Chapter 11: Childhood Conditioning

Excerpt from “Diaries of My Older Sister”

The way your mind operates is largely conditioned by your past experiences as a child, when your brain was the most susceptible to influence and soaking up ideas like a sponge. A habit you developed at 7 years old can stay with you even at 30 years old. Having a near-death experience in a swimming pool when you are a kid can traumatize you for life and make you avoid water as a full-grown adult. That’s why looking back at the influences you received from your parents (and other authority figures in your childhood environment) may be crucial to understanding your current mentality. They impacted your brain and your mind’s stories in a major way through childhood conditioning. 

For example, in Asian cultures, filial piety or being respectful and obedient towards elders is the main virtue that parents teach their children. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with filial piety, but the darker side of this cultural norm comes to the fore when the elders start abusing their power to shame children into “proper” conduct. Pressure, punishment and guilt trips are the emotional tools often used by Asian parents to sculpt high-performing, over-achieving sons and daughters. Their lessons usually go along the lines of “Bring honor to your family through obedience and excellence. If you fail, you will bring dishonor. If you disobey, you will be punished. Succeeding is the only way to make us happy.” We are not talking treats for getting an A+ on an exam; it’s physical punishment over scoring anything less than an A or being grounded for months if you get caught hanging out with your boyfriend instead of studying. 

Back in the 90s, I remember being in some after-school program in Seoul where a Korean teacher in her early 30s literally beat my hands with the hard end of a wooden broom to discipline me whenever I incorrectly answered my math problems. Although hitting students is no longer allowed in South Korea, that’s just one example of an Asian culture that expects children to fear rules and elders to ingrain blind obedience toward authority in children. “You answered this algebra problem wrong? How could you be so stupid? Here’s some pain to make sure you don’t get it wrong again. I’m hitting you for your own good.” How thoughtful. 

I never questioned such Asian values growing up because I had internalized them as the “normal way” of living. Until my 20s, I seldom challenged my elders or parents and thought that obeying them and making them happy was always the “right” thing to do. Now that I’ve spent the last 20 years in the U.S., I feel very differently about those beliefs. It’s up to us to apply our learned thought patterns to situations only if they are relevant, and then discard them when they are not. It took me a very long time to break out of that traditional mold and to be able to look at my elders and parents objectively. You need to determine who and what they are, and especially, what their limitations are. 

I’m not saying that you should always disobey your parents and elders either. Of course there’s several situations where it’s best to follow their advice. However, sooner or later, you must learn how to do your own thinking. And when you do become a mature adult capable of making your own decisions, your parents who’ve raised you and led your decisions when you were a child are no longer the right people to continue forcing you in a certain direction. Like a pair of children’s shoes that no longer fit you because you’ve outgrown them, the childhood conditioning and rules set by your parents when you were just a kid need to be discarded as well. If our goal is to live a satisfying life as mature adults capable of making our own decisions, we cannot allow our parents or elders to order us around without questioning them—especially when the rules they have been asking you to blindly obey are based on their own personal limitations, biases and the imperfect childhood conditioning they inherited themselves. Then we would just be repeating the cycle. Somebody has to notice such cycles and stop them from repeating. 

The irony is that parents will continue to try to tell you what to do and how to live your life because they will always see their little baby when they look at you, often in the genuine belief that they know better than you. Your job as an independent adult is to filter their advice. The helpful advice stay. Ignore the rest. And it’s up to you to decide which is which. No more blind obedience or listening to them more than you listen to yourself. Look at them objectively. Is there a chance that their advice and comments are coming from their own inherited ideas of what’s right and wrong? 

Another example of what Asian cultures need to address is our story about how success is limited to a few prestigious professions based on social status and money. That is essentially a story fabricated by the previous generations and relayed to us through our parents and grandparents. And it’s completely understandable. The very first generations of Asian immigrants had almost zero career options in America and other countries abroad, except for manual labor or businesses like restaurants, laundromats and nail salons. Of course they wanted better lives for their children, and we cannot blame them for that. A life of stable income with a respected job title and high level of education is very different compared to a painful life of poverty with a job where nobody treats you with respect. Many of my Korean uncles and aunts suffered through that lower-class life and made sure to remind me often to learn from their hardship and study hard.

But the world is changing faster today than ever before. There are new occupations now that have more responsibility and future potential than the traditional paths that were held sacred before. There’s entrepreneurs, artists and innovators who are creating extraordinary value for the people around them while being completely unbound by a job title. In this age of rapid change and innovation, the best blueprint for success may not be the one that was fixed 50 years ago by our parents and grandparents. We are the ones who must adapt to and steer the world. We have to change it, so we can make it better than the world in which our parents lived before, not succeed solely based on their old rules. 

I’m not advocating that you quit med school, law school, graduate program or whatever career path you are actively involved in. If it’s a path that motivates you to live a purpose-driven life, then by all means, go study what inspires you and throw yourself 100% into your profession. I am advocating however that the decision to choose your life path come from you, and you only. And if that decision turns out to be a bad fit for you, then you have every right and responsibility to change your course at any point in your life. Granted, you must give enough time to a chosen career path before you make a major switch; otherwise you will be wasting time and money jumping back and forth between different paths, never deciding on anything in particular. But limiting yourself to a few career choices, just because of your parents’ wishes, I feel is completely illogical. You must choose for yourself and find out for yourself what is best for you. 

I do want to emphasize one thing: Our parents are not the problem. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I owe so much to both my parents. My mother is a strong single mother who raised my sister and me as the sole breadwinner of the family in a foreign country. We do have to recognize that our parents are not perfect, but we must still love, forgive and respect them. They did their best with whatever they knew and had at the time. Challenging the mindset of our community and developing a healthy mindset has less to do with disobeying our parents and more to do with identifying and fighting for what’s best for everyone. Be aware that faulty stories can seep into your mind through your childhood influences from your parents and family members, but do not blame them needlessly. Now that we recognize those influences as adults, it’s time to let go of past issues and move toward a better direction together. 

If you are currently a college or high school student who’s grown up with the traditional Asian mindset and are afraid of challenging your parents, I urge you to start learning how to think for yourself. It doesn’t mean disobey your parents every chance you get, but it does mean you start developing your own internal compass for how you want to navigate your own life. At the end of the day, if you let anybody else including your parents dictate your life, the one who will suffer the most, if they turn out to be wrong, is you. If you do not start this process of thinking for yourself early on, then you may end up as a full-grown adult who’s completely directionless while still toiling away in the same hamster wheel set up by your parents who may no longer be alive. By taking control of your own life decisions, you can start learning today how to be more responsible. It’s scary but liberating at the same time. If you are wrong, it’s on you. And if you are right, that’s on you as well. 

Rather than just blindly assuming that your parents are the best equipped to make your career decisions, start by choosing your own major and classes. Rely on mentors and peers around you to gather the most accurate information; I even encourage you to find different mentors for different reasons. For example, find a mentor you can rely on for career advice, and then find another mentor for relationship advice. The possibilities are endless if you keep your eyes open. Base your decisions on facts, latest information and your personal strengths and then be ready to experiment and change course if something doesn’t feel like the right fit. When it comes to choosing a career path, research what kind of topics you are naturally curious about learning, what kind of problems you are naturally good at solving, what kind of mentors you would like to learn from and what kind of projects inspire you. 

Don’t be discouraged because you can’t seem to figure out everything on your own right away. You are not supposed to. Take your time, learn from trial and error and experiment again and again while asking for mentorship from others. You will get to where you want to be in small steps. Trust the process and work patiently on figuring out your unique self-potential.  

(Above is a venn diagram of a model to find your career “happy place.” It highlights the intersection of the three overlapping circles: the problems and needs of the world, things that inspire and empower you (i.e., your passions and inspirations), and your skill sets (i.e. your personal talents). This was created by Scott McGregor, one of my professional mentors from Cisco Systems in North Carolina) 

I also don’t recommend you blindly follow the “follow your passion” advice, which is often misunderstood by people who think that following their passion allows them to do whatever they want without thinking about the consequences, like impulsively setting up a dessert shop in a town that’s already saturated with dessert options, or trying to make a living as an exotic dancer in a town that could care less about exotic dancing. You wanting to do what makes you happy is important, but you must be willing to put in the effort necessary to ensure that you are providing something valuable to the people around you and endure the consequences when things don’t turn out to be as rosy as you initially imagined. In business terms, you must achieve the right “product-market fit” with the world around you. Whatever service, product or value you want to offer to the world to make an impact, you must gauge its potential by how well you will be able to serve the people in that community as well as how much demand it will generate. A better advice in my opinion may be “follow your passion responsibly under a few conditions.” We might want to encourage the next generation to follow their passions and pursue what they are inspired by as long as (and this caveat is crucial) they also satisfy certain criteria similar to below: 

  1. Stand on your own two feet while following your passion. Don’t completely rely on other people, such as your parents, to carry your financial burden during the pursuit of your dreams. 
  2. Be mature enough to persevere for years to make your dream come true and accept failure when it doesn’t.
  3. Make sure that the success of your passion actually results in providing concrete value to the community around you. 

Lastly, I want to mention that a degree from an Ivy League university is not always synonymous with lifelong success, like Asian parents often believe. In fact, in his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell specifically mentions the dangers of the “small fish in a big pond” scenario where being in an environment full of people seemingly more accomplished than yourself can actually make you less motivated to try your best due to relative deprivation and feelings of inferiority. We have more than enough examples in history where a person from humble origins ended up becoming the best, most highly regarded leader of his or her respective discipline, even though they didn’t have the most prestigious academic background (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs come to mind). The typical Asian parents’ focus on an Ivy League education is overhyped and disproportionate compared to their lack of focus in teaching children how to think independently and outside the box—the very qualities that are essential for future leadership, creativity and imagination. And it was Albert Einstein who said, “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

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