Finding yourself / How to become a leader

You don’t have to get serious about your career till you turn 40

If you feel that your job gives you no room to build on your strengths and passions, then you’re in the wrong job. Recently I’ve been writing about how you should learn to be true to yourself and take charge of your career, here, here, here and here. In response, blog readers have been writing me about how they fantasize about abandoning their PhDs.

Then I got an email from someone who’s done just that. Aki Song (宋Aki) dropped out of her PhD program here in the States, returned to China, and is pursuing her passion as an artist. And she sent me the beautiful image you see here. I was so moved by her drawing and her story that I asked if I could interview her for you. She said yes. Here’s the interview:

Where did you study in China? What were you studying in the States?

As an undergraduate, I studied sociology at Peking University. I went on to the United States for a PhD in the same field.

Why did you drop out?

Part of the reason lies in China’s education system. Like other students, I didn’t get to “choose” my major. Instead, I was admitted to the university with a major assigned to me. I didn’t know what sociology was, although I found it interesting later on. I didn’t apply to an art school in the first place because I couldn’t afford the tuition.

My parents were proud of me to attend the best university in China. Then I was admitted to a PhD program in the States. Everything looked fine.

However, the more I found out about academic life, the more uncertain I felt. I didn’t know it meant devoting decades to this field I entered reluctantly. I loved my professors for their dedication to research, yet I doubted if I could do just the same and be just as happy.

I couldn’t help envying the American undergraduates: at least they could choose majors after the first year. And the possibility of change occurred to me for the first time, perhaps partly as a result of cultural shock, and partly because of the constant inner conflict in my heart.

A series of personal life crises hit me at the same time. One incident put me in a life-threatening situation, and it took me months to recover. I thought about the meaning of my life every night. A feeling of uncertainty and sadness flooded me. I couldn’t gather myself together or focus on my studies.

In a word, I lost the strong momentum to go on, and seriously wanted to redirect and pursue my dream, at an “old age” in the eyes of many Chinese.

How did it feel? How did you develop the self-confidence to do this?

It was scary. I didn’t know which path to take and feared for losing the beauty of one road, when I chose another.

I said to our director: “Sorry I’m a bad student. I NEVER thought I could be.”

She said, kindly: “Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as ‘This program doesn’t suit you’.”

I will always be grateful to her for that.

What did your parents think?

I have the best parents anybody can dream of. They supported my decision, especially my mother. All they wanted for me is to be happy and healthy. She and my father never pushed me to excel, which made me excel in college entrance examinations, because of a good attitude. So my mother said: “If you don’t like it, don’t do it. I hope you can do something you enjoy.” Although she worried about the prospects of my financial stability, she didn’t push me.

Any thoughts for other Chinese students struggling with hating what they are studying?

I think it is extremely difficult to jump out of the box. Chinese are not willing to lose face, so it becomes even harder. Chinese are also used to the notion of “love the profession you are working in,” regardless of one’s personal feelings.

I am not in the position to give people advice on this, because I have just embarked on the journey of self-exploration. I hope I will get something done and establish myself in a few years, so that I can say: “Follow your heart; build on your strength. 25 years flies.” Many of us work 25-30 years, it passes faster than we imagine, so don’t waste too much time in the wrong trade.

Yet there is the problem of survival. I am searching for a way to better navigate.

Where are you now and what are you doing?

I’m in Beijing and still looking for a job both art-related jobs and conventional corporation jobs. For the time being I can start up as a freelance artist since there are many part-time jobs in illustration and design. I would love to work as an artist as long as it can sustain and generate some profit.

In the artwork you sent me, I sense a tension between the playfulness of the style, and the threatening mood that emanates from the piece. Why did you send me this?

The idea of the picture came from a dream, in which the little girls unintentionally disturbed the aqua spirits in the crop field, so they flew away holding their breath in order not to be found. I wanted to send you something you might enjoy looking at, as thanks for supporting my wild life transition. It is a time of vulnerability and self-doubt, so I especially appreciated your kind remarks, and your sincerity in replying to a comment by a stranger.

Wow. I know you’ll join me in thanking Aki for sharing her story.  Her wisdom, courage, and talent all are undeniable. These qualities will serve her well throughout her career.

Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life

One thing Aki brought up that has me thinking is the idea that because Chinese are not willing to lose face, we may be unwilling to take risks.  Risk-taking is central to entrepreneurship, and so I hope that we as a society learn to better accept when we ourselves fail, and to embrace our friends when they fail.

I like this quote from the Italian actress Sophia Loren: “After all these years, I am still involved in the process of self-discovery. It’s better to explore life and make mistakes than to play it safe. Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life.”

Today is a good day to start the rest of your life

Another thing that strikes me from this interview is the notion of career transition as a right reserved only for young people. It is never too late to forge a new path in life and in fact, as one evolves through life, it’s only natural that our careers will evolve with us.

I recall the days when I worked at City Hall, and I and my colleagues would start thinking, and worrying, about life after politics. Then-mayor Richard Riordan, a self-made centimillionaire who has reinvented himself several times, would always wave his hand and say, “Relax! You don’t have to get serious about business till you turn 40!”

Now that I am (slightly!) on the other side of 40, I can assure you that things do become clearer over time as one settles into life.

I hope that you will take advantage of your 20s and 30s to relax, and that you give yourself the freedom to explore.  In fact, your career will be made not in the next two years, but over the next 40. Over that time, you’ll have good jobs and bad jobs, good bosses and bad bosses. More important than any one decision you make is that you learn constantly, and that you celebrate the little things along the way.


I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.