Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Approaching life with blinders on

Have you heard of the famous marshmallow test, where researchers left a kid alone in a room with a marshmallow and told him/her that if he or she were willing to wait for 5 minutes, he/she could have a second marshmallow (also see video)? Well, I feel like the kid who not only waited the 5 minutes, but even when the adult came back and told me that there was no second marshmallow, that I should just eat the one I had in front of me, I insisted that if I keep waiting, something better would come along. And when it never comes after many years, I blame that adult for lying to me about the second marshmallow.

Am I "successful"? Well, by conventional definition, I guess achieving a PhD and holding a high tech job in a foreign country counts as success. But truth is, I feel totally lost. I had wanted to do my graduate degree here 8 years ago, but my mother said no, so I didn't come. In reality, the grad schools here pay grad students so well that I could have come anyways without my parents' approval. But it seems like I never got the concept of what constitutes independence from parents. When I got my first job out of university, my whole family laughed at how little money I made. My sister and brother-in-law did it because they've been both berated by their parents for not working harder in school and not achieving university degrees. Even when my sister was making quite a good living as a salesperson for health supplement products, mother still made her feel like she would always be an unworthy human being because of her low education level. I on the other hand, got the impression that Bachelor degree jobs are just child's play (even though my lowly salary was enough for me to be financially independent). Also my first job was meant to be a stepping stone or testing ground, rather than what I was going to do for the rest of my life. but my family didn't understand that and made me feel insecure about my state of being. So I quit, moved back home, and applied for grad school.

Instead of 3 years, as my supervisor said to lure me into doing a PhD program, it took me 6 years to complete the degree, with the last 3 years being extremely frustrating and unproductive. However, all my attention was still focused on completing the graduate degree. While other people my age were finding secure jobs, getting married, buying houses, having children, etc., I had one fixed goal of "completing school", and simply didn't think much about anything else. I actually knew that you can't get a good job straight away after completing a PhD, that postdocs are the highest educated cheap labors in the world, I still didn't reconsider. I mean, 3 years into my graduate program - if I quit, I would have nothing to show for what I worked on for 3 years. I would be considered as a slacker who failed in her degree program. At some point even my parents were saying that school's not so important; I should try to get married and settle down - not my plan in life at the time, but the point was, I should have downgraded the goal of "completing my degree" and gave my future more serious thoughts. But I didn't.

So here I am, working in a beautiful city, getting paid more than my first job out of college, but all my friends have jobs that pay better. But does pay even matter? I can survive pretty well on my own with my salary. I can't afford a car or a house with my salary, but these things have ever been very big on my list of desires anyways. My colleagues were asking the other day if I wanted to stay here. I answered that my contract ends in 1.5 years. They didn't think it would be too difficult for me to find another position or some extend my contract some other way. That's very nice of them to think so, but I've been anxious the whole time I've been here that I haven't demonstrated that I am worthy of my salary. So do I want to be here for longer given this piece of information? I have no idea! I'm so used to not being allowed to get I want that I just assume the world is against me so why bother thinking about it... Just go along with the flow and be okay with what I can get... Except I'm never fully okay with just that either.

I don't know if I've gotten across how confused I am. Right now I cannot disentangle what are things personally want vs. what are things my parents want, and why I want those things. Have I always wanted to do so much schooling, or was getting a higher degree simply a way to earn more respect in the family? I am not a materialistic person, so the reason I want to make a lot of money is solely because I want to gain respect from my family and I want to feel financially secure/independent. Deep down I am still anxious my mother is still laughing at me for making so little money with a PhD degree. She used to put a lot of money in my joint account with them, and sometimes take the money out unannounced. It is very unnerving to see your bank account values fluctuate like that and you have no control over it. It also makes you feel like what's the point of working if you parents can just hand you a year's worth of salary and tell you to do something else. I was a total puppet under my mom's financial games. If my parents hadn't made me feel this way, I could have tried a little harder to try different jobs after my B.Sc. and gotten a better sense of what I wanted to do with my life. I was so anxious about being disapproved that I jumped into grad school because it meant at least 3 years of not having to think about the future.

As for work, I've accidentally gotten myself into a country that is hard to get in, but once you are in (esp. With an advanced degree), they don't just kick you out either. I got the impression that if I want to stay here long term, I just need to get along with the people and they will help me work something out. Here's another major concept that I got wrong all along: I thought getting a job is all about your basket of hoarded skill sets, and how amazing you are at accomplishing everything that's asked of you. Turns out you only need to be "good enough" for the job, rather than "totally amazing". So it is more important that an employee's personality fits with the culture of the company. So that's what I should focus on rather than keeping my blinders on focusing only on my job tasks, although at the moment I am totally unhappy with my own performance so it's a juggling act for me to balance socializing and learning the skill set to complete my project.

They say that one feels happy at his/her job if position provides a good challenge but is not overly difficult. There's no such thing as a non-challenging research job. I feel like I am barely competent enough to do my job and there are soooooo many people out there who are much better than me. I will have to try to calm my nerves and put my energy into learning rather than beating myself up on how much I suck even after all these years (or because of too many years) in school. I'm destined to not lead the "standard" life, given how my overly idealistic thinking is all over the place and totally non-conventional. I should give further thoughts to exactly what I want and can accomplish in life given my IQ, EQ, social intelligence and (in)ability to handle stress, not just accept what others say I could/should accomplish given my grades in school, which says nothing about my competence level in real jobs anyways.

The world looks so confusing now that I've taken my "focus on school" blinders off. The strategies that would make sense in a Taiwanese culture are unnecessary or do not apply in a Scandinavian culture. The economy is changing, company structures are changing; I just have to stopping being anxious about not being prepared enough and take the challenges as they come. Easier said than done though.

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