by Toni (Tong) Liu
Have you ever gone into something with clashing emotions, your head says yes, but your heart says no?
Growing up, all my school autobiographies said I was going to be an artist. Until a distinct shift in 8th grade, when it became “artist or doctor.”
From then on, “…or doctor” was tagged on at the end of all my sentences about my future. My parents were both doctors. They were proud of their careers. I knew they meant well; they wanted a stable life for me, and for me to follow in their footsteps, as they felt it was the best and noblest profession ever.
Making Your Greatest Life Choices
Doctors saved lives. Doctors made a difference in the world. Doctors were respected. But most of all, doctors were always needed; you would never be jobless. Jobless = homeless, failure, bum.
The Chinese culture, among many others, is achievement-oriented. If you do not achieve, you have little worth as a human being. Mistakes are not well-tolerated. Failure is hushed and unspoken, swept under the rug if it does occur.
As a result, we can become so afraid of failure that we don’t take chances anymore. We play it safe if we can. We can lead very stable lives, even happy ones. No issues at all from the outside. But when it comes to doing justice to our souls and who we were meant to be, such lives are mediocre. They sell ourselves short.
As a child, life is simple. You do what you love. You have the freedom to do that. You don’t care about what other people think, or how this action is going to benefit you. You just do it for the pure enjoyment of it.
As we transition into independence and adulthood, more issues arise. How to pay the bills. How to survive. How to find our place in this world that demands everyone be sorted into distinct little boxes, defined by our careers.
It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where jobs are not all equal. In some fields, such as art or music, if you’re not “good enough,” you can’t “make it” and you might end up starving on the streets. Then there are the other jobs that are always in demand, the safer ones.
So one of your life choices, like choosing a career is no longer simply about doing what you love. Some have to grapple between being true to themselves and being “realistic” in assessing the risk and chances of “success.”
I felt this pressure throughout most of my life. I did not want to be a burden to my family if I tried and failed at a higher risk job. I frequently heard comments that I would be living in a box on the streets if I tried to make art my career. “You can work part-time at a ‘real job’ and still do art on the side!”
And there were my own voices of fear and self-doubt as well, stemming from my poor self-esteem from years of not taking even small risks to become more comfortable with mistakes and failure. “You’re not good enough.
There are so many other talented artists out there. Do you really think you have what it takes?”
So I pushed my all own feelings and needs aside. I tried to be purely logical. Doctor by day, artist by night. That’s a fine life. …Right? I applied to a combined college-medical school program. It was easy enough to enunciate reasons in my essays why I wanted to serve the world as a doctor. It’s easy to write from the head.
When I interviewed, they never asked me about my reasons. If they had, I feel they would have seen right away that my heart was not in it. They would have heard it in my voice, seen it on my face. Instead, we spent the whole interview talking about my love of drawing and sharing my artwork.
I was dumbfounded when I got the acceptance letter. However, I had no good reason not to go. It was an amazing opportunity.
How could I waste this gift given to me?
During college, I continued to enjoy art and languages, as I always had. I didn’t stop to consider these passions as possible career choices, since my path was already set. I didn’t allow myself to question, to explore. I severely shortchanged myself.
As medical school loomed closer, the weight in my stomach became increasingly heavier. It felt like my days were numbered. Time to grow up and be an adult. Adults do what they should do, not always what they want to do. The child within me quieted, and I stopped drawing. I wanted to, but I no longer could.
I trudged through everything, staying afloat somehow. But my heart wasn’t in it. No, not to the level patients deserve. I did enjoy hearing patients’ stories and fighting for women’s rights. This sustained me for the 12+ years of medical training I endured. I developed coping mechanisms. I became good at picking out the one good thing in any situation, and clinging to that for dear life. It sort of worked.
But after year after year of my head and heart not being in alignment, my health suffered and I fell deeper into despair. I could no longer tell what I wanted. Perhaps I never was in tune with myself, ever since 8th grade.
At some point, the light and creativity inside me completely died. I felt like a dead woman walking, having this enviable life from the outside, but not really living it. I felt completely lost.
I knew in theory that I could change my life, but I thought it was too late. I had already invested so many years into this path, and it wasn’t like I was bad at it. It would be even more of a waste now than to have quit much earlier. My cards were dealt, and I should just try to be happy with what I’ve been given. This is what being a responsible adult is all about.
Then one day, I went skydiving for the first time. I had no fear, since if any accident happened, the life I would be leaving behind didn’t mean much to me anyway. That’s when I caught myself and realized where I had ended up.
This just couldn’t possibly be right. So many people out there truly love their lives and are making a difference in their own way, even if it’s in a “risky” field. Why couldn’t I be one of them? I had every right to be. Every single person on this earth does. I literally had nothing left to lose.
It was in that moment that I allowed myself to dream again. To not focus on the how, but the why. The “why” behind my life, my life’s purpose and mission. I didwant to make a difference for minorities and bring us all closer to world peace and harmony, but not like this. Just because I can do something, and even if I’m good at it, does not mean that I should. It does not mean that it’s the right path for me. Just because many people are in need of this service, does not mean I am the right one to do it.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Find what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” This wise quote could not have spoken to me more.
I realized who I was at my core had not changed, despite all the difficulties I had weathered. Humans are remarkably resilient, which always amazes me. I still most loved creating, and connecting. Something within me was compelling me to bring joy to others through my art, to bring people of all backgrounds closer together in mutual understanding and acceptance.
In everything outside of my work life, I had learned how to prioritize and maximize the most enjoyable moments, the ones that make me lose track of time. When work takes up at least two-thirds of one’s waking hours, why is it that so many people settle for a job they hate, or at best, tolerate?
There must be more to life than this. There just has to be. So after graduation, I took that leap of faith. I saved up aggressively, started a blog, and bought a one way ticket to Spain. I wanted to see the world and live nomadically, experiencing and sharing different cultures, and inspire unity through my art. I refused to spend another minute miserable and depleted by my job.
I am now happier than I’ve ever been. Though I have not figured it all out yet, I have a sense of peace and inner calm, and confidence that I will be okay. I feel like myself again. I feel alive. It will all work out somehow, because I have a place in this vast world.
Sometimes we have to leap before our wings finish growing. Making mistakes and falling is part of life. Our failures make us stronger, not weaker. After years of not trying, I had only become even more scared to try. But the longer you stay stagnant, the more paralyzed you become.
It was so hard letting go of my old patterns of the past. To change the voices in my head. To not be affected by others’ opinions. I remind myself every day that nobody has to live with my decisions except for me. Nobody can or should take responsibility for my life, except for me.
I now strive for progress, not perfection. I am not competing against anyone else except myself. There is room for everyone out there because everyone is unique. My style and content of art are entirely my own, and they have value.
Life’s Challenges and Struggles
Everyone faces different challenges and struggles, some more socially acceptable than others. But we will all be successful as long as we never give up. To give up would be the biggest failure. Failure to live is the worst thing we can do to ourselves.
I am proud of my medical training. It was a beautiful detour on my path to changing the world through my art. It has given me inspiration and content I can draw and write about. I now have within me even more stories worth sharing.
I hope to inspire others to do the same and live their best lives. No matter what your circumstances, it is possible to move yourself closer to the life that you want. Even if the steps are small, take them. Every bit counts. Don’t waste your precious talents and passions by settling into something safe. It’s never too late.
The world will be a much better place with your true, authentic self in it!
Originally Published on PurposeFairy.