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My Family Doesn’t Approve Of My Career—Now What?

Can’t shake the parental pressure and just do what you want? You’re not alone.

My Family Doesn’t Approve Of My Career—Now What?
[Photo: Alexa Mazzarello/Unsplash]

I often tell people I have fairly liberal parents, all things considered. As the child of Indian immigrants, it’s something I’ve come to appreciate, especially when it comes to my chosen career path. You could say my parents got catfished: When I went to college, I fancied myself the next Atul Gawande and chose to major in journalism while simultaneously striving for medical school, taking all the necessary pre-med coursework and even taking the MCAT.

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Over the years, my father has lodged many complaints over the exorbitant tuition costs he shouldered, but he has rarely, if ever, tried to steer me away from journalism. Then came my brother. (He asked that I not use his name since he’s still at his current job.) After graduating from UC Berkeley last year with a degree in computer science, he landed a software engineering job at a big tech company, which just so happens to be my dad’s place of work. But now, almost a year into his job, he’s mulling a career change that could lead him to journalism or arts criticism. My dad is not amused.

My brother majored in computer science for the same reason I wanted to go into medicine: They were stable, low-risk career paths. Our upbringing had implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—told us that was the right thing to do. But we both found that our hearts weren’t really in it.  For my brother it wasn’t just parental pressure; a career in tech or engineering seemed almost inevitable, he says, for an Indian-American guy growing up in Silicon Valley. It was easy to fall in line with his peers and friends, many of whom were also majoring in computer science and raring to work in tech. “Nobody laid out for me how I could go and get a decent job as an English major,” he says.

Choosing a career path your parents don’t approve of can be fraught with dashed expectations, a lack of mutual understanding, and, often, conditional support. For someone like my brother, the child of overeducated Indian immigrants, it’s also steeped in cultural baggage. Like many such immigrants, both of my parents come from modest backgrounds, which means stability is key. They worked hard to afford their progeny a certain lifestyle, and they want the same for their children as they enter adulthood and start families.

Bridging The Generational Gap

As career coach Kathy Caprino tells me, the generation gap between parents and their kids is often to blame for their disapproval; they may just not understand how lucrative new jobs can be. Caprino notes that her parents, too, valued stability over all else because they grew up during the Depression. That generation gap only widens when your parents quite literally grew up in a different country. “When you’re first generation, it’s hard to convince [your parents] of what you want to do because their dreams were so different,” my brother says.

One nascent industry many parents may struggle to understand is the legal marijuana market. The cannabis industry has caught the eye of many entrepreneurs, as marijuana has been decriminalized in more and more states over the past few years. But for many people of color, in particular, dabbling in cannabis has long been stigmatized, often out of a fear of conviction. Black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that white people reportedly use it just as much.

Ebony Costain, the founder and CEO of BDTNDR, a training platform for dispensary staffers and other marijuana workers, knows that all too well. When her company was accepted into the Canopy accelerator, which backs cannabis startups that don’t actually touch the plant, Costain had to move to Colorado, where Canopy is based. Costain and her husband made the decision not to tell his parents, who she says are more traditional and held government jobs before retirement.

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“They know I was accepted into a business accelerator, but I never told them specifically what it was for,” Costain says. “My husband’s idea was just to tell them that I’m going to California to be in a traditional business accelerator. So they don’t even know that I’m in Colorado. I’m going to eventually tell them what I’m doing, but I’m waiting until I receive more funding and have more dollars in the bank before I out myself.”

One of their chief concerns, she says, was that marijuana is still illegal in Virginia, where her in-laws live. Costain also cites the stigma and the “‘black folks get locked up for this’ mentality.”

Prior to getting into cannabis, Costain had quit a corporate job to launch a subscription box service called Ujamaa Box. At the time, Costain had worked in the corporate world for 10 years, and she was fed up. Both her in-laws and husband were unhappy about her decision to leave a stable, high-paying job, she says. “There was definitely a lot of resistance, especially from my husband, because I was kind of the breadwinner,” she says. “But I was miserable at my job. I had a two-hour commute. I just didn’t want to put myself in that situation anymore.” Costain claims her husband’s parents—his mom, in particular—didn’t totally understand entrepreneurship.

Imagine, then, what they might say about Costain being a cannabisentrepreneur. One way to address these types of conversations, according to both Caprino and executive coach Karen Elizaga, is to arm yourself with data. “Do the homework before going to talk to your parents,” Elizaga says. “It’s hard to argue with numbers. If you are going into something that the generation above us thinks is quite dodgy because of history, do your homework and look at the metrics, the returns on investment, and growth.”

She also points out that some of the skills you have honed may very well be transferrable. “You’re not selling your skills down the river,” Elizaga says, adding that even when they aren’t directly applicable, you’re not necessarily losing your existing skill set.

Creating Boundaries

My brother has long been ambivalent about computer science, which is part of the reason he also tacked on a cognitive science double major and creative writing minor during college. Even after graduation, he considered applying to jobs in the humanities, but my dad coaxed him out of it.

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That’s why, Caprino says, detaching yourself from your parents’ expectations should begin in college, or even in high school. Otherwise, expectations are set, checks signed, and with that, you might be headed into a career that you never really signed up for.

“It’s incredibly important that we begin even as early as choosing what you study and not being influenced by other people,” Caprino says. “And that’s incredibly hard because parents think they know better. They think they know what the good jobs are . . . I can’t tell you how damaging that is when, really, there’s no affinity for it, and there’s no interest or passion.”

Caprino believes the root of the issue is a lack of independence. “One of the issues is boundaries,” she says. “How much are we going to let our parents or other people dictate how we live? What we do is set a boundary. We understand what their reasons are; we listen to them. But then we have to be the ones to make decisions about our lives.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, and even more so when you feel boxed in by cultural norms. My brother often says he feels like he needs to make his career palatable to my dad, or that he needs to “prove himself.”

“Based on his life experience, he wants me to do certain things. Based on my life experience, I want to do certain things. Now there’s no way to rewrite our respective life experiences. But I can find something to do that’s a reasonable compromise for myself. In finding that, I can try to make it understandable to him. Ultimately it’s my life, but this person invested a lot in me.”

Being Disappointing Can Be Liberating

One way to fight that sense of obligation, health coach Catherine Chen says, is to just accept the fact that you may have to disappoint your parents—and that it’s okay to do so. “Disappointing your parents is hard because we grew up with kind of an incubator of what our careers should be, based on who we lived with and who we interacted with,” she says. “Naturally, it’s very jarring to make a decision that’s different from that, and at the same time, you want to honor that. So a good question to ask yourself is, well, if I were to continue on this path for 10 years, how happy would I be?”

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In my own experience, sometimes people just make assumptions about what their parents want from them. You may think your parents won’t be happy if you don’t follow in their footsteps simply because you never considered an alternative path.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘I ended up in this because dad wanted me to, and I didn’t know anything else!'” Caprino says. “A lot of it isn’t that your parents are forcing you. It’s that they’re giving you an idea or opportunity, and you realize you don’t have any other options.”

What can trap people is the idea—the pitfall, really—of achievement.  My brother often muses that things will change when he has “achieved” something in the career path he’s really interested in.

“If I was making things happen and doing well, dad would respect that,” he says. “What I’ve been trying to show him is that I need to have a period where I’m not doing something impressive.” This is what Chen calls achievement perfectionism. In other words, “I’m only worthwhile if I achieve to my highest level.” It’s something I can relate deeply to myself, and it’s hard to shake.

“The corollary to [achievement perfection] is if I don’t reach that high achievement, I’m not worthy of love or respect,” Chen says. “That can get people in a lot of trouble.” That feeling can also stop people from switching careers when they’re unhappy, if they associate change—and having to start over—with failure. The way forward, according to Chen? Clearly define what success means to you.

“What is it that you stand for?” Chen continues. “What’s important to you? Live according to those values, and align your choices with them. The personal definition of success is about what’s important to you, what meets your internal standards, and what lights you up.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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