Do your best where you are
What do you want to be when you grow up? Almost everyone was asked at least once while a child. Some of us are still trying to figure it out. The answer to that question is really about one’s ambition. But I am here to tell you no matter how big your ambitions are, don’t let them distract you from excelling in your current role.
I learned that lesson from my mother. Her childhood dream was to become an artist. She liked drawing, but her family couldn’t afford any drawing lessons for her. In addition, the Chinese government at that time divided Chinese people into “good” versus “bad” social classes. Communist party members and industrial workers were good; business owners, intellectuals, professionals and artists were bad. Being in a bad social class meant a lifetime of discrimination, harassment or even persecution. So my mother went to nursing school.
My mother’s graduation was a bittersweet moment. She didn’t have any input as to where she would live or for whom she would work. Instead, she was told by her school administrator that she had to move to a small city almost a thousand miles from her hometown. Her employer would be a small clinic.
Not all graduates shared the same fate as my mother. Some of her classmates were able to stay in Wuhan because they were either Communist Party members or members from a good social class with good connections. My mother was afraid to say no to her school administrator. Worrying about losing food rations forced many young people like my mother to accept any form of employment anywhere the government assigned them.
My mother worked at that small clinic for 17 years. She gave her best effort as a nurse and also taught herself to be a family doctor over the years. She became the best doctor they ever had, even though she didn’t receive a penny salary increase for 17 years. Before our family moved away in 1985, people who were cured by my mother took turns treating us to dinner. For three weeks, we didn’t have to cook a single meal.
My mother never gave up her childhood dream. When she retired in 2007, she picked up a paint brush and started painting. In 2013, I organized an exhibition of her art works in Denver. People loved her paintings so much that they bought almost everything. I included a photo of my mother’s painting in my book Confucius Never Said. My mother finally realized her childhood dream of being an artist, even though she had to wait for 60 years.
There’s a lot of talk these days about doing what you are passionate about. Based on what I learned from my mother, m thought is slightly different from the consensus. Doing what you love and making a good living is considered a luxury by many. I would never ask you to give up your dreams. But keep in mind that life often likes to throw a curve ball at you.
What if you don’t love what you are getting paid for right now? You have a choice to make: You can become bitter and blame others for not giving you what you want or what you think you deserve; you can take a huge risk to quit what you are doing and pursue your dream in a garage or basement, while being financially depending on someone else; or you can give your best effort at your current job while accumulating capital and experiences to prepare you for your true passion.
The choice is yours. So if you’re still wondering what you want to be when you grow up, I would encourage you to focus on giving your best efforts at your current job. As Mike Rowe said in his TED talk about “Dirty Jobs,” “Do what you can, with you have, no matter where you are.”