Every political science major has at one point been told, or internally thought, “Well there’s always law school.” Is this because we political science majors all have an interest in a legal career? No, it’s because, when one faces uncertainty in purpose, or life track, when one is lost or unsure of where to go next (as is common in Humanities/Social Sciences), it is comforting to know that there’s at least a shiny, well-regarded and esteemed plan B waiting in the wings. When we lack an internal compass, external markers of success become all the more alluring.
I have spent a lot of my time these days thinking about internal vs. external validation. This can also be conceptualised approximately as personal fulfilment vs. societal acceptance. Additionally relevant to me, perhaps even Western rugged individualism vs. Eastern communal harmony. I’m not saying one is better than the other. Like everything, there’s an upside and a downside. Both rugged individualism and social conformity can leave a person feeling depressed, depending on the situation and the personality. Staying true to your self can end in extreme loneliness and insecurity when that path is taken alone. Similarly frustrating, to comply with social or familial expectations can make one feel repressed and caged when that path is very different from what one really wants to do. I’ve definitely experienced both so far.
However, being shaped mostly by the Western tradition, I’m inclined to believe that staying true to myself and my life’s purpose will lead to personal satisfaction, pride and success in the long run. My current job pays well below poverty level (by American standards), in a field that can be thankless and unknown yet brings me incredible sense of purpose. I’m happy here. But the Eastern values of my parents state that showing a bountiful of love and care to your family is one of life’s greatest blessings and purposes. It just so happens that demonstrating love to my family means earning them the admiration of others. Do you see the conundrum now?
I believe there exists a path that fulfils both validations. But often, these two spheres are mutually exclusive. The thing that gives you great personal fulfilment may be the exact thing that society doesn’t give a damn about. Likewise, something that society regards as the holy grail may leave you feeling dead inside. Unless I guess you’re the rare unicorn that finds personal fulfilment in Excel sheets, I think this is a common calculus in most millennial’s minds.
I have found my internal validation, and I am lucky to have had the financial and institutional support to make my dream come true. What a privilege that is. Perhaps the best I can do now is hope for the continued patience and trust of my parents, that eventually I will earn them external validation too.