“Follow Your Passion”: Yay or Nay?

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind. Somehow, I – notorious dilettante and former student of eleven academic departments – am teaching a course this semester on exploring careers and selecting majors for undecided freshmen and sophomores.

img_5037

Should I upload this selfie onto the Blackboard site?

And I’m concerned. Not because the syllabus needs retouching or I’m having trouble deciding which pirate version of the Myers-Briggs to administer (for what it’s worth, I’m also eyeing Buzzfeed’s “What Should Your College Major Be Based On Your Food Choices” quiz) — rather, I’m concerned about my somewhat embarrassing buy-in to that largely debunked dictum: follow your passion.

Google the phrase “follow your passion” and you’ll be swamped with results detailing why that all-pervasive piece of advice is worthless. Also, having read and critiqued career counseling theories as part of my Masters program, I get why the idea is not good counsel.

For one, self-actualization is at the tippy top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is no question that following your passion requires a significant amount of privilege — most people prefer having access to food, water, and shelter first.

Then, there’s the argument that the advice assumes and perpetuates a Western, individualist mindset.  What about international students and other students with ethnic ties to collectivist cultures, who might legitimately prefer pursuing majors/careers which please and provide for their families?

Finally, millennials have mostly wised up (albeit resentfully) to the reality that you can’t “just get a job” with any degree anymore. Hence the jokes about liberal arts majors. (How do you get a liberal arts graduate off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.)

This "millenial falcon" is a little angry. Source

This “millennial falcon” is a little bitter. Source

Still, I cling to a deep-seated optimism about studying and pursuing what one enjoys. I understand that this perspective is a function of my privilege, but it’s also informed by my experience double majoring in a subject I love (French, deemed utterly useless) and a subject I tolerated (economics, for the sake of employability).

Five-and-a-half years later, I can barely read a supply and demand graph, whereas studying French has proven practical in ways I could never have imagined. Broadly, the subject led me to the field of international education, and I owe innumerable professional and personal contacts to a common “French connection.”

So. A part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and urge these impressionable youths to study sculpture, or philosophy, or ancient Greek — whatever fills their hearts or thrills their minds. But the last thing I want is for my propensity to romanticize to blow up in my face (or worse, in the faces of my students).

A book, wine, and cigarettes

E.g., I set up this romanticized tableau my last week in Paris. The smoke blew back in my face, and I ended up giving away the cigarettes.

Consequently, I’ll do my level best to keep my own thoughts out of the matter. After all, I’m also a believer in another cliché: that education is more about asking questions than obtaining answers. Sure, I’ll point my students to the relevant resources and theories and assessments. But it may take them a while to find their academic or professional footing, and that’s truly, deeply okay.

(In any case, for those in a rush, the Buzzfeed quiz can be done within minutes.)

~

What do you think of the advice to follow your passion? Let me know!

 

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The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.

~

I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.

~

I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.

 

The perfect is the enemy of the good. (But why can’t we all be friends?)

When I stepped into the elevator, the floors lit up, seemingly at random.

Ten. Three. Six.

The elevator rose, then fell. Rose, then fell.

Fourteen. Two. Five.

What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to get off?

~

I recently finished the first semester of a Masters program in Higher Education Administration. Although my grades were irreproachable, I was plagued by the stress dreams typical of all my years of schooling. Obvious metaphors of flailing and failing unfolded nightly in my mind’s eye. Why? I wondered. Why was I still so concerned about achieving impeccable grades when – as an adult and a professional – I should have been content with simply acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for my career?

My first instinct was to hold my upbringing responsible. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed reams of articles connecting Asian cultures with perfectionist tendencies. I also thought back to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which describes the author’s brutal tactics to mold her daughters into star students and master musicians.

When I compare what I have read with my own experiences, certain themes do ring true. For instance, the notion that parents should ensure their children’s excellence in academics and extracurriculars is simply a given for most Chinese-American families. Even my slightly unconventional parents could not escape this larger cultural imperative. Although they allowed me a positively slothful childhood compared to Amy Chua’s daughters, it did take me a while to realize most moms and dads did not grade their kindergartener’s drawings.

Yueyue Drawing 2-2

At least I got a 95 on this one.

But frankly, something about that narrative of the hawkish, Asian parents has always felt off to me. I rarely believed that my parents were truly cracking the whip. There was something perfunctory about the way they acknowledged my grades (celebrated or scolded my performance) which suggested that, deep down, they knew none of it mattered.

Still.

It mattered to me.

A-sians not B-sians

This fantastic meme describes my inner voice more than my actual parents. Source

Grades represented a tried and true avenue of approval. And approval was important for a morose child who recoiled in suspicion from the greetings of friendly classmates.

Grades were a comforting, top-down source of order. And I found order welcome after having moved homes every few years for as long as I could remember.

At my core, I must have craved the rigidity of neat categorizations. I must have clung to the idea that one’s identity could be defined through them. You could be a certain letter grade student, or you could be sorted into one of four houses at Hogwarts. Nowadays, I suppose you could also belong to one of five factions in the world of Divergent or one of thirteen districts in The Hunger Games.

~

The issue has always been that a part of me resents this rigidity of spirit.

That’s the part responsible for my ongoing appreciation of Young Adult fiction, in which authoritarian categorizers are consistently overthrown.

bow and arrow

I would definitely offer up my archery skills for the revolution. Now, how do you aim this thing?

These days, I’m convinced that perfectionism holds me back both professionally and as a student. The anxiety I feel over routine challenges burns me out too easily.

Meanwhile, I admire those who by nature or nurture are free of this maddening trait. I stand in awe of “big picture” types and people who simply get things done without fuss (or stress dreams).

… How do they – or you – do it?

… Do you believe perfectionism is cultural?

… Is “the perfect the enemy of the good” as they say?

And if so, why can’t we all be friends? (Tell me.)