Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer. We in the South Asian diaspora know all too well that these are the only “acceptable” career choices in our communities.
As the eldest of three children and the most academically and science-inclined one, it was expected of me that I would become the doctor in my family, following in my father’s footsteps. At a young age, I contemplated other interests like being an author or marine biologist. But these options were so far-fetched that they didn’t elicit wrath, only humor and a mental image of me living under an umbrella on the beach. So, I was convinced that success meant a traditional career with a high earning potential and internalized the idea that medicine was the right path for me.
Like the good Indian daughter, I graduated from a top university and got into medical school. But within weeks, the underlying knowing that this wasn’t the right path for me came to the surface. I hated everything about it. But I was pressed to continue and finish. “No one likes medical school. Do it for me.” So, I did. I finished and got accepted to the Ivy League to pursue an additional graduate degree. I thought it would make my family proud. Thus, it was a surprise on graduation day after receiving the coveted MD degree, that they lamented to another family, whose daughter’s wedding I had recently attended, “It’s great that she’s done medicine, but I really wish she had gotten married like Payal*.” I’m not sure if they felt this way because they didn’t believe that success existed outside of a traditional career or just that that was the next expectation they had for me as a young woman once my first task was accomplished.
After this inexplicable moving of the goalpost, a shift into traditional systems of Indian tradition and patriarchy, and a sucker punch to my years of hard work – I vowed to forge my own path. Yes, people thought I was crazy and willful for “giving up” on medicine. They wondered why I would waste so many years of training only to pivot into another field. However, I was validated when people started to reach out to me to tell me that they, too, were not connected to their careers in medicine and to ask me how I left so that they could figure how they could, too. They started calling me brave. It took me a long time to believe that for myself.
I’ve held positions in healthcare policy, government, and tech startups, certainly not out-of-the-box careers by any standard, but ones that the community was unfamiliar and unimpressed with. And more importantly, these were the roles that felt aligned with my purpose and values. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but still hurt thinking of all those who continue to strive for another person’s vision. This inspired my latest transition into career coaching.
If you’ve felt pushed into a career path because of the conventional definition of “success” and who are looking to pivot into a role that feels right to you, here are three things that you can do to fulfill that dream.
- Create your own definition of success. Remove “should” from your vocabulary. You “should” be a doctor because you’re good at science? You “should” work a 9-5 traditional office job? If success to you means balancing a career and family, or pursuing your talent in creative arts, or giving back to the less fortunate, then embrace those values and move forward in a way that feels aligned to you. What would you do if there were no rules or restrictions? Do that.
- Stop the comparison. There is no reason to measure your own success against the accomplishments of other people. Your journey is your own, and the struggles you have overcome are just a part of your unique story. You don’t know what other people are going through and they don’t know what you’re going through. If you worry about what they will think if you choose a certain career or seek your passion in an unconventional way – ask yourself, “who is ‘they’ and why do their thoughts matter more than your goals?”.
- Own your worth. Your role, title, degrees, salary, company, or status do not define you. Remember that you have value regardless of any of these factors.
And for those South Asian parents who are still, in 2020, pushing your kids into a career that doesn’t connect to their interests, strengths, or goals, I just have one piece of advice: Don’t.
Dr. Sonia Ashok is a physician, health advocate, and career coach. She is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, University of Florida College of Medicine, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is the founder of Connective Coalition, a community that supports female leadership and advancement in the workplace. She is based in San Jose, CA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.