A personal reflection on my academic and professional career in the past few years.
“How are your grades going, Jenny? Will you pass? Please don’t change your degree again,” my mum asks, with a worried face. This is a question that comes up every two weeks or so, especially after my 2nd degree change.
They say that the middle child is the rebellious one. As the middle child, by the Chu’s family standards, I was probably the most rebellious one out of my two brothers. My older brother, in his youth, was obedient and hard-working. Moving from China to Australia at a young age gave him a slow start but through hard work and perseverance, he ended up getting a top ATAR and finished with a Commerce/Law degree , which is a tick in most Asian parents’ books. My little brother, still in high school, is a little lost and demotivated as most 16 year old boys would be about life, but helps around the house. He’s looking to pursue engineering at university, so again, another tick.
As a young child I was on a pretty good trajectory. Becoming the Dux of my primary school, winning art competitions, being the lead flute player amongst sometimes qualifying for regional athletics carnival meant that my everyone thought I would be the golden child. Even though I would yell “Mum, Dad, I don’t want to be a lawyer or doctor! I want to be a fashion designer!” in the car, my parents still had high hopes for me as their “perfect Asian daughter” as they were sure they can convince me that the doctor way is the only way.
Era of failing to meet expectations
I managed to get into an academically gifted high school, where my so-called “academic prowess” started to dwindle. In preparation for the university exam, we had to choose our own subjects. I told my dad that I was going to choose Visual Arts, Society & Culture and Ancient History, to which he swiftly said “no, you are not, you are going to choose Physics, Chemistry and Economics”. Despite not getting straight A’s, I was still trying to be their perfect Asian daughter, so I decided to listen to him. Little did I know, my Economics teacher would tell me at the end of Year 11 (along with my friend Nancy) that I should probably get my act together or get myself kicked out of the course. I begged her not to, not because I liked Economics at all, but because my performance in Physics and Chemistry was actually worse.
Being in an academically gifted school made it difficult for me to thrive. Frankly, it was a shock for me (and my parents) to be the top of my class in primary school to being below average in high school. Rather than trying to do something productive about it, like try harder, I just pretended that I was OK with being less than average. From there, I decided it was easier to just settle for being mediocre, because failure hurts less if there are no expectations to begin with.
Low marks, lower confidence
Thinking that life could only go uphill from the HSC, university came. Like most confused second-generation Asian person, my university and degree choices were heavily influenced by my parents. So of course, I chose to pursue a career in Optometry, because according to my parents, it’s a “great job for girls”, as it will enable me to be a mother in the future while still getting steady income. 🤔 I mean, look, I was convinced that I was not good enough to make it out there as a designer anyway, so why the hell not?
As a budding 18 year old, I was quickly met with two “failures” within the course of a year.
- Failed to get into Optometry because I couldn’t get the marks. I enrolled in the Bachelor of Advanced Science, majoring in Vision Science to get in through, as an alternative pathway.
- Failed two courses (technically passed, despite the mark being below 50), so I definitely didn’t get into Optometry in my second year.
At the end of my first year, I remember sitting at my desk, with my face in my hands, stressed, unhappy and wanting to run away. I thought, “well fuck, Jenny, at this rate, you’re never going to finish your degree, let alone even get into Optometry, what the heck are you going to do?” Feeling an all-time low meant that I immediately paid $100+ to take the leap to transfer degrees to pursue a creative career in design, because at least if I fail, I would at least fail doing what I liked. I was honestly desperate to stop feeling so shit.
The scariest thing I have ever done
Jumping off a plane? Swimming with sharks? Getting lost in the woods with no food or water? Sorry to disappoint, but the scariest thing I have ever done was nothing like that. To this date, the scariest thing I have ever done was to change my degree from Optometry to Commerce/Design.
And why in the world was that scary? Look, the main thing that was really scary was the fact that I was pursuing a career in design. Translating that to my parents essentially meant that they believed I was ready to be a starving artist and giving up a career with steady income. I combined it with Commerce to try and soften the blow, despite believing that I would never ever do anything related to Commerce. It was the scariest thing I have ever done, simply because I was convinced that my parents would believe that I am a failure, and as someone that loves her parents very much to not disappoint them, that was the scariest thing.
The best thing I have ever done
Stuck within the belief that I wasn’t talented enough to get the nice jobs in design, I was desperate to not live up to my parent’s perception of the “starving artist”. That’s why, before I even started my first year in my new degree, I knew that I needed experience. I needed something more than just raw design talent. So, of course, I started to look for internship roles, and I didn’t really care if they didn’t pay me. I still had my part-time job at a chemist, so I wasn’t really looking for money. That’s when my good friend David, tagged me on a post in our favourite Facebook Group, UNSW Free Food, on an internship ad where they were looking for a food blogger. At that time, I had a food blog, Jenny Chews, the one thing I actually enjoyed working on in first year, so I thought, why the hell not?
Miraculously, I was thrown into the world of startups and technology, at that very company, You Chews (now acquired by Yordar), without even knowing a single bit about startups. This girl just wanted free food. Funnily, I ended up writing one food blog in the two years that I have been there. I proudly became their first employee, their “General Manager” (only because I kind of just did everything, not really because I had a massive team to manage), worked on my first ever UX project, and well, the rest is history.
Changing degrees, though it is the scariest thing I have ever done, it is also the best thing I have ever done. It wasn’t really the fact that I was pursuing design, something I loved. In fact, I actually dropped out of design school after 1.5 years, because I didn’t really find it valuable. The reason why it was the best thing I have ever done was because it led me to the startup world, where everyone took way bigger leaps than I did to pursue their own passion. Inspired by the amazing founders and innovators of past, present and future, I was no longer scared about failure. What’s scarier to me now is the fact that I will regret it if I don’t even try.
A changed mindset
Personality-wise, I am still the same Jenny. However, the way that I look at myself and the world around me has drastically changed. Don’t get me wrong – everything changed slowly and honestly, quite painfully. The last 3 years has been extremely challenging in its own ways, but I have learnt to at least try to face every challenge with all my might. In no way, did I ever do this myself. I had the amazing support of my parents (they eventually came through), friends, partner and colleagues, who believed in me way before I believed in myself. And towards them, I am eternally grateful.
To those who are a bit “stuck”
I don’t really want to tell others what to do, since everyone has their own story. However, if there is one piece of advice that I would give to others who feel a bit “stuck”, is to start off with something you like. That thing may not be what you expected, but at the very least, you have a starting point. Life is crazy and you will never know what will happen.
So, what’s next, Jenny?
This is probably the most common question any graduate gets. Truth is, we are so obsessed with what is “next”. Whether it is a promotion, getting married or something else. Many young people try to plan every single thing to ensure we reach that “goal”, when the environment changes so rapidly. This becomes the source of a lot of millennial’s anxieties, especially when some of those plans fail, because well, my degree would teach me that most plans, do fail.
One of my favourite takeaways from the book, The Art of Possibility, is summed up perfectly here:
“In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.” — Benjamin Stone Zander, Author of the Art of Possibility
So the answer is really simple: I don’t really know, I rather live in the universe of possibility.
Okay, well if you want to know the real answer… I’ll be starting my full-time adult life at Atlassian, starting my Associate Product Management program. But, seriously, beyond that, who the heck knows what I might be doing next year? I might still be at the company or opening my own stationery, florist cafe with my mates.