What do I want?

Separating my passions from the influence of other people

Ive+struggled+with+trying+to+define+my+own+passions+separately+from+what+Im+told+that+I+should+want.+

Graphic by April Wang

I’ve struggled with trying to define my own passions separately from what I’m told that I should want.

April Wang, Staff Writer

Early last year, my parents surprised me with a wonderful birthday present: a college counselor.

What fun.

After I put the looming and inescapable anxiety of having to actually get my life together aside, our first few meetings weren’t too bad — I just filled out questionnaires, with questions like “What are your hobbies?” and “What is your favorite subject?” Those were easy. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves?

Then, my counselor asked me, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” I opened my mouth, happy to spout more random trivia, and just … stopped.

Which is weird, because clearly the answer was “I’m going to go to an Ivy League school and get a PhD in Computer Science and secure a comfortable job at a big tech company where lunch is paid for and snack bars are everywhere!”

… right?

I’ve always turned to the people I trusted — most notably my parents — to guide me. I held their words close to my heart, internalizing them as my own thoughts because I knew, to some degree, that they were right. I took the math classes that they signed me up for because they constantly reminded me that I was smart enough to get ahead. I took the programming courses that they recommended because my parents constantly sang praises about the benefits of their jobs in the tech industry. I quit creative writing and art and choir because I knew that I needed to focus on what they called my “useful” classes. Every decision that I made, I made while asking myself, “What would they recommend? What would they want for me?” Their success and experiences, in my mind, were like a rulebook that I could follow for an easy life. I truly believed that I was fine with the plans that were laid out for me.

Yet I couldn’t remember a single moment, not from my math classes or my programming projects or robotics events, where I could tell myself, “I would be happy dedicating my life to this.”

My parents have always told me, “It’s up to you, in the end. We just want you to be happy.” They have never forced me to do anything, but they talked so much about their rags to riches stories that I couldn’t see any other choice as viable. It was simple, effortless even, to just do what they encouraged me to do: work hard on STEM, attend a prestigious college, get a six-figure job, and live a life of luxury.

Graphic by April Wang

When I started working on summer camp applications last year, I was still hoping for a future in computer science or engineering. As I answered the questions on each application, I spouted paragraph after paragraph about how programming taught me to be more persistent, or how I started teaching speech classes because I loved helping my community. Yet when I finally began to proofread my answers, I realized that I couldn’t care any less about what I had written. Almost every single word I had put down was a lie, just word vomit pulled from a vault of information that my brain had on writing good applications. No interesting discoveries. No passionate backstories. Nothing but plain black letters on a white screen describing the image of a stranger and not me.

Through months of rejection emails and awkward counselor meetings, I floundered in the blank space of my mind, searching for an answer to my counselor’s question — where did I see myself in 10 years? Not “What will my parents want?” or “What is the path that will give me the most money and success?” but “What do I want?”

And somewhere, in a forgotten corner of my mind, I found that it was a question that I could answer. I knew that I wanted to try painting with gouache paint. I knew that I wanted to try creating art with unusual mediums. I knew that I wanted to start creative writing again. I had so many small wishes that I had completely buried under the influence of my parents, so when my desires became clear, I couldn’t help but turn them into my dreams.

After last summer, I started taking art classes again, asked my counselor for popular design programs and bought a drawing tablet. I sat my parents down and told them “I want to pursue art.” They weren’t exactly thrilled. But the keywords were “I want.”

Graphic by April Wang

People can take classes they don’t like, do jobs they don’t like, and fake their way to success and happiness. I did that too, for 15 years. But it’s better to shape your life around what you love, not what other people believe is best. Be a little selfish, because regardless of what your parents or friends or teachers may tell you about stability and money and happiness, your life is not worth being wasted on the endless quest to fill a bottomless void of apathy with the belief that you’ll be happy in the future.

Finally being able to define my own passions was scary, to be honest. Even now, I have doubts and fears about upending my previously permanent four-year plan. And yet, I have never been happier.