So I was sitting in the hairdressers recently – the greys in my roots meant I’d started taking on a zebra-esque appearance which required swift attention – and the hairdresser serving the client next to me enquired about her daughter. I observed the following conversation (C is client; H is hairdresser):
C: “She’s doing so well with her acting; in fact, today she has another audition to be in a film and there’s only a couple of others in the running. She’s been acting and dancing… she just loves it and she’s really doing well”.
H: “Ah how lovely- you must be so proud! It sounds like she’s going to be a star. Does she want a career in acting?”
C: “Oh yes, she talks about it all the time. And I don’t mind her trying it out but I’ve told her she needs to stop for the next 3 years and complete an academic degree in something so she has something in her back pocket in case it doesn’t work out”
say what now?
When I heard that last sentence it took all of my energy not to turn around and say “what are you doing?!”. Here’s a girl who’s clearly talented and you’re telling her to cut her creativity and success mid-flow and park her ambitions to complete a degree in anything academic just so she has something to “fall back” on? Where would that leave her acting career in three years time and how is she supposed to switch her attention to something “academic” if she’s not persuaded that it’s going to serve her future ambitions?
And even if she does complete a degree and then pursues acting, the fact that she hasn’t utilised her degree or gained any practical experience might make her qualifications effectively redundant if there’s no connection between her qualified subject and her acting. I’ve experienced enough rejection from recruiters to know they can smell commitment from beyond your LinkedIn profile – try explaining that you’ve completed an International Relations degree and then trained as an actor for a few years but really all your heart ever wanted was a job at the UN or Foreign Office.
let’s talk (on my terms though)
I wondered whether the mum had entertained thoughts of a year out, a part time degree or a vocational qualification perhaps for her daughter? Or better still, allowing her the freedom to express her creativity and then revisiting a return to academia at some point in the future. I pondered if it had been a mutually agreed two way conversation or whether the mum thought she was actually being very generous, accommodating and even forward thinking, by letting her daughter have the option of going back to acting after her academic degree had been completed.
Because I (a) wasn’t supposed to be listening and (b) thought if I said something and it wasn’t received well the next two hours would be rather painful and awkward, I kept silent. Maybe I oughtn’t have. I’m something of a reflector so making spontaneous decisions like whether to intervene or not, doesn’t come naturally to me and I replay scenarios over and over in my mind before I often actually decide anything.
what’s actually going on here?
But I did reflect on it and the possible motivations and mindset of this lady.
It was abundantly clear that she loved her daughter and wanted her to be successful – in whatever made her happy. But to me it seemed that there was a fear which perhaps unwittingly was driving her decision making.
In the Asian community we place great pride in academics. Perhaps it’s because as the children of migrant families we’ve been able to establish ourselves, access education and create opportunities which otherwise may not have been available. And as beneficiaries of this we consider academic achievements as the hallmark of success.
I’ve seen the hardships of my own parents in establishing themselves in this country and the tenacity and resilience they’ve shown, to be able to provide opportunities for me and my siblings, is both laudable and inspiring.
But the landscape of success for our children doesn’t have to be confined to academic prowess.
What if we asked our children to look inwards, identify the skills which come naturally to them and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about? From hairdressing to fashion design to engineering and computer programming – if we look closely at the people whose names are synonymous with success we’ll see a combination of talent, persistence and truck loads of passion. These people don’t work to live; it’s not even considered work for them – they are living their passion everyday which is what gives them the edge over everyone else in their field.
Steven Pressfield talks about each of us being born with the most unique identity and nothing – however powerful – can change it. In his book The War of Art, he postulates upon our existence:
“We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it.
Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.
If we were born to paint, it’s our job to become a painter. If we were born to raise and nurture children, it’s our job to become a mother. If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realise it and get down to business”.
If it’s sounding a bit deep, it’s because it probably is. I love the idea that each of us is so incredibly unique holding an abundance of talent which isn’t replicated in a single other body in this universe. And yet, culture and societal norms unwittingly lead us to shoehorn our children down a path which might not serve their true calling on this earth.
Taking my own example, I always loved to write. I recall writing an essay until 3am at the age of 12 because I simply couldn’t stop riding the buzz of words flowing from my brain to my finger tips. I created my school’s first ever year book at the age of 14. I took photos of every single girl in my year group (it was a girl’s school), interviewed teachers, procured quotes from pupils and raided the art submissions for the past year to create a collaged outer cover. I had no experience of putting a publication together – but I did it. There was a fire in my belly and it came so naturally to me.
And then I got good grades and was pondering what path to take. I wanted to become a journalist but I had no idea how to go about this and had unsuccessfully approached many newspapers for work experience only to be told ‘no’. My careers officer at college produced a compatibility report having asked me some basic questions about things I was doing well at. The report recommended a career in law amongst other humanities based jobs which I now can’t recall – but journalism wasn’t on there. Added to that, family and friends started to ask which illustrious profession I was going to pursue. It felt like such a burdensome question to answer – that once I’d declared my chosen path that was it; I’d be wedded to that career for life. There was lots of encouragement to be a lawyer and the seeming financial incentives – having come from a thrifty background – made it attractive.
So that’s the path I took.
to law or not to law
I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, I did enjoy parts of it – I loved research, writing essays and I made some lifelong friends. But I didn’t ever feel complete or aligned from within. I never felt I was an excellent lawyer; I was a hard worker and certainly competent and thorough but I didn’t have the flair and exuberance as some of my colleagues who loved to debate points of law until the small hours, got excited about tax issues and were giddy with excitement when the Human Rights Act was about to become ratified into UK law.
I followed the path; I became a lawyer and I felt that now this was my career, any deviance from this into another career was a big no-no. I didn’t just tell myself this story; I contacted several organisations about policy or other public sector work and the feedback was always that my experience was only legal and this is what I was best suited to. Thankfully, the employment industry has since evolved to take better account of transferable skills.
square peg, round hole
But this feedback and feeling that I was destined for a life as a lawyer and nothing else, left me feeling inadequate and dented my self esteem because it seemed to me that I had to work so much harder than my peers to achieve the same results they did. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t in a job which I felt aligned to and through which I could achieve my life’s purpose.
Fast forward and I ended up working for a public sector organisation when the markets crashed and every property lawyer I knew was clinging on to their job. It was a refreshing change where I learnt more about myself; I loved to write, serve people through my work and feel like I was making a difference – lots of continuities from being a lawyer but I felt better about this job and could feel some inner alignment coming through – but not completely.
Finally, following my operation [see Accepting Life’s Lemons] I took up writing. Now I can see how everything I’ve ever enjoyed has led me to this moment; the first year book, the numerous articles for the college magazine, the dissertations and legal arguments – the thread which bound everything together was my love of words and writing. So here I am, I want to write and to serve through my writing – I’m doing it and it feels good. I’m feeling pretty aligned right now which is a feeling that’s quite incredible. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll write about but I’ll sit down and it all flows out – it isn’t dragged out or jostled along – I feel like a mechanism from which my inner creativity pours.
setting up our children
Maybe on some level as Asian parents we think that if we’ve put our children through university then in the eyes of society, we’ve properly discharged our parental duties. Forcing our children to study an academic qualification just to satisfy a checklist which we’ve had no input into is both an insult to the creativity of our children and is potentially damaging for their long term outcomes, including their mental health and sense of fulfilment.
If we accept that we all have at least one gifted talent, then forcing our child to compete with others for whom the area is one of interest, passion and purpose is setting them up to fail – because they’ll never have the edge those children have; the edge that comes from working alongside and harnessing your innate talent – the edge that makes work hardly feel like work.
are you excited?
So I’d invite you to ask yourself and encourage your children to do the same; what makes you excited? What things do you do that come so naturally to you you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you’ve always loved creating fusion food or drawing still life pictures; maybe you’re into animal welfare, writing poetry, applying make-up, creating handicrafts or creating a travel blog – whatever it is, it’s fine if it’s just a hobby and you’re happy with that.
But don’t rule out turning your hobby into something more just because you’re afraid it’s not the “done thing”. In the end, you are harnessing something within you which no-one else in the world can offer. Aren’t you even a little tempted to see the impact your talent could have on the world? Don’t wait for society to tell you to pursue your dreams; society praises results and likes predictability and conformity. If you ask others, they’ll ask why you want to upset the apple cart because presumably things are quite organised in your life (you have a regular income, a loving partner and maybe a kid or two – it’s all quite a pretty picture).
If I had any advice for my younger self it would be this: trust yourself and just try. It might work out, it might not – but you’ll always learn something about yourself from every experience and you can build on this.
“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be; embrace who you are.”
So if you’re thinking, where do I start? My humble advice is:
- Question your purpose.
- Carve a way to experiment with what you love, i.e. if you want to write, start a blog. If you like to paint, buy some paint and set aside one hour to just see what happens.
- Follow your instincts – how did the activity make you feel? Enjoy it? Then do it again.
It’s said that no-one ever regretted the things in life that they did; only what they didn’t have the courage to try.
Be brave and try; if we come to the world with nothing and leave in equal measure then by definition, you’ve literally nothing to lose.
Photo by jarmoluk on canva.com