoughts from a first-generation Asian-American

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Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

When I was in high school in the late 90’s, I remember being handed something called the “Occupational Outlook Handbook.” It was a book that listed what seemed like every job title in the world and the data on each, including education level required, projected growth rate, and median pay. My eyes glazed over everything else and focused on the pay column. Obviously, one should go after the jobs that pay the most, right? I wasn’t even sure what some of these job titles meant, but I was determined to pursue only those that paid in the top salary band.

Credit: Unsplash

What is Work?

As a first-generation immigrant, my perception of “career” was shaped by the relationship my parents had with their work. I knew that they worked white-collar office jobs, but they rarely shared the details with me. To me, work was something my parents did so that we could afford to live in America. It was my dad leaving the house early and coming home late after a long bus ride to and from New York City. It was my mom taking programming classes late at night when I was in middle school so that she could eventually get a new job and earn more to support my future college education. I admired their work ethic and courage, even in the face of language and cultural barriers. But work always seemed to be a source of emotional and financial stress for them, so I didn’t ask a lot of questions. Instead, I internalized some unspoken messages, such as, “You have to work hard to make money.” “No pain, no gain.” “Your job is a means toward financial security, success, and ultimately, peace.”

It’s no surprise then, that my career choice felt like a monumental decision. This choice would determine how successful I would be in life. On top of that, the little kid inside me wanted to relieve my parents of the struggle I witnessed, and the best way I could do that was to work even harder. If I could get an Ivy League education and a high-paying job in a lucrative industry, I would be all set. Everything else would follow. So in the summer of 1999, I left home and did exactly that. I graduated with two degrees, got my first job in at one of the world’s largest financial institutions, and began to reap the rewards of hard work and perseverance.

What More Do You Want?

Fast forward 15 years, and I found myself wringing my hands in front of a career coach who I had hired after years of trying to figure it out on my own. I was conflicted because I was grateful for all the rewards I had reaped so far from my career path, but I did not feel successful. I wanted something more. Something that would light up my soul. Maybe even something (gasp) completely outside my industry! I heard the voice in my head judging me, “What more do you want? How could you be so selfish? How could you throw away the investment your parents made in your education? Your job supports your family, and your parents are now at peace knowing that you’re financially secure. Why on earth would you take this risk?”

After much self-reflection and work with the help of my coach, I finally answered that voice. And when I did, I visualized my words flying over the sands of time back to my 15 year-old self. I imagined that girl putting down the Occupational Outlook Handbook and hearing these words:

  • It’s possible to make money and love what you do. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
  • You can work really hard and make money, but it is also possible to work less hard and still make money! Open your mind to creating possibilities like this for yourself.
  • It’s okay for your career to change and evolve over time, especially as life circumstances change. No one is forcing you to stay on a “path” that no longer works for you.
  • You can have one job, two jobs or no jobs. You are still worthy.
  • There is no such thing as failure. Once you’ve failed enough times, you’ll realize they were never failures at all, but the best lessons you’ll ever learn.
  • Career decisions are not life-or-death situations, though they might feel like it. Rather than judging your options as “good” or “bad,” realize that each one presents a different opportunity for growth.
  • You can honor your parents’ hopes for you while pursuing your own dreams. Their intention comes from a place of deep love that has been colored by their own struggles. No one is to blame, but know that their fears don’t have to be your fears.

Today, I am pursuing a new career path as a Leadership and Career coach for women. At the same time, I am doing consulting work in the financial services industry. I’m also working on a children’s book. No part of my life experience or education has been “wasted,” as I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t lived through all of it. I am grateful to be able to show up every day as my most authentic self and contribute to the world in my own unique ways. And the best part is, I’m getting paid for that.

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