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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Don't Follow Other People's Recipes for Your Life

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day (observed on the first Monday in September) is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers.

I thought this would be a great time to reflect on and share about my own journey of how I struggled (psychologically, academically, bi-culturally) to enter the American workforce.

Someone asked this question: "Did anyone tell you what you should be when you grow up? How did you respond?"

Here's my response . .

My Vietnamese parents told me that I was to be a physician. Actually, they didn't even "tell" me. They just started planning out my future: medical school → physician → success.

And, because I was completely clueless about what I wanted to do with my life at 18, I went along with it.

For much of my undergraduate college years, I was taking pre-med classes (to meet the requirements to sit for and take the medical school entrance exam) that I hated and my unhappiness even made its way into other classes that I liked and my grades suffered.

I was so lost, so afraid, and so alone. I was lost because I knew what I didn't like (i.e., medicine) but clueless about what I did like. Even though I knew that I shouldn't be following my parents' advice about being a physician, I was too afraid to do anything about it. So I stayed the course, knowing deep down in my soul that I was not meant to be on that road. Worst of all, I felt utterly alone. Many, if not most, of my Asian-American college friends knew exactly (or at least they didn't show it) the path they were on and preparing for: to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, etc.

I was so lost and so scared that I didn't know who to turn to for help. And I was too embarrassed to share with anyone that I was lost and needed help. I even took a career assessment at the career center at my university. It didn't help. One of the suggested careers was accounting! Trust me when I tell you, you do not want me as your accountant. As proof, many years later, when my tax advisor prepared my taxes, I didn't give a hoot what he said or did or how he arrived at this or that number. Instead, I showed up for the free balloon! Of course, I pretended it was because my daughter wanted the balloon.

So, being paralyzed by the fear of not knowing as well as the fear of speaking up for myself, I went along up until just a few months before taking the MCAT (medical school entrance exam). My parents had hired a tutor to help me with advanced chemistry because I was really struggling. Somehow, at the last minute, I FINALLY mustered up enough courage to call the tutor and let her know that I wouldn't be taking the MCAT because I never wanted to go to medical school. I was in my third year of college at the time.

In that moment, a HUGE sense of relief and fear came over me. I had freed myself from following my parents' recipe for my future career. At the same time, however, I knew that I was now in uncharted territory and the fear of the unknown was terrifying.

It would take MANY years of headaches, heartaches, false starts, failures, zigzags, and U-turns, for me finally find my way, but FIND I did.

The lesson I learned is this: It's your life and you must live your life and follow your truth, no matter how long your journey takes and how many zigzags and U-turns you have to make.

If I had not stopped long enough to listen to my heart's yearnings for adventure, excitement, and something different and left Dallas, Texas and taken that job in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) doing crisis management training back in 2004, I would not have a beautiful daughter today because I would have never met my wife (who had left Japan to work abroad).

I love this quote: “The twists and turns of your life can be so unexpected, and that’s a good thing to learn.” -Christina Baker Kline (American novelist)

"It took me a LONG time to finally realize that you shouldn't follow other people's recipes for your life. No matter how great their recipe or roadmap might be, it's theirs and not yours." -Steve Nguyen, PhD

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader



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