Episode 1 | Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
Welcome to Rock The Boat, a podcast about Asian Americans charting unconventional career paths. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, creative, or someone who’s looking to break through a few ceilings, this podcast was made for you.
We’re your hosts Lucia Liu and Lynne Guey.
Below is the audio transcript for Episode 1, lightly edited for clarity:
Lynne: Thanks for tuning in and joining us on this journey and boy, has it been a journey. For our first episode, we wanted to take you back to the beginning to how this all started, and share why we think it’s so important for Asian Americans to have platforms like these to share our stories.
We’ll give you a sneak peek of some of our season 1 guests, and you’ll get to hear from some very special people -- our parents. Hope you’re ready!
Lucia: To help you understand how this project of ours began, it’s important to talk about how we were brought up. Lynne and I are both first and second generation immigrants. Lynne’s Taiwanese, I’m Chinese, and we both come from very academic families.
This meant that education and holding a professional career was the top priority. Not pursuing a prestigious career at a reputable company or getting into a top profession like medicine, law, or finance was a cardinal sin.
However, as we entered the brink of our 30s and looked back on our zigzag careers - 9 different industries, 7 different roles, and 6 different companies ranging from fortune 500s to startups to the government - we realized that we felt stuck in our day jobs. We couldn’t find resources or a network to rely on for answers about our careers.
When I listened to startup podcasts, I couldn’t find any Asian American voices, and when I looked around my network I had a hard time finding Asian Americans who were creatives, entrepreneurs, or in upper management positions at Fortune 500s. Even in the media, too often we see Asian Americans portrayed as the model minority. We’re seen as quiet, studious, and utterly uncreative. We all know that's not true.
So, Lynne and I got together to create Rock The Boat. The idea was to start a platform where Asian Americans can share their unconventional career stories, open a dialogue around the things we don’t usually talk about like mental health and civic engagement, and shed light on the plethora of professions available to those of us who are curious.
We figured with Lynne’s background in journalism and my entrepreneurial enthusiasm, this was going to be easy. Right?
Lynne: Armed with passion and determination, we decided to interview our first guests. Our parents! They didn’t have unconventional careers but we thought that by interviewing them, we could get their perspective on our project. I started with my Dad.
He’s an engineer and like many immigrant parents, he and my mom always preferred that I go the more academic, career route. Fields like law, engineering, medicine could be quantified. And my parents’ laser-focused education in Taiwan taught them to associate rigor, discipline, and prestige with these fields. Perhaps most importantly, these fields could provide a steady paycheck, unlike that of the “soft” humanities. So my dad’s career advice to me isn’t much of a surprise.
Lynne's Dad: You gotta earn your own keep. I feel in my life I try to do that…
… the other thing is to be a little more practical, down to earth
My dad isn’t much for the idealism of our age: living for one’s passion and finding one’s purpose. He received his Ph.D in risk analysis from MIT...so he weighs the risks in every scenario.
Lynne's Dad: “You can draw a decision tree and you don’t have to quantify each individual decision…I would say all accidents are preventable from an engineering standpoint. Something you can control.”
For my dad, making decisions was more like a risk management exercise than listening to your gut. So me choosing to study journalism in college was like entering the red zone…
Lynne: At the same time, for all his practicality, I think my Dad does understand the importance of following your curiosity. If you look at our garage, it is stacked with shelves and shelves of books. He's a true bibliophile. Or more precisely logophile: lover of words. When my middle sister Wendy won the National Spelling Bee over 12 years ago, the first and still only East Asian to do so, my Dad’s passion for words truly came alive.
Lynne's Dad: “All you have to do is learn one more word. If you can survive one more word than other people, then you’re the champion…”
Lynne: He became her quasi-spelling bee coach quizzing her on words. He treated it not as a rote memory exercise, but as a puzzle to be solved. With each word, there was a story to be told. A root stemming from an origin language, a part of speech, definition, context for how it should be used in a sentence. All of these were clues to be collected and then interpreted and should you interpret them correctly - you'd spell the word and advance to the next round.
Lynne's Dad: How do you do that? It takes some extraordinary effort. People who spend one hour and get this far; you probably have to spend two hours. I mean, that's just the way it is and no way around it.
There’s no royal road to “Hey, I can master this thing. Oh, I can just get into this by osmosis.” There's no such thing. I guess you have to struggle, get out of your comfort zone, and be able to struggle and figure it out yourself.”
Lynne: Last year, I left my stable job of over four years up at the City Economic Development Corporation with just a small bit of savings and no job lined up. As you can imagine, my parents were slightly bewildered. They never had the luxury to take time off. The thought of not working to them was unfathomable. But looking back to when I made my decision, I couldn't deny this gnawing feeling that I was misaligned between the life I was living and the life I wanted. In some ways, I didn't even know what that meant. All I knew was that something needed to change.
So, I freed myself from the constraints to get clear on what I wanted. It was six months of exploring a random mishmash of things: getting a yoga teacher certification, traveling to the Middle East, writing more often. I even dove into the wacky world of blockchain. Stripped of my usual identity markers, I had no other compass to follow but my curiosity.
This may sound strange, but I think I was following my Dad's advice all along - getting out of my comfort zone and struggling - because sometimes staying where you are in a job that you don't enjoy is easier than getting out of it and wrestling with life's important questions: questions about who you are, what you stand for, and what you're uniquely made to do.
I'm still figuring it out. I think we all are.
But I now see this journey to self-discovery and greater fulfillment in our work as a gift, a gift from our parents who didn't have as many choices and struggled so that we could then have a choice. And it's a gift I don't take lightly.
Meanwhile, Lucia was across the globe interviewing her parents.
Lucia: When I flew back to Shanghai, I took the opportunity to tell my parents about Rock The Boat. I recorded their responses.
Lucia's Mom: Hi. Hello, I'm Jennifer. I'm Lucia's Mother.
Lucia: Dad: Do you want to introduce yourself?
Lucia's Dad: Hi. Hello. This is Jian, Lucia’s Father.
Lucia: To give you some background on my upbringing, I feel like one of the lucky few Asians. My parents never pushed me hard to become a doctor or a lawyer. Even though I did well in school, they never pressured me in academics and always respected my decisions.
I also want to note that I am an only child and am very close with my parents. Even though they never stopped me from doing anything I wanted to do growing up, I still wanted their approval.
Lucia’s Mom: I bring you to America, I just want you to have a better life, a better education.
Lucia: My parents, like many other immigrant parents, came to America penniless. My father borrowed $2000 from my uncle to come to the States for his Ph.D in electrical engineering. My mom gave up her career and her Masters degree to take care of me. She always told me her biggest regret in life was not having a career of her own. She encouraged me to find a stable job. But that morning, when she gave me her support and her blessing, it brought me to tears.
Do what you like to do. You don’t need to be like us. At that time we need to struggle for the better life. Right now you stand on our shoulders, we are your support.
At that time we don’t have support. Right now you have very strong support. I just want you to be happy. You don’t have to do something you don’t like just for the living. - Lucia's Mom
Lucia: Just as Lynne said earlier, it’s easy to go on with life slugging away at a job with no meaning, wishing or hoping things would get better.
I think my dad understands this. 8 years ago he started a technology company building sensors and lasers. It wasn’t a successful venture; there were many ups and downs, layoffs, restructures. My dad had even stepped down as CEO, but what I admired most about him was that he never gave up. Still, today, he’s fighting the good fight, raising a series A for the company. When I asked my Dad what his expectations were for me, he said:
You are our life extension. We do hope you can do better than us. A lot better than us. In every aspect. More happy, more better life, more better career, more kids.
Lynne: There’s a popular quote attributed to Sir Isaac Newton. He writes, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
For us, we stand on our family’s shoulders and because of the sacrifices they’ve made, we are able to climb higher on Maslow’s ladder to reach self-actualization.
If you haven’t heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Maslow is an American psychologist who developed a pyramid of needs that started with the most basic needs of food and shelter. The following tiers encompass higher needs like belonging and self-esteem. His theory is that the most basic needs must be satisfied before anyone can pursue the higher echelons of the pyramid. At the pinnacle of the pyramid is sel