In Travails of a Trailing Spouse, Taiwanese-American Stephanie Suga Chen tells the story of Sarah – a “trailing spouse” – as she embarks on her life as an expat wife in Singapore. The novel debuted on the Straits Times fiction bestseller list at #2, and sold out six months after being released in January 2018! But perhaps what is most astounding about this story is Stephanie’s own journey from dissatisfied Wall Street investor to bestselling Singapore novelist – and how she insists that it could happen to you too.
Much like the protagonist Sarah, Stephanie too came to Singapore as a trailing spouse. It was back in 2012 when her neuroscientist husband got offered a position as an academic in Singapore. Giving up her career to move to Singapore was easier than Stephanie thought it would be. According to her, it was a “nudge in the right direction” as she had been feeling dissatisfied in her job for a few years by then.
Stephanie reveals that while it’s a “light-hearted beach read” on a superficial level, on a deeper level, it touches on many issues that many trailing spouses go through. Issues such as being conflicted about career vs kids, feeling undervalued and being unclear on one’s purpose in life.
Having given up a successful career as an investor to be an author, Stephanie felt like she had found her true calling in writing and she poured her heart and soul into writing the book. At the same time, she was a little nervous if her first attempt at writing a novel would be well accepted.
There are many of us like Stephanie, who are immersed in a career that isn’t rewarding anymore. Having first-hand experience dealing with these feelings, Stephanie shares how she knew it was time she made a change and how she did it.
“I had been working in the banking and investment industry for over 12 years, and had been feeling quite dissatisfied,” Stephanie opens up, explaining that the first step to finding what made her happy was acknowledging that she was unhappy.
Having had a traditional Asian upbringing of studying tirelessly and getting good grades, Stephanie shares that it wasn’t about finding what she was good at doing. “One day I looked up, and I was on Wall Street. It wasn't necessarily because I wanted to become an investor, but it was where my path had led me,” Stephanie shares.
She feels this is a problem prevalent even today where the pressure to excel in studies during school and college years inhibits the ability to freely explore what we want to do.
The message Stephanie gives young people is that it's okay to if they feel that they have ended up in something they’re not passionate about. What you do next is what counts.
“When I gave a talk once at a university in Singapore, I met people who said they didn't feel like they had chosen the right path but were afraid to change because they were already in the third or fourth year of their course. I said to them that I am an example that it is never too late!” Stephanie explains.
Finding inspiration could be helpful in combating feelings of apprehension, and we don’t need to look too far to see it. Apart from Stephanie, there are many success stories of people who changed careers.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos was a successful computer scientist on Wall Street before he founded Amazon at the age of 31. Vera Wang didn’t become a fashion designer until she was 40, before which she was a figure skater and journalist. Closer to home, Lyn Lee, the founder of the mega-successful Awfully Chocolate, was a lawyer before she embarked on making the perfect chocolate cake!
Young people often tell Stephanie that they know that what they’re doing isn’t making them happy, but don’t know how to find the one thing that makes them happy.
“It took several years of exploring before I landed on writing,” Stephanie opens up, explaining that she spent the first couple of years after arriving in Singapore “flailing a little.”
She also explains that carving time to find your interests may mean taking numerous classes and finding community centres that offer training opportunities so you can experiment with multiple possibilities.
Stephanie says that it takes some reflection and planning to figure out what it is you want to invest your time in. “Take the chance to pause and think about what you enjoy doing,” explains Stephanie.
She found that when she was reading and writing, time passed quickly. Giving ideas on how to spot your real interest, Stephanie adds, “Think about the last time you did something you enjoyed so much that you lost presence because you were so engrossed [in] that activity. That is when I knew this was it for me!”
Stephanie feels that having an interest in something alone won’t make you great at it. You will need to invest some time and money to improve your skills – especially if this is going to be your new career.
Since Stephanie always enjoyed reading, she joined book clubs to fuel her creative thought-process. She also took a 10-week writing course to improve and update her writing techniques.
Putting things in perspective, Stephanie reminds us that a career change isn’t an easy thing to do. It will change the course of your life, and you may need to prepare for it. Stephanie feels that we need to be realistic with our expectations and give ourselves time to adjust.
Using her own experience, Stephanie shares that she dealt with “withdrawal symptoms” of having to leave her career as an investor. “Without a career of my own, I didn’t feel valued. I also felt guilty for being unhappy, for complaining about it,” admits Stephanie.
Seeking advice from those in your circle who have made such changes in their careers and surrounding yourself with plenty of support in the form of family and friends certainly helps counter such issues that may arise if you’re considering a career change.
Stephanie stresses that “real interests” might not always bring in the money needed to survive and that we also need to be practical in our endeavours. Accepting that it’s okay to do a job that “pays the bills”, to support a more fulfilling interest is important.
“You need to realise that there might be some years that you might not be generating income. So, you need to plan so you can be financially ready before you make that change,” notes Stephanie.
Today Stephanie is busy talking to young people about finding their interests, but she also feels it’s important to keep your expectations realistic. “Maybe you need to be an engineer while you're trying to be an artist. It is good to remind yourself that you may need to suck it up and put in a few hours at a ‘regular’ job until the one you are truly inspired by takes off!” She points out.
When people ask Stephanie if she’ll return to the field of finance, she responds pragmatically. “Maybe. Because now I can see it for what it is. It gives me financial stability, and it's not the be-all-end-all situation, and it's not what defines me,” she reveals, smiling.
Are you looking for career change ideas? We hope Stephanie's story has inspired you.
Watch this Ted talk for more insights.