When it comes to the pursuit of success, which is more important: status and material wealth, or well-being and fulfilment? What makes for a good life?

It’s very subjective, really. What one person sees as an accomplishment another might view as under-achievement, while someone else’s idea of success could be seen as excessive. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan seems to hit the nail on the head with this description of success: It’s when a person “gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do”.

This week, I received an e-mail from a student who asked for suggestions on how he could deal with his “kiasu parents” in terms of the expectations they place on him to succeed. In his message he writes that they “would prefer that I become a doctor, lawyer or an engineer – but I’m not sure I want to work in any of those fields”.

It can be difficult to deal with the expectations of others, particularly if we’ve yet to settle on what we expect from ourselves. Sometimes, it feels like there’s a lot of pressure to know exactly how our lives should unfold, as though life is something that rolls on in a linear, uncomplicated fashion.

For our parents (and their parents), career paths were relatively straightforward. For those who grew up in the aftermath of WWII, in the 1940s and 1950s, job security and stability were paramount. Particularly when working within noble professions a job for life was pretty much guaranteed along with all the respect that came with it.

Something we can fail to appreciate about our parents when we’re growing up is the worry they endure for their children’s future. It’s natural for them to make sure they do all they can to give their children the best education and nudge them in the “right” direction.

But parents can sometimes fail to appreciate that times change. There are now so many career options out there to choose from – and lucrative ones, too. If you have an interest in history, architecture or the creative arts, then studying medicine is unlikely to be a fulfilling choice.

These days, university degrees are still a respected currency in the job market, especially in Asia. However, with the speed at which industries are evolving, the ideal candidate is increasingly being seen as someone with the right attitude and adaptability.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has famously said that college degrees might give an indication that a person is capable of great things but that it’s “not necessarily the case”. The important quality that he looks for is exceptional ability – a trait shown by college dropouts such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

When it comes to two sides that each has its own expectations, what tends to happen is that one side digs its heels in until the other side concedes, which can create problems down the line. What’s almost always missing in the process is any kind of meaningful communication.

Most parents don’t want their children to be the best just so they can boast to their friends at dinner parties. Primarily, they want their children to do the best because they want to see them do well in life.

In dealing with anyone – parents, bosses, anyone – who places expectations upon us, it’s important to first of all understand where they’re coming from. Why are your parents being kiasu? Is it to spoil your fun? Or could there be valid reasons underlying their behaviour?

It’s also vital to communicate your thoughts and feelings. Parents might want to steer their children’s lives because they don’t see that their children have any specific direction in mind for themselves. Showing that you’ve clearly thought through some options can provide your parents with some insights that encourage them to support your ideas.

Of course, parents will always be parents – it’s their job to interfere, and it’s one that they generally do well right from the moment we’re born.

When we think about how much our parents have looked after us over the years, it is understandable why they might find it difficult to let go of the reins. But parents are people too, and they might have the same fears and doubts that their children have – except they carry twice the load. That’s why communication is so important.

Taking another person’s perspective is a great way to understand his or her motivations. Having meaningful conversations with your parents can bring them around to your way of thinking, or perhaps you might see something you’ve missed and come to realise that their guidance isn’t so terrible after all.


Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.