On Doing What You Love

When I look back on my education and career path, I see a kid who did what he wanted to do because he loved it. I suppose you could call this “following your passions.” I also see a kid who did what it took to make a decent living and pay his bills. I suppose you could call this “following the money.”

I (and a lot of people who read this site) get really irritated when anyone tries to make sweeping generalizations about who we are—as if we didn’t grow up poor, middle class or rich, in small towns or big cities, in culturally diverse communities or homogenous ones, or have lived the varied lives that every generation before us has.

Don’t generalize us as “entitled” when we’re carrying around massive amounts of student loans and losing our jobs and homes like everyone else. Don’t call us cheap because we’re not spending like people were spending 10 years ago—when a lot of spending and borrowing was done irresponsibly, creating one of the most toxic housing markets in history, bringing down financial institutions around the world. Don’t ask me why I don’t want to buy a house, when I look at my parents and see that they are underwater on theirs. Don’t tell us that we have a passion problem, when passion isn’t the problem, but how we realistically pursue our passions.

I grew up in an Asian American family who lived on a middle class income. We often subsisted on packages of ramen or Spam and rice for dinner, and I didn’t know ramen was considered a poor person’s meal until I became familiar with the trope of the broke college student. For much of my childhood, we rented rooms in other relatives’ houses, and then in a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood where we weren’t allowed to play outside at night. This allowed my parents to scrape together money for a down payment on a house in the suburbs. The money gave us a better life.

Anyone who’s heard of Amy Chua knows that Asian American parents can be very strict, and push their children very hard to do well in school so they can achieve careers as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists or engineers. My mother wanted me to follow those career paths for one reason only: money. For her, money in the bank would be the biggest sign of success. It would also guarantee that she would be taken care of in her old age, because East Asian cultures require children to have filial piety—we should love, respect, and support our parents and elders, which includes monetary support.

I, of course, never ended up as a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer. I was on the path to be a lawyer up to my senior year in college, when I decided that I loved writing enough to take it seriously, and was encouraged by professors to consider a career in journalism.

So I did. When I told my mother what I had decided to do, she didn’t speak to me for a long time. In her mind, I was throwing away years of hard work for a career that we both knew would be difficult to find success in and earn money. It was like I stabbed her in the heart. I caught a flight to Washington D.C. the day I graduated from college to work for a news radio station, tearing off my cap and gown as I ran down the airport with everything I owned. My mother didn’t come to the airport to say goodbye.

“I met and interviewed Bill Clinton today,” I told my mom later on the phone. “I get to work out of the White House sometimes.” She sighed and wondered when I was going to stop chasing a dream. I told her the moment when I couldn’t pay my bills is when I’d try to do something else. But I was making it. It was a slow, uphill battle, but I was making it.

Later, when I discovered that I got into the journalism program at Columbia University and showed my mother the letter, she asked, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I told her I did, and moved to New York. She didn’t come to my graduation. I celebrated with friends at a diner, and then alone in my apartment. “I did it,” I said in a message to my mom the following day. “I’m the first in our family to get a master’s degree.”

“You can still go to pharmacology school,” my mother called me later as a reminder.

“I have a job,” I said. “I’m doing what I want to do. I’m paying my bills. I’m sending money home when I can. What else do you want for me?”

“I really hate your career,” my mother said.

“Do you hate my career, or do you hate what I’m earning?” I challenged.

“Yes, I hate that you’re not earning what I know you can be earning.”

When I got off the phone, I was reasonably upset. I was sad and angry. I was determined to prove my mother wrong. I wanted to show her that I could make a good living while still doing what I loved. But, I also didn’t feel like I was entitled to success. Logically, things were working out for me. I was on the right trajectory. I earned nothing as an intern. I earned $20,000, then $30,000, then $40,000. I was unemployed for a few months, but was able to find work to continue to eke out a living. I was finding work during the biggest recession since the Great Depression. And I was entirely self-sufficient—whose mother wouldn’t be proud?

I was also, during this entire time, realistic about my career. I had a Plan B. And a Plan C. There was that contact at that textbook company who said I could find work there if I ever needed it. A cousin offered to move me to Arizona and give me a position at his successful real estate company. If it came down to it, I’d take these jobs. I’d never hear the end of it from my mother, but it’d be the thing I’d have to do to stay financially solvent if I discovered that things weren’t working out for me. I also knew Plan B and Plan C didn’t mean that I would stop writing entirely, or that my dreams would be over. There were ways to make it work. Fortunately, I was already making it work. I didn’t need to use a backup plan.

I don’t think my story is unique. I do think that there are young people out there who do feel entitled to have the jobs of their dreams—I am not, and wasn’t, that millennial. Those millennials don’t represent me, or a good amount of young people out there. I’ve watched my friends find success. I’ve also watched people I know struggle tremendously, switch to alternative plans and career options, go through dark periods of unemployment, and then rise out of it. We’re doing what we can to earn a decent living. We want to build a decent life for ourselves. This isn’t a generational thing. It’s what we all hope to build.

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25 Comments / Post A Comment

Wow. How did it go when you told her you were starting a blog?!

I had a friend who switched from the engineering to the art school sophomore year. He didn’t tell his parents until graduation and told them to show up at a different arena instead of the engineering school. It’s been a few years since I talked to him but I don’t think they’ve spoken to him since that day. Sad face but I think that might be a farily typical situation with first generation immigrants raising their born and raised American kids.

Megano! (#124)

@forget it i quit I’m imagining in my head it went something like this?

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

@forget it i quit A freshman on my athletics team when I was a senior got mediocre grades in her first semester of engineering school. She wanted to switch from the engineering school to the liberal arts school, which had math/science-related majors, because she was miserable and struggling in it. Her parents made her quit our team (which she loved) instead.

novembertea (#2,203)

@forget it i quit Omigosh… tell him to write an article for The Billfold!!

janestreet (#1,123)

Yeah, these are our passions, but I wonder if any of these Millennial Haters see that in following my passion, I — using myself to avoid generalizations and because I think I’m pretty typical — regularly work 60 hours a week. I start to worry about burning out when I book more than 75 hours of work. I wonder if they see that I viscerally feel every damn rejection, because when you follow your passion, you feel passionately about it. I wonder if they see that my work improves because I care so deeply about it. I wonder if they see that every time they loudly proclaim we’re a lost generation of people with no work ethic or sense of reality, someone acts on that stereotype and dismisses my work or laughs at a salary negotiation or simply ignores me. And that I — like so many of my friends — keep working and translating anger and frustration into hustle. How anyone can reject that as idealism and stupidity is beyond me. It’s a choice, for sure, but it’s backed up by a whole shit ton of hustle.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

Oh wow. I’m sorry your mother is so unsupportive Mike Dang. I could understand her being concerned if you weren’t making a living, but it seems you are (and always have) done pretty well for yourself, all things considered (i.e., your field, the recession).

I’m pretty fortunate that even when I wanted to be an artist (a damned painter, no less), my mother was always supportive of me pursuing my happiness wherever it took me. But it was also pretty well ingrained in me from a young age that you have to do what you have to do to get by – even if you hate it. That’s how I wound up working as a secretary for 6 years. “Starving artist” was never really an option for me – not because I think I would have gotten a guilt trip from my mom, but because I would have been too ashamed to go home to her begging for money all the time. This millenial just wasn’t raised that way.

Thankfully, I fumbled around, busted my ass, and found a Real Job that I actually Really Love, that involves doing nothing creative whatsoever. And sure I could be making more money, but I’m happy in my work, independent, and functional, which are all the really important things, and both my mom and I are pretty damned happy with that arrangement.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

“Battle hymn of the Tiger Cub” = best tag.

I feel like I’m the reverse of you, Mike Dang. I was having a careers discussion with my mum a few weeks ago and I started listing all the careers I’d consider based on what the wages were (and other factors, of course, but wages was always maybe 70% weighting?) and mum gave me a funny look and said “you know, I’ve never made a choice my entire career based on what it would pay me”.
I then thought “and who is paying all your bills, mum?” (for those not in the know, the answer to that questions is “TARDIStime is paying all your bills, mum”). I did not speak this thought out loud because I am a chicken.

wearitcounts (#772)

i’m not a mother, but i’m proud of you, mike dang.

Well, I’m proud of you, mike dang!

novembertea (#2,203)

Thank you so much for this article. It really really resonated with me. We are the children who were brought up to believe in a false world, now adults, and suddenly blameworthy.

I went into college even though my mother told me that I should not – because it would be easier on them financially. Turns out, they took out a small parent plus loan in my first semester and then… done. They did not contribute after that, aside from me living with them for half of the time. Funny how that worked out. Two years into my program, I was positive that singing was the most important thing in the world to me and I auditioned and was accepted into the Vocal Performance program. My parents helped to convince me that this was a stupid move, sticking with Music Education made more sense. Three years after that, I am absolutely unsuitable to teach public school due to my crippling social anxiety – and I don’t enjoy it! I want to go to graduate school to study performance more. Eventually I want to teach private voice lessons at the university level while still performing.

It is a very strange circle I have traveled. I left behind my passion to pursue the “smart” thing. I applied to teaching jobs this fall (part time) and still didn’t get any of them. Now here I am – applying for dead end jobs to get by – and my one glimmering hope for the future is graduate school, to sing. Singing is my greatest talent and I know now that there is nothing else that I can ever do that will make me truly happy.

For some of us, following our passion is the only possible way to happiness. Otherwise, life feels like a waste.

novembertea (#2,203)

@novembertea I just realized that I never said Congratulations to YOU Mr. Dang for being so DANG AWESOME. Seriously, going through all that must have been so painful. And now you are a happy and successful person. This is a good story :-)

Markham (#1,862)

I think I’m like a year or two past old enough to be a millennial, but whatever, I started my post college career on 12/20/99 – just a few months out from the tech crash.

I don’t have any complaints about most millennials – except to say:

1) High student loan debt isn’t new, I’m still paying mine off.

2) Most of ya’ll (or hell almost me) are cool, SOME are in fact entitled in the work place. I had a guy working for me a few years ago who asked if he could “have” an open position, I told him he wasn’t qualified and he needed to work on a few things first and he could have a job like that in six months.

His response was not positive.

A lot of managers my age (early to mid 30s) have dealt with this.

3) Agree 100% that you have to be realistic between following passions and money. I read an essay a few weeks ago that complained that our society doesn’t value art and that’s what she’s broke, and I thought: “society didn’t just decide this, it’s just the market and a LOT OF people want to be artists, where would the money come from”.

I think that’s the attitude that turns off people of all ages, my GF is a millennial and she hates that attitude.

4) My 20s started out good, sucked for a few years and then ended decent, very early 30s were great and then the recession.

My point is that a lot of this isn’t new, struggling in your 20s can happen during a good economy, especially if you’re chasing passions that may not pay well. I read essays from writers in their 40s who have always been broke and they lived most of their adult lives in stronger economies.

I guess I’m saying make the best of it, don’t feel that everything is “over” or buy into the common refrain of people being pushed out of the middle class as if it’s permanent. It’s a phase in your life, just try to focus on how you react to things, have as much fun as possible, enjoy being young and keep working hard.

When I look back to my broke 20s if I were to go back to and tell myself something it would be:

“Loosen up, have more fun dude, take a risk and take that broke staying in hostels backpacking trip, and seriously Markham, thank you for not giving up”

Finally – Mike, I come from an immigrant family too (British-Caribbean), I literally got in trouble in High School because I wanted to major in history. TROUBLE.

My girlfriend’s family are immigrants too, and despite being from different cultures from opposite sides of the earth we often say to each other: “That’s just like my people”. I think all immigrants push their kids like that, and expect loyalty. It’s an interesting way to grow up.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I read this and think “wow that must have been terrible to go through”, but I also think: “Sounds normal”.

My Mom would’ve murdered me if I had majored in history against her wishes, she said: Accounting, Finance or Engineering. She was cool with law, but would rather I major in business as an undergrad in case I don’t like Law School.

I thought Burger King was super expensive because my family would only give us 1/2 of a burger, later discovered “We could afford to give you whole Burger, but we don’t waste money and wanted to just give you enough to keep you full until we got home”

I also thought all middle class people ate Hot Dogs and Beans.

My gf and I drive old cars and have been talking about replacing them since we met, we’ll research and plan and then: “I changed my mind, this one still starts”

theotherginger (#1,304)

@Markham my parents are not immigrants, but neither grew up with lots of money so they had residual tendencies. In the words of my dad, your 20s are hard because you don’t know where they are going. But it will all work out. (for my parents, the ideal jobs are not the money making kind, they are the helping people using one’s mind and hard and hard working christian kind. Can I write an article about this?). sometimes, the billfold is my people. (even people on the opposite end). Apparently people on our small awl based corner of the internet are more self-aware than real life.

oiseau (#1,830)

You are doing something awesome, Mike Dang. I’m really glad you chose to do what you did. YOLO, amirite?

oiseau (#1,830)

@oiseau Seriously, though- why waste your life doing something you find dull, meaningless, and empty, when you are 100% able to make something more meaningful and fulfilling out of your life? I don’t think that’s entitled… ugh. We will all die someday. :(

thematt (#1,017)

“When I got off the phone, I was reasonably upset.”

This is a very Mike Dang sentence.

Megs (#644)

Mike Dang, I just hugged my computer. You deserve a giant hug from someone very proud of you.

Pumpkin (#2,153)

You are made of win, Mike Dang.

But I have a question (sorry if you answered it and I skipped over it, or if it’s too personal)…how do you deal with this, emotionally? I think we all want approval from our parents and it seems like there are only a selected few ways to gain your mother’s. Just something on my mind that I’m dealing with in my own life. :(

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and 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 (letter to Abigail Adams, 1780)

@stuffisthings (Interesting that philosophy is listed as one of the “useful” disciplines!)

hopelessshade (#580)

This is making me feel all kinds of anger about my own parental assholery experiences and about yours. Seriously, this is practically abusive.

Keep fighting the good fight Mike Dang. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Mike Dang (#2)

Thanks everyone. I’m very happy with what I’m doing and all the choices I’ve made, and I wrote this to show that there is a pragmatic way of doing what you love, and that it’s possible if you’re realistic expectations about it. I also think it’s easy to think of tiger parents as monsters, as the backlash against Amy Chua’s WSJ piece showed, but I certainly don’t view my tiger mother as a monster. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to provide me with a good life (starting over in a new country, scraping together money to get out of bad situations), and although our relationship is very complex, there is love, and that’s what really matters.

In sum: No matter what anybody says, the only life you can live is your own. Make the most of it. If you can find a realistic way to do the things that make you happy, go for it.

qui_c (#2,226)

This was extremely well written and resonant, Mike. I think it’s easy to condemn parents who are focused solely on what their child will earn, but I think if your parents have had significant financial struggles, they simply want their kids to avoid those stressors. My mom is a single parent, on a teacher’s salary, and was therefore very concerned when I decided to study and pursue art history. It’s working out, I won’t be rich but I’m making it ok, and I think she has relaxed a bit about my financial future.

I hope that one day your mom will recognize your accomplishments, Mike, not the least of which is helping others of your generation feel less alone in our money questions/crises/adventures. I read the Billfold faithfully and so appreciate you having founded this blog and you super engaging contributions here.

I also read faithfully, and ever since The Billfold started, I’ve been thinking a lot more about money and my relationship with it, which I think is a great thing for everyone to do. So way to go Mike for following your dreams and creating something super awesome! It is well appreciated by many. It’s so good to hear different views on financial situations, and just to be reminded every day that A: this stuff is important but doesn’t have to be scary, and B: doing what works for you and your own life is totally ok, and we should all probably be a little less hard on ourselves and our mistakes.

My parents have a totally different view on money and jobs and things than yours do, but this piece made me think a lot about why that is and how their views were formed and how they may have changed from their parents. My grandfather’s parents were immigrants, and I’m sure there was a huge shift in how they thought about things to how my parents do. And my parents families growing up definitely weren’t as well off as we were.

I’ve never considered this stuff before and now I’m kind of fascinated by how my parents came to have the views they do on money and morals and things, and how they’ve shaped my own. They’re pretty sensible, but there are also times where it’s hard to see eye to eye, particularly with my dad because he had a job right out of school and has been with the same company ever since. He never had the experience of sending out loads and loads of CVs and cover letters and getting nothing with a huge pile of loan debt on his shoulders, and if you don’t have that experience, it’s probably pretty hard to understand it when your kid is having it (and much easier to say to them ‘you just need to try harder’, ughhhhh, Daaaad).

Anyway, I will stop writing a novel. Parental relations can be frustrating, if not in one way than in another, but it’s always nice when we can recognise they really do just want the best for you. Sometimes your ideas of that just don’t match up.

e (#734)

Mike, thank you for portraying the complexity of the parent child relationship when it comes to careers! I have had a complicated time of figuring it out myself. My parents, my mom in particular, really emphasized the need to be self-sustaining with scholarships, and highlighted ambition, and high academic performance. But it was more complex because at the same time my mom probably really wanted me to find something lucrative, my parents are also very supportive of artistic endeavors and social justice pursuits. So I got lots of art classes, but I was not encouraged to major in studio art. Now I’ve got a good full time job with good pay, benefits and some of that is due to my mom pushing me, but I’m still grappling with how to conduct an art practice on the side, and how to stay engaged at my job, because I find it boring.

It’s interesting because I think I had to work hard to figure out how much of my trepidation about an art career was wrapped up in realistic assessment of my own fear of poverty and how much was buried mental issues planted by my parents’ opinions. And it took me all of my 20s to realize that having a passion isn’t “either/or”- you can be an employee and an artist, you can change paths, and hopefully if you have a long life you can even do different things!

I’m with you though, no matter how much I agree or disagree with my parent’s priorities, they are good people with very good values and they love me and there wasn’t much about how they raised me, right or wrong, that wasn’t done out of love, and it just turns out that being an adult is about understanding that, and then figuring out your own path anyway.

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