While many people may be encouraged to pursue their creativity, many others have had to exercise their courage and go against the values, wishes and advice of parents and friends.
Sandra Tsing Loh is a Caltech graduate in physics and an accomplished writer, performer, radio commentator (on NPR’s Morning Edition and on Ira Glass’ This American Life), a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly, author of multiple books, star of solo theatrical shows, and a composer.
In our interview, she said her parents were “extremely supportive” and her mother “just instilled the notion that whatever we [children] decided to do, we would not fail.
“So the good part was they told us we were really smart and talented and could do anything. Possibly the down side was they were sure not of us could make a living in anything liberal arts, so we should use our brilliance to become aerospace engineers.”
She says it was a “very very big issue” not to pursue science. “When I graduated from CalTech with a BS in physics, and went on to English in grad school — in our family, with our values, it was kind of a failure not to go on to your PhD in physics. To go on to a PhD in English was like a failure, because it was a soft topic.”
In her commencement speech to Caltech’s Class of 2005, she commented on the routine advice to graduates to “Dare to dream” — she said, “Every young person dares to dream. Frankly, it’s all they do all day! But many bright young people, under their A-student masks, also harbor a secret passion.
“And the key to releasing that last exotic bird to flight is not ‘Dare to dream’ but, listen carefully: ‘Dare … to disappoint … your father.’
“That’s right, Caltech graduates, freedom begins now! Diploma in hand, start today veering wildly off course! … Boldly unveil your hideous summer plans! Skiing, snorkeling, belly-dancing, sleeping — maybe try out for ‘American Idol,’ why not?”
She added, “And you Asian students? That goes double for you. You know who you are. Don’t make me come and get you. Don’t be shy. Look at me — I went into the liberal arts, which, for a Chinese father, is like pole-dancing. Failing one’s elders is serious business and not currently in fashion. These are times of great anxiety, and great conventionality.
“Graduation is the beginning of the hero’s journey, which is a little bit Oedipal. Just a little. I’m not saying kill your father! But the hero’s journey does begin by leaving the safety of the village.
“If there’s a medieval image I’d suggest for Caltech genius, it’s less great circle of old grizzled kings than card zero of the Tarot deck: the one Fool stepping off a cliff. You. Who proves them all wrong.”
From article: Father Knows Best, Except at Caltech, June 20, 2005 by Sandra Tsing Loh.
Photo: She is the host of The Loh Down on Science.
You can hear an episode in my Interview with Sandra Tsing Loh.