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.