The typical Asian American formula for success goes something like this: Study really hard in school, graduate at the top of your class, attend an Ivy League college, meet an Ivy League spouse, attend an Ivy League grad school, land that six-figure job at a top law firm / bank / fund / hospital / Google… and then never stop working as hard as humanly possible. Be the first one in the office and the last one out. Keep your head down and let your work speak for itself. Say yes to everything. Please everyone.
I lived by this formula almost all my life. And now, I am trying to unlearn it all.
To their credit, my parents are not traditionally strict Korean parents who ever pressured me by any means—but then again, they never had to: I readily did the job for them. I was born a particularly sensitive and amenable child who was adept at reading others’ needs and emotions and beliefs… who then grew up to be a particularly sensitive and amendable adult who internalized all those things. I too readily absorbed external pressures like a sponge, making note of what others deemed admirable—a Harvard-Yale pedigree, a prestigious job, a pretty paycheck—and morphing them as my own desires without question. I took such a singular, hyper-focused approach to my goals, dedicating almost every waking hour of my life perfecting my resume at the expense of… well, just about everything else. I regularly cancelled dates and birthday parties for LSAT classes and conference calls. I prioritized every mindless assignment and deadline above my own sleep, dinners, and mental and physical health. I did not take a single day off for three years. I poured every ounce of me over to my career, my bosses, my coworkers, my clients—and then provisioned whatever leftover time and energy I had to myself and the people I love most. For years I roamed through my days utterly depleted, focusing only on the immediate task at hand and living at the complete mercy of my inbox.
And all of that did pay off. In many ways, my career has greatly benefited from my sheer, militant devotion to success: I have had many doors open for me that I never thought would be possible—precisely because of my masterful ability to architect a perfect-on-paper life. In my past life working for the World Bank, I had a fancy diplomat passport and travelled all over the world assessing potential investment opportunities. In my past life working for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, I worked alongside Michelle Kwan (my childhood hero) and attended swanky charity galas with Lady Gaga. In my past life teaching fitness classes, I had the honor of sweating alongside Michelle Obama (my adult hero) and her blessed biceps (ditto). And now, in my current life as an employment attorney, I consider myself very lucky to have the type of job that provides financial and professional security in spite of a global pandemic.
But as grateful and humbled as I am for all the doors that have opened, the mental and emotional costs throughout my journey were, at times, significant. Because the problem with having such a narrow and externally driven formula for success is that it provides us no freedom or permission to look within. It often tosses aside things like happiness and self-trust and authenticity, as though these are secondary afterthoughts rather than the actual essence of what makes us human. It often forsakes the voices inside our own hearts to please those around us. And it was not until I approached thirty (my scary “adult” age), well after I had unwittingly dragged myself to the brink of a crushing depression, that I began to even wonder how I had managed to pass all that time without ever questioning what all this was for in the first place.
These days, this is my general story I tell students and law school recruits and friends whenever they reach out for career advice. I tell them that I feel their concerns, because I understand better than anyone just how much pressure they are putting themselves under and how reassuringly addictive external validation can be. I tell them that graduating in the age of COVID seems really daunting—much like when I graduated from college on the heels of the financial crisis and wondered how my friends and I would ever scrounge up jobs in a recessionary economy with zero work experience. I tell them that most of us, I am discovering, actually have no clue what we are doing (no matter our age or title or degree).
I also share all that I learned from years of painful mistakes and detours—everything I wish I had learned long before I so deeply internalized all those external pressures of what my life “should” look like. Long before I began to look outward for truths I could only find within. I share, despite knowing that many of us will repeat my same patterns and mistakes. I share, despite the fact that I am still trying to figure all this out for myself (and probably always will). I share, hoping that the more we allow ourselves to question all these preconceived notions of success, the more we can give each other the courage to own who we truly are.
This is what I share:
#1: Let’s take it one day at a time, one hour at a time. I used to be one of those people who always obsessed over where my career was heading or whether I was in the “right” job or how I would ever figure out whatever it is I was supposed to do for the rest of my life. I used to try to plan everything, down to the promotions I hoped to land and the most optimal time in my career to get married or have a baby. But here’s the thing about plans: Life marches on anyway. Our careers—just like our lives—are messy and long and full of glorious surprises. There is simply no way we can see the full roadmap of our lives ahead until we actually live through it. So after years, if not decades, of fruitlessly obsessing over where I was headed and whether I will find my one true passion, I now take a much simpler approach: All I assess is whether I am happy now. Whether I am learning now. Whether the job serves my needs and goals, whatever they may be on any given day, now. I am trusting that the rest will follow suit. I am trusting that whatever information I would need to make a better decision tomorrow will arrive tomorrow—and that’s good enough for me for today.
#2: Let’s be brave enough to bring our whole selves to work. We did not get that job or promotion or scholarship by accident; those doors opened for us because we are genuinely qualified to walk through them—just as we are. My first job out of college was on Wall Street, and it was really, really tough. I was very other: the youngest employee, the only minority, and one of only two women on a 25-person investment team. I was so intimidated and lonely and ashamed by my otherness that I spent every day feeling like an imposter and trying to hide anything true about myself. I checked my real self at the door each morning to be the Serious Adult Professional I thought I needed to be. And this persona was the embodiment of everything I thought I “should” be but never was—wearing grey boxy pantsuits, never showing emotions or vulnerability, always saying yes, forgoing sleep and family and friends and vacations all in the name of her career. My Serious Adult Professional was disciplined and ambitious and devoted but also exhausting and miserable and robotic. My Serious Adult Professional was a shell of a person who sucked up all the energy I had for the real me—the outgoing girl who loved to laugh and did not take herself too seriously and couldn’t care less about the endlessly menial tasks she toiled away at for sixteen hours a day. And trying to shrink myself into a box in this way was not only unsustainable and suffocating and unnecessary… it was also totally cowardly. Because being other—being me—is a privilege, no matter how lonely or daunting that may be at times. Because the bravest thing we can do is to own who we are and seek jobs (and, for the record, relationships and friendships and opportunities) where our real selves are truly valued.
#3: Let’s not simply keep our heads down, hoping that our work will speak for itself. This is a common “good Asian” myth. Our work will only speak when we do. Even for an extremely chatty extrovert like myself, there were countless times I kept my mouth shut during meetings because I was afraid of asking a stupid question or wasting people’s time or appearing like I didn’t know what I was doing. There were countless times I stayed quiet, only to have someone else say exactly what had been on my mind and then receive credit for speaking up. There were countless times I kept my head down, assuring myself that my bosses knew exactly how hard I was working and how utterly devoted I was—only to realize they were too busy themselves to even notice. To me, speaking up and advocating for myself always felt weird and unnatural and super arrogant. But now, I am learning that my questions and thoughts and achievements are worth voicing—that the smartest people are the ones who speak up, stand their ground, and ask questions about what they do not yet know. That so long as I work hard and think through problems critically, then I can earn the privilege of captivating other people’s time and attention. That I need to give myself permission to own the room, because no one else can or will ever do that for me.
#4: Figuring out what we do not want is also a crucial part of the journey. At some point in life, we will inevitably have a small still voice in our minds telling us: “Not it.” And this will feel stressful and isolating and confusing—like we trapped ourselves in a cage of our own making. That’s OK. Because “not it” is actually a blessing, a new birthplace. From “not it” is where we become. And why do I know this? Because every “not it” in my life was what propelled me forward to a different, truer path. “Not it” was always the first step in my journey towards me. “Not it” was the voice I heard after every all-nighter I spent hunched over the tax code as a corporate tax attorney, feeling as though my soul was being physically vacuumed out of my body. “Not it” was the voice I heard the night I got engaged, knowing the perfect-on-paper man sitting next to me was not the man I wanted but merely the man I thought I should want. “Not it” was the voice I woke up to every groggy morning heading over to that fancy Wall Street job, having to grit my teeth through the relentless demands of a toxic and fratty and isolating workplace. “Not it” has always led me to the only question we were born to keep asking: What now?
#5: “No” is a complete sentence. Use it—unapologetically. Drawing boundaries for ourselves never warrants an apology.
#6: Having empathy for others is an asset, not a weakness. Never forget the human impact of whatever it is we are doing. I really enjoy my current job as an employment lawyer: I love that my work revolves around people and their careers. I love that the field of employment law is constantly evolving—particularly now in the COVID era, when we are dealing with unprecedented questions concerning remote work and the future of the gig economy. But if I could change one thing about my job (other than, of course, the relentless pressure to bill), it is this: there is not much room for empathy in law, and I think that’s a real shame. This past spring, for instance, when corporate clients were suddenly reeling from COVID and firing employees left and right, I hated the fact that such a huge chunk of my job required advising on how to execute one of the worst days in someone else’s career. And yet, when I spoke about how days like that weighed on me heavily, many of my best-intentioned and seasoned mentors told me not to worry, that I will eventually learn to become unphased by it all over time. But here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to become unphased by it all. I don’t want to become a better attorney at the expense of becoming a hardened human being. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the actual human impact of whatever I am doing—even if, at times, that means I am left going to sleep at night questioning whether I am on the “right” side of what’s “right.” Because having empathy for others—regardless of who is paying the bill—is precisely what makes us better attorneys and effective advocates and good human beings. So let’s stay soft, regardless of the job, even if that means some days weigh more heavily on us than others. We may not always get to pick the client or the problem to solve on any given day, but mindfulness and empathy are absolutely necessary if we want a shot at doing any good in this world.
#7: If there is an itch, scratch it. And then see where it goes. Following our curiosity, whatever it may be, could end up being a mistake we learn from… or it could end up being the very best thing we do. Either way, we will learn. Either way, we won’t know unless we try.
#8: There is no “perfect” job. Sometimes, being an adult plainly sucks—and that’s true for every one of us. Building a long, meaningful career will inevitably come with moments of intense pressure and times where we feel in over our heads and evenings where we cry our eyes out after work and mornings where we would do just about anything to stay in bed. At some point, all of us—no matter the job—will inevitably deal with dreadful tasks or unfair office politics or demanding clients or temperamental bosses or unforgiving deadlines or plans gone awry. But let us never forget that these are mere blips on the radar, and these kinds of moments arrive for each and every one of us. Let’s learn to take it all in stride and trust that the sucky moments will, too, pass.
#9: We are all stronger than we know. We will all make mistakes and weather through some very tough rough patches in our lives. And when those painful moments inevitably come, let’s remember to be kind to ourselves. Let’s take however much time we need to pause and wallow and heal. And then… let’s get back up and try again. Because all of us are stronger and more resilient than any mistake or stroke of bad luck or crappy boss or hurtful situation. We didn’t get this far only to get this far.
#10: Always dream big. It really is a privilege. All of us have the privilege to ask ourselves what kind of life we want to shape—and being able to even ask this question is an honor in itself. It is a privilege that most of our immigrant parents and grandparents did not have—the very privilege they worked so hard to provide for us now. It is not childish to dream outrageously big dreams; in fact, exploring the boundless limits of our potential is the boldest thing we can do with our lives. For me, I have dreamt of becoming an attorney, a novelist, an astronaut, an entrepreneur, a marine biologist, a U.S. Senator, a law school professor, an Olympic athlete, a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Shonda Rhimes, and Oprah. I still dream of becoming many of those things, and I hope to build onto this list of dreams for as long as I am alive. Because I want to live a life storied enough for dozens of different chapters and careers. I want to keep learning and reinventing myself and seeing where my curiosity leads me. I want to always remain hungry. We have the privilege to dream and create the lives we want, and it is up to us to steer ourselves toward whatever takes root in our hearts.
And all this, to me, is the true formula for success.
This essay was originally published by the Asian American Bar Association of New York.