Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.

Trust at Work

Trust is an important element of motivation, so creating trust in the workplace is critical for employees to perform at their best.   Transparency and open communication is essential for trust. But it’s so much more.

When I was a kid, back during the last Ice Age, employees had an implied and actual contract with their employer. If they were loyal to the organization, the organization would be loyal to them. They had generous pensions and could trust that they could retire comfortably after a certain number of years of service without worry.

That concept seems laughable and naïve these days since the pension seems to have caused financial ruin for many companies. Though the model is not financially sustainable, this idea of a reciprocal relationship between the employee and employer also seems to be as outdated as the dinosaur.   In other words, what the modern contract seems to amount to is: You work as hard as possible, and take on incredible stress and responsibility with little or no support. In return, I give you a paycheck and maybe some benefits. I may or may not treat you well, help you or recognize your efforts.   I may or may not help you grow as an individual or care about your personal or professional well-being. I will dispose of you as soon as I think it will benefit the organization. If the time comes when I think it’s time for you to go, I may simply escort you from the building without so much as a “thanks for your service.” And for that, you better show your appreciation to me and make this job your first priority.

And employers wonder why employees don’t work harder or show a better attitude.

Granted, this contract may be implicit since few managers will actually say something like that. But just like I do a terrible job of trying to appear happy and friendly when I’m actually grouchy or upset, words, tone, and actions belie true intentions.   Being transparent and openly communicating about this You Are A Cog in the Machine philosophy will not improve trust. It will improve disengagement and resentment.

In my opinion, the difference between a manager and a leader is whether they treat employees and colleagues well given the realities of the modern workplace. Treating someone well does not mean you never, ever fire or discipline them. It simply means that when that time comes, you treat them as you wish to be treated. Treating someone well also does not mean that you constantly praise and affirm them. Instead, it means being authentic and true with your praise and reward, and not because you want something from them.   The Arbinger Institute (Leadership and Self-Deception and teaches this philosophy about doing business either by treating others as objects – an obstacle, irrelevant, or a means to an end, or as people – whose needs, wants and desires are as important as your own. Until one learns the difference and behaves accordingly, I believe true leadership will continue to evade them.

Your Bliss: Prospective or Retrospective?

Working with students in higher education is such a privilege because I often get to participate in their important career, and thus, life decisions. Their whole life and career are in front of them.   The possibilities seem endless since they can prospectively plan their bliss into their daily work. According to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, following our bliss allows us to feel fully alive; work as a vehicle for bliss has huge implications in terms of our motivation and well-being at work.

However, most of us don’t have that luxury of planning bliss into our career. We may be mid-career, with mortgages, dual careers, debt, aging parents and, well, fear of change that may impair our ability to go bliss chasing. We may have come to terms long ago that our bliss ship has sailed and we missed the boat.   At my age, I just don’t think I’m going to give it all up to try to go become a dancer on Broadway.

But that’s a cop out.   No, I will never at this age get to start a dance career where I will be able to earn a paycheck, much less make a living. But what’s to stop me from taking a dance class? If I really feel the need to perform, why not videotape for Youtube? Or the school “talent” show? Sure.

Better yet, there’s so much we can do within the context of our current jobs. We may not have chosen our current job or career path because of our bliss, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find bliss at work. Researchers Bunderson and Thompson reported in 2009 in a seminal paper on callings that zookeepers, whose job mainly entails cleaning cages and caring for animals, frequently find that tedious work to be their calling. In other words, they had a passion for the work and felt it had impact. Similarly, Wrzesniewski (1997) similarly found that callings exist across a range of jobs, ranks, and disciplines from janitors to CEOs.

The key is whether you make meaning of the work you do. For instance, much of my job is pretty routine. In higher ed, we’re awash in bureaucracy and I shuffle a LOT of forms around. Form-filling is not my calling, but underneath that task I am enabling the degree completion of our students. By not passing the task on to faculty, I am also freeing their time to do the important work of research and advising. The task, though mind-numbingly boring, plays an important role in the school that enables success of our students and faculty.

In other words, my focus and interpretation matter. I can either focus on how parts of my job are soul crushing, or how those small things make a difference to others. I’m never going to enjoy filling out forms but at least I complete that task cheerfully instead of with anger, resentment or martyrdom.

How about you? Do you have a calling or just a job? How can you find more meaning in your job and be more aware of the positive impact of your work on others?

Our Shared Journeys

There is no better way for me to spend a day than working on student or faculty development. It’s my passion. It’s what I live to do.

And when someone tells me that the work has been helpful or impactful, then I’m filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and awe for this journey that we’re on. I know that, perhaps from the student’s perspective, I’m there to help them. Indeed, I am. But to me, it’s so much more.

You see, what I’ve learned over the last four years since I started this work is that we’re all on this journey together.   I’m significantly older than most of my students, so I have had more time to learn on this path that we share. But in so many ways, the students are the brave ones, the wise ones, the tenacious ones, the creative ones, the compassionate ones, the forgiving ones, and I learn from them.

In addition, you know the saying, “see one, do one, teach one”? Teaching is the highest form of learning. When I sit down to write a blog, I’m learning more than I teach. When I teach, I am often learning even more than the students.   For that reason, combined with the potential to make an impact, teaching to me is an unbelievable privilege. You can serve while being served.

I still wonder at my path sometimes, starting in pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences and ending up helping people on such a personal journey. The first day of our new class for young biomedical scientists, GRAD611 Professional and Personal Development, I talked about the journey and I can see faces trying to recall the last day to drop a class without penalty.   Therefore, it was especially gratifying by the end of the semester when the students were fully engaged in the class and even willing to come to the optional activities without nagging. That feeling continues on now that we’ve finished the second course, GRAD615, Biomedical Science Career Seminars.

So students and readers in the blogosphere, thank you for giving me an amazing reason to jump out of bed each day. Every step on this journey together is sacred to me and it’s an honor to walk by your side.

See the VCU BEST website:

The Best Stage of Life

As a parent, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for the next phase: when they sleep through the night, when they are potty trained, when they are in school, when they are driving, when they leave for college.

As an adult, I spent a good amount of time longing or planning for my next phase: when I finish college, when I finish graduate school, when I get married, when I buy a house, when I start a family, when I get tenure, when I retire.

I spent far too little time living in the present moment, appreciating and savoring it.   Somehow I kept feeling like the next stage would be better, while the current, amazing and wonderful stage was somehow not good enough.

As time went by, however, I started to realize that the current stage was pretty cool, even if considered typically “bad”. I loved the Terrible Twos and studying for my oral comprehensive exams. Even when things got difficult during the marriage, I relished the challenge of figuring out how to step up and surmount.  I loved the challenge of each stage: somehow having the hurdle seem ridiculously high allowed me to let go of any of my own expectations about the outcome.

That’s not to say the results were always that great, or that the challenges didn’t take their toll. But I loved every phase of the boys young life (some I loved more than others) and for each of my own, I can really appreciate the value of what those challenges brought to me:

  • Baby and pre-school – Incredible innocence, authenticity, growth and change. They turn from little blobs into tiny people with their own personality and we have the honor of watching them discover their world and experiencing everything for the first time.
  • Elementary school – Their personality, cognitive skills, social skills and physical ability continue to develop. They begin to discover the nuance and depth of our world, and understand how they fit into the world.
  • Middle school – Admittedly this was my least favorite stage but it was also fun. The social relationships become most important and they begin to separate themselves from their parents. It was fascinating watching them experiment and navigate the parental separation as they simultaneously form their identity with their peer group. The physical transformation during this stage is also remarkable – you literally can’t recognize many of these kids after they go through puberty.
  • High school – They experiment with adulthood as they step out into the world with more confidence. Where do they fit into the wider world? What are their world views and how will they influence their world? You can start to have real intellectual conversations with them as they bring their own unique insights to the world around them.
  • College – They are coming into their own intellectually and are starting to explore their professional selves. They are also learning how to live on their own and manage their own affairs as they literally leave the nest.
  • 20’s – This is the decade where we struggle to establish ourselves professionally and start our family. I had the most potential and was at my physical peak in my 20’s, but had probably the lowest self-confidence. Ironic.
  • 30’s – This decade is a blur, building career and family simultaneously. This was the hardest decade for me, as I was starting to realize that my self-awareness and expectations were creating the perfect storm. Pity the fools that knew me!
  • 40’s – In this decade I make a breakthrough in my inward journey where I finally realize that my life is not going to be as I had planned it and I step out of my own self-imposed box. Just knowing the box is self-imposed was a big step for me and it freed me to rediscover myself. School this time around is for the pure pleasure and enjoyment as opposed to the end result of obtaining a credential.   We also switch to becoming caregivers for our parents.
  • 50’s – To be written….

Probably the biggest accomplishment for me is just living in the present and enjoying the stage I am in.   It makes absolutely no sense living for a future that may not exist, especially when the present stage is so full of wonder and is so fleeting.

So the Best Stage of Life is the one you’re in.  Go ahead. Savor the present. I dare you.


Imposter Syndrome

Working in higher education, I am pretty fortunate to be running with a well-educated crowd. Therefore, it always surprises me when people confess that they have the imposter syndrome. MD. PhD. DDS. Pharm.D. JD. It doesn’t matter.   No matter how successful one might be, they could be thinking, “someday someone will figure out that I shouldn’t be here.”

The imposter syndrome is frequently associated with the failure schema, according to Tara Bennett-Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy. People who harbor the failure schema believe that their successes are undeserved and they feel like a failure despite their successes.

Like many schema, the failure schema can drive someone to be an overachiever to compensate for their feelings of failure. It’s almost as if they are trying to prove to themselves that they are successful, but never really manage to do so until they learn to manage their schema and challenge their core, and sometimes subconscious, beliefs.

This is true of all schema, by the way.   We will continue to view our world and ourselves through our schema filters, coloring all of our assumptions and beliefs, and inevitably becoming self-fulfilling prophecies   unless we challenge those beliefs.

I confess I have not thought much about the failure schema since I’m usually surprised when someone says they have the imposter syndrome. To me, they’re usually just fabulously successful people.   But among these fabulously successful people are also people who cannot get off the dime on certain tasks. They don’t exert themselves in certain areas. They don’t speak up for themselves. They don’t take risks. They don’t reach for or take opportunities outside of their comfort zone. They seem like they’re perfectly happy letting things ride or letting others take the lead. Sometimes it may seem like they’re trying to undermine everyone else’s efforts.

I don’t mean to say that everyone who has trouble getting started on tasks have a failure schema. That would be too easy. Nor do I mean to point fingers. After all, we ALL have schema, and if you were to deny it, it would make me think you have a perfectionism schema. Ha! Don’t you love the circular logic?

Thankfully I don’t have the failure schema. I feel like I’ve earned my successes and my failures.   And now that I’ve been through a masters program in a subject I’m passionate about, I can also see that I’ve been somewhat of an underachiever myself in certain areas. So I’m not here to judge. I’m trying to understand the various ways we flawed but amazing humans interface with each other and the world. I’m here to try to understand how I can be more supportive of others on their journeys, as they have been of mine.

In fact, I think the strengths approach (e.g. StregnthsFinders, VIA) provides great tools to help those with imposter syndrome learn to value themselves for who they are, as opposed to what they’ve accomplished. Perhaps that can provide a toe-hold to internalizing a sense of wonder and appreciation for oneself instead of criticism. Then maybe they can see what I see in them: a freakin’ amazing person!

Who Are You Without Work?

I’m at the state in my life where many of my long-time colleagues are beginning to retire. Even looking back to my Dad’s retirement, it became clear to me that those who don’t have an active and full personal life will struggle to transition into retirement.

Part of the issue for those folks is the loss of their professional identity as well as just how to fill their time.   Filling the time can be hard. I spent roughly three years working 20-30% time while my kids were young and by the end of it, I was ready to go crazy.   There was also a definite transition period where I reconsidered myself from initially as a full-time tenured professor to part-time working Mom. It did not actually take that long, as I recall, but I also hadn’t spent most of my life with that identity at that point in time.

We’ve had a taste of that discretionary time this week as Chris and I vacationed in Paris. This week, we’ve had no agenda. No plans. No obligations. We can cook if we want, or eat out. The hotel maids clean our room. We can be as hedonistic as we want …. though hedonism gets old pretty fast (note: it hasn’t gotten old just yet).

I admit it’s been impossible to completely turn off work. Jet lag has meant we’ve had hours of being awake at odd hours and, well, I might as well go through my email. But we’ve largely turned off the work brain and just focused on being together, exploring and being present. Even my passion for positive psychology and training has been shut down this week.

Sort of. I know you’re thinking about me blogging this week but the blog is more for me than for you. I often will start writing without an end in mind; indeed I have no answer for this question that I posed to myself as I sat down to write. I know I am still ‘me’ without my day job but not sure who I am without my passion, as it so completely defines me right now.

The good thing about a passion though is that I can do it anywhere, whether my employer chooses to support or condone it, or whether or not I’m on vacation. My passion is my pleasure and my joy and provides meaning to my day and my life.   I like that it’s not dependent on a title or position at work, or the approval of someone else. I never thought I’d be one of those people that say that they will always want to work, because work to them is play.

Perhaps when our job is our passion, we jump out of bed to go to work each day, we can’t believe we get paid to do this work, and we never want to retire.

I realize that only 30% of people have that feeling about work.   Another 30% are perfectly happy with the status of their work being a career, not a passion, and another 30% are searching.   I don’t believe everyone must have an calling/passion to be happy. However, after our work and family raising responsibilities diminish we may struggle to find that meaning in our daily activities and could potentially leave a gaping void.  So even if you’re not searching right now, pay attention to what brings you joy, ease, and excellence. You may want to fall back on it some day.