Should you take career advice from your father?

This article was first published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/should-you-take-career-advice-from-your-father-barry-li/

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My grandfather’s advice to my father

The “cultural revolution” had interrupted the higher education in China for a decade. 1978 was the first year of national higher education exam in China since the end of the riot. My father was among the over half million keen candidates to take the exam and get admitted to universities. He had successfully passed the first round of qualification test (to screen the large number of candidates) and then had to choose a school and a major before the second (and final) round. He went to my grandfather for advice – which major and university should he apply for.

My grandfather was a peasant. However, he was also well known and respected in the village, as his grandfather has led the local guerrilla against the Japanese invaders during the Second World War. However, most importantly, he was one of few people who has ever left the village and worked in the Town Centre. In other words, he’s one of the most knowledgeable and well-connected people my father could ask for advice. His advice was good and genuine. He told my father that he should do a coal-mine related major because there are so many coal-mines near our town. Also, he should not apply for a university; it’s too ambitious and too risky. There has been no university graduate in the entire town, ever. He should apply for a Technical School (similar to a FAFE). Then he can become the first industrial worker in the village. Our ancestors would be very proud of this. That’s my grandfather’s advice to my father.

Did my father take that advice? No. He did pick “coal mine engineering” as his major, but he applied for the second best university in North East China for this major. My father told me that he wanted to be an engineer – even that sounded ridiculously remote and unrealistic to my grandfather – my father made that decision and was willing to take that risk. The outcome was great. My father became the first university graduate of my home village and town, ever. He ranked number two in the first round of exam in the entire county. He would have got into the best university if he had so applied.

My father’s advice to me

Fast forward about 30 years, in 2009, I returned to China after my study in Australia. As someone who had a terrific career in one of the largest state-owned corporations, my father gave me (or should I say, tried to force me to) his advice – Get a job in a state-owned corporation. Back then, SOCs offer the best benefits (compare with private companies) and job security, and most importantly, being in that system, he could “help” with my career progress. My father’s advice was good and genuine. It was the best career advice from one of the most successful business leaders (in the SOC system) in China. I was willing to give it a try, until a year later, I finally confirmed that it was not the career and life I wanted. It was when I decided to “escape” from China with my six months pregnant wife back to Australia, to start a new life from scratch.

Only two years later, President Xi became the country’s leader. Among many things he hated, there were corruptions and unreasonably high benefits for public servants and SOC executives. He has massively cut all the executive’s pay and eliminated all the “grey income” of the SOC system. If I took the path my father had specified for me, I would be in a more profound dilemma by now. The drastic change in Chinese society has proved that I was right – for not taking my father’s verbal advice.

What’s wrong with their advices?

Nothing. They are both the best and the most genuine advice from loving fathers, who only intended the best for their children. If we go back in history for just 150 years in China, the only advice you need for your entire life is advice from your father, grandfather and ancestors (because they are all the same). What became different about 100 years ago, was that China had for the first time (really) connected with the rest of the world. The landscape became different. Foreigners and new ideas came in. Traditional values and systems have broken down. Ancient wisdom from the ancestors and saints became outdated and irrelevant.

As one of the most knowledgeable man of his time and place, my grandfather can only see things within our town, and the theme of his time. Becoming an industrial work was the most brilliant choice he could think of, in the pre-1980 communist China. “Coal mine” was also a great choice. Coal was the most important fuel for China’s 30-year continuous economic growth. No matter how much we hate the air pollution today, we can’t deny its contribution for three decades to the “modern” life we have asked for.

As one of the most knowledgeable man of his time and place, my father can only see things occurring inside China (thanks to the great firewall), and the theme of his time. Working in a large SOC was a great career that everyone admires. Not to mention that he genuinely thought he could “help” with my career progression. No one could imagine that the wind has turned direction so quickly within just a few years. What I chose in 2010 was stupid in the eyes of most people there. But, why did I do that?

I did what I did because I took my father’s “advice”.

Yes, that’s right. I did what I did because I took my father’s advice. Not the verbal one, but the one he demonstrated by action. The fact that he didn’t take my grandfather’s advice, but made the decision himself – and was willing to take the risk – was his real advice. It didn’t matter what he said. It matters what he did himself. He would regret if he has chosen TAFE over university; I would regret if I stayed in the Chinese SOC system.

I took my father’s advice. Not the verbal one, but the one he demonstrated by action.
At another level, fathers may not be the best people you seek verbal career advice from – because they love you too much. Their affection and protection towards you have created bias. They want you to be safe, and therefore they tend to be conservative and risk-averse when considering your options. They want you to have a smooth and happy life. I don’t know any parents who want their children to fail, to cry and to be heart-broken. However, these are important and unavoidable journals for you to grow up. Pain and failure are not pleasant; nevertheless, there are no shortcuts to becoming adults.

My choice led to the beginning of my book – the introduction of my journey back to Australia. There have been difficulties. There have been hesitations. There have been tears. Thanks to my father, there were never regrets.