In this episode of Career Relaunch, Karen Cheung-Hing, a former doctor turned English pronunciation teacher, shares her thoughts on procrastination, relocating to a new country, and upside of changing careers. I also share some thoughts what happened when I let go of how I thought things should look in my career.
Karen and I first crossed paths after she attended one of my career change talks in London. She later applied to be on the show, and I found her story to be really refreshing and unique. I could also relate a bit to some of her sentiments about leaving medicine behind because I also walked away from a career in medicine many years ago. I hope you enjoy hearing her career change insights.
Key Career Insights
- You may not have a clear moment of epiphany that you should move on from your current role. Instead, it may just be a lingering feeling that things won’t get any better and that you owe it to yourself to at least try to do something else that you truly enjoy.
- You can’t fully compartmentalize your personal and professional lives. They’re interconnected, and if you’re feeling dissatisfaction in your career, it may be worth considering whether something in your personal life is affecting your career and vice-versa.
- There’s a fine line between procrastination and just not wanting to do something. How do you feel inside when you think of the project.
- Although moving locations and even countries may seem like a drastic change, you may be surprised at just how similar your day-to-day life may be, especially since much of our lives are now online.
- Letting go of your fixed ideas about outcomes can really lift a lot of stress from your life and allow you to feel better.
Tweetables to Share
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, my challenge to you as you kick off 2019, is to not necessarily think about which goal or outcome you want to achieve but to instead think about which goal or outcome it’s about time you let go of, which is equally important. Think about something you’ve been a bit too obsessively focused on, reconsider what difference achieving that outcome would REALLY make to your career or life, and if the difference is negligible, let it go so you can make room for something else.
About Karen Cheung-Hing
Karen initially worked as a junior doctor for the National Health Service in the UK before re-training as an English pronunciation teacher and working for a variety of language service organizations. She recently moved away from the UK, and now lives and teaches in Bangkok, Thailand.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): Having gone through this upheaval of change in my career, it’s forced me to let go of these very fixed ideas. I have been surprised at myself at how quickly I’ve let them go, actually how much better I feel for having let them go as well.
Joseph: Hello, Karen. Welcome to Career Relaunch.
Karen: Thank you for having me.
Joseph: I am excited to talk with you today, Karen, because you’re going to be our first guest who is based in Thailand. I want to talk about a few different things today, your former life as a doctor, your transition into becoming a language teacher, and also your recent move. I was wondering if you could just start there by telling me what you’re focused on over there in Thailand, after moving there from the U.K., and what you’re focused on in your career and your life.
Karen: At the moment, I am living in Bangkok. I took a one-year contract here at a school. The school is bilingual, so the children learn both in Thai and in English. They asked for some help with the children’s English pronunciation. I’ve come over to try and help them implement some changes so that we can help the children to understand how to make the English sounds which Thai people would normally have a lot of difficulty with. That’s my focus really for the next year or so.
Joseph: I was just thinking back to when we first crossed paths, because I think you were sitting in the audience at one of my career change talks in London, and then we connected later over the phone right before you were about to move from London to Bangkok.
We are going to get into why you moved to Thailand in a bit, but I was wondering if you could first go back in time a little bit before we talk about your current life and go back to the time when you used to be a doctor in the U.K. I was hoping you could start off by telling us, first of all, why you chose to become a doctor, and then we’ll talk a little bit about why you chose to leave it behind.
Karen: It’s like a completely different life actually. I genuinely feel like that that was the life of somebody else in many ways. When you’re 16, 17 years old, and you have to choose something for university—I’m sure there are some 16 year olds out there who are very self-aware and really know what they’re doing, but I tacitly guess the majority of them are like what I was at that age. I didn’t really think about it that well. It just seems like a good, responsible, stable sort of career.
When I was younger, I was intent on always being a goody-two-shoes and a very responsible sort of girl, so it seemed like a natural choice. I often say it people that I sort of fell into it. They never believed me because there is an element of competitiveness to get into med school. What I mean is that I sort of drifted down this path without perhaps thinking about it enough when I was younger.
Joseph: What kind of a doctor were you, and could you just give us a glimpse into your day-to-day life?
Karen: The way it works in the U.K. is that you qualify for medical school, and then you do have to do your initial two years as a very general junior doctor. They make you do rotations in different departments, which is supposed to give you a taste of different aspects of hospital life or community medicine life and help you to decide which direction you’d like to go in later.
I hadn’t got much further really than doing general medicine. I’d gone as far as going more to towards adult medicine as opposed to pediatric medicine, but I hadn’t got much further than that when I actually decided to leave.
Joseph: I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you thought being a doctor was going to be like and then what the reality was in comparison to that blueprint that you had in your head.
Karen: I do sometimes say to my ex-colleagues that I think if the reality of the day-to-day work had matched my blueprint more closely, then I possibly could’ve stayed. I think I was expecting something with more of a team spirit. I think I was looking for some kind of mentor in some way, like an elderly professor sort of person who takes you around and quizzes you a lot and challenges you.
Of course, there are people like that in medicine. It’s just that the NHS as it is, it’s just so overstretched at the moment that even if we do have people like that who could be mentors like that, they don’t have any kind of time to be that kind of mentor. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel supported enough, and that left me very stressed on many occasions, I think. Perhaps if it had been different, then maybe I would have stayed.
Joseph: What about the patient interaction, what you envisioned your doctor-patient relationships to be versus what they actually were?
Karen: To be honest, I hadn’t really given it much thought. It sounds ridiculous, but I really was not well-prepared for the career. I enjoyed speaking to some of the patients, of course, but then I didn’t like speaking to other patients. That’s to be expected. You’re not going to enjoy your interactions with every single person when you’re dealing with the general public. I have to say I wasn’t expecting any kind of adulation or anything like that just for being a doctor, so it wasn’t that I was disappointed by that at all.
Medicine is very interesting. In itself, it’s a very interesting subject, but the day-to-day is obviously less interesting. There’s a lot of routine stuff that goes on, which as bad as it sounds, can get a little bit boring. It just didn’t satisfy me on a day-to-day basis.
Joseph: Karen, what made you realize that you wanted to make a shift away from medicine? Because I’m hearing you say it wasn’t really satisfying you and it wasn’t quite what you wanted from your day-to-day work life. At what point did you make the decision to move on?
Karen: I started thinking about it when I was in my second year of working and sort of agonized over the decision and eventually left after, I think, I’d work for about three and a half years, roughly. That was the point to which I actually left. It’s not to say that there was any kind of moment of clarity. It was more like a gradual, creeping realization that it probably wasn’t going to get much better than what it was. I sort of felt like, ‘I better try something else whilst I still can.’
There was this recurring thought which might seem morbid, but it was actually a really good spur, which was that if I got hit by a bus the next day and died, I would be really annoyed with myself that I didn’t at least give it a shot to do something that I really enjoyed and really found interesting and really loved, at least to try it. I just thought, at the end of the day, I could go back to medicine if it didn’t work out. In the end, that’s what persuaded me to leave.
Joseph: Before we go on to your transition, can you remember the day when you had your last day as a doctor seeing patients and what it was like to walk away from that?
Karen: My very last job, it wasn’t that I decided to leave and then handed in my notice and that was it. That particular job was actually coming to a natural end anyway, and it was just that I didn’t then apply for a new job.
The last day of work at that point, I still hadn’t fully decided what I was going to do. I suppose I thought that maybe I could still apply for another medical job within the next month or something like that. It was more that I left the job, spent some time at home, and then decided, ‘You know what? I’m not going to apply for a medical job now. I’m going to apply for a language job.’
Joseph: I think when we spoke before, we talked about the fact that I also went to medical school, and I actually decided to leave that behind. I remember going through this period. For me, it actually lasted a couple of years where I was really just trying to reflect and figure out what I wanted to do next. How did you go about figuring that out, making the leap from medicine over to becoming a language teacher?
Karen: Languages was always in the background, always, always, always in the background. Since I was a child and I’d randomly found this ‘learn Italian’ book at the library or something like that, I’ve been hooked really on languages. I knew I liked that. That was an absolute certainty.
In terms of what career I should actually go into after medicine, languages was obviously a strong contender, but I think there was a part of me that felt like, “Oh, it’s a terrible waste if I don’t do something related to medicine.”
Whilst I was still working in medicine, I did spend quite a lot of time brainstorming different areas that I could work in. For example, ‘Could I transition into pharmaceuticals?’ or, ‘Could I transition into research?’ or, ‘Could I transition into Chinese medicine,’ for example?”
I’d look at all of these options. I’d do little spider diagrams and things like that, but when I looked at the finished brainstorming, I was still always more attracted to the branch that came off saying languages. In the end, I thought I better give that go, really.
Joseph: During your transition, I think you also told me before that you saw a career coach, and you guys talked about quite a few different things related to your future. Can you just give us a glimpse into a couple of the topics that you talked about with your career coach and how that helped you gain the clarity you needed to make your next move?
Karen: Yes, I actually saw a few different people, only one of whom was actually a careers coach specifically. The other people were just sort of general coaches or counselors that just talked to me in general about my career issues. This particular lady who was a proper careers coach, she was a retired GP. She was perfect, because she understood the medical world, and she was trained in careers counseling.
It was interesting to me, because I think I went in there with a very business-like attitude, sort of, “I need some help to decide on my next career move. Please help me to go about making a good decision.” It surprised me how she started actually by going into some personal things. I was more than happy to discuss these things. I guess it made me feel that, actually, your life can’t always be compartmentalized into your life and then your career. Your career is part of your life, isn’t it? That was interesting.
We did a lot of fascinating stuff about personality types and to discuss which parts of your personality might find it more difficult to work in medicine as it is at the moment in the NHS and which parts of your personality might be making your life difficult, not just in your career but also in your personal life. Those kinds of things were fascinating.
Joseph: I think when we spoke before the recording, you also mentioned that you guys talked a little bit about the topics of procrastination and also giving yourself permission to do the things that you deeply wanted to do. Could you just give us a glimpse into what you were talking about related to those topics?
Karen: With regards to procrastination, the first time I talked about that was with the very first counselor that I went to see. I went to him saying I have a problem with procrastination, because I’m not revising for this medical exam, which was a post-grad medical exam, and obviously, I should be revising for it.
After a few sessions, he said to me, ‘I’m not sure that your problem is procrastination. I think you just don’t want to do it.’ That was definitely a turning point for me, because I guess I knew that on a subconscious level, but I certainly never admitted that openly to myself, let alone to other people. To have a stranger perceive that and then just say it to me point blank, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt like that was a very significant moment.
Joseph: That’s really interesting, because I sometimes wonder why I haven’t made a move on one of the ideas that I’ve been thinking about. It’s really interesting to think that, actually, the real reason why you haven’t done it yet is because you don’t actually want to do it. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference though. How can you tell the difference between something that you, deep down, don’t really want to do versus something you do want to do but just haven’t done yet?
Karen: Say for example, if I think about that medical exam, every time I thought about it, my heart would sink. Of course, I wouldn’t want to revise.
At the moment, I do have a project which I have been procrastinating on. When I think of it, it’s not that my heart sinks. I’m still interested in doing it. It still energizes me to think about doing it. It’s just that I haven’t been that organized, let’s say, in actually putting aside the time.
I think, for me that’s the difference really: how do you feel inside when you think of the project?
Joseph: Interesting. Let’s move on then. Let’s switch gears and talk about your time as a language teacher. What exactly were you teaching and who are you working with once you decided that that’s what you wanted to do?
Karen: I initially did a one-month certificate in teaching English as a foreign language, because it was basically the easiest and quickest qualification that I could get to get my foot in the door to work in languages somehow. At that stage, I wasn’t too fuzzed about what the job was going to be. I just thought I’d better go in this general direction, because I think I’ll like it.
I started working in London as an English teacher, primarily for young Europeans who would come over for two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that kind of thing. They would come to the language school, and I would just teach them grammar mostly. It was lovely. It really was a fantastic change to look forward to going into work every day and to interact with the students.
I realized I was quite interested in pronunciation and helping the students with pronunciation, but I didn’t know anything about it. I Googled it and found a teacher training course. When I went to inquire about it, they said, ‘We don’t have a lot of teachers who are interested in this. If you’re really interested, do the course with us, and then after that, maybe you can work with us.’ That’s what I did, and I haven’t really looked back since.
Joseph: Was there anything challenging related to the actually transition of going from working in a space that’s focused much more on clinical issues where you’re working with patients to something that is much more language-focused, working with students? Was that jarring in any way for you, or did you find that transition to be quite a natural progress from your former career as a doctor?
Karen: I would say there was nothing jarring about it at all. It’s more like coming back into your natural environment. I was very happy to suddenly be surrounded by language things and language conversations and language questions and the students from all the different countries.
The only thing that I missed quite a lot at the beginning was that, in the hospital, you did really work in teams. I used to really enjoy working with the nurses. When you become a teacher, of course you are very much working by yourself. I mean you have colleagues, but they just work in their own classrooms, and you don’t work together so much. That was probably the one thing that I missed the most, but it wasn’t difficult, and it wasn’t jarring at all, no.
Joseph: Your most recent transition, let’s talk about that, because this is a major move that you made from the U.K. to Thailand. What prompted you to decide to shift geographies? What’s that been like for you?
Karen: It’s been really good. It was a bit of serendipity as well as actually making the decision, in that the school where I work now, I had been there last year to do some training with my ex-boss. We had delivered a training course at school.
When we went back to the U.K., the principal of the school emailed us and said, ‘You know what? Actually, we thought your training was good, and we’d like somebody to come back and help us for a year,’ so I got off with the job.
I did think about it, obviously, for a while, but in the end, it seemed like a great opportunity in that it was being offered to me without me having really sorted out. It was in Asia. Because of my family being Chinese, I had wanted, on some level, to spend more time in Asia someway, even though we are not Thai. I don’t have much experience with the Thai culture, but of course it’s closer to Chinese culture, which is where my family is from, than the British culture.
I was really keen to live somewhere in Asia and experience more of a general Asian culture and eat more Asian food of course.
Joseph: I’m sure that must be really enjoyable for you. What’s been the most surprising part of transplanting yourself from the U.K. to Thailand?
Karen: I guess I thought that when I got to Thailand, everything would be so interesting that I would not be able to resist going out all the time to see things and see sights and discover new places – probably I was a bit naïve. When you actually get here and you go to work every day, your life does actually revert back to the very normal life of everybody else in the world who goes to work, which is go to work, come back, think about what you want to eat for dinner, maybe try and do some exercise, catch up with friends and family, and things like that, and then go to bed.
In a way, the most surprising thing has been how the day-to-day has remained the same.
Joseph: That’s really interesting. I remember, Karen, when I moved from the U.S. to the U.K.—I moved from San Francisco to London—I had a very similar experience to what you described. I used to come and visit London, and I would go check out all the sites. When I moved here and relocated here to start working, my day-to-day life wasn’t actually that different compared to what I was doing before.
I was in a different country, and of course, the culture is different and your environment is different, but actually, it’s amazing how much you’re able to transplant your life these days and how quickly you’re able to just pick up where you left off. That was something that I found surprising, and it sounds like you’ve had a kind of similar experience where you’ve been able to just, in sort of a modular way, take your life here and move it completely to a different geography without a tremendous amount of interruption.
Karen: I think, obviously, we have the internet. Because we do everything on the internet anyway, everything that I was doing on the internet has remained exactly the same, except that I get replies to emails at funny times because of the time zone difference. So much of our lives are online that, actually, that hasn’t been a big shift at all. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.
Joseph: Before we wrap up with what the future looks like for you there in Bangkok, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about some of the things you’ve learned along the way during the twist and turns of your career. The first thing I wanted to ask you was, having been through this career change, what’s one thing that you’ve learned about yourself along the way?
Karen: Something that I have developed by changing my career—and which I was surprised to learn about myself—was that I found it quite easy to let go of outcomes. I think that, in the past, I had very fixed ideas as to how things should be and very fixed ideas as to what was right, what was wrong, what the best course of action was. I had very fixed ideas as to what results should look like.
Having gone through this upheaval of change in my career, it’s forced me to let go of these very fixed ideas. I’ve been surprised at myself at how quickly I’ve let them go, actually how much better I feel for having let them go as well. That’s been a very positive thing for me.
Joseph: Along those lines, is there something that you wish you had known that you now know about letting go, especially since it sounds like you’re a lot better at doing that now?
Karen: Definitely. When I was changing my career, I visualized myself on a conveyor belt. It was a conveyor belt of ‘be a good girl, get good grades at school, go to university, graduate, get a good job in medicine, work, work, work, work, retire, and then die at the end of it.’ Again, that sounds quite morbid, but that was the picture in my head.
At some point, I thought, ‘If I’m going to change career, it’s sort of like you’re stepping off of this conveyor belt,’ and that was one of the scariest things for me, because that was all I had ever known and also because I was so fixated on doing the right thing in terms of what I thought society was telling me the right thing was.
What I wish I had known earlier was that the world doesn’t end just because you got off the conveyor belt. You are allowed to do other things outside of the small box which you’ve drawn for yourself. Not only does the world not end, but actually, your world gets bigger. It becomes more exciting, much more interesting, much more colorful. I do wish I’d realized that at a younger age, I think.
Joseph: I want to wrap up today, Karen, by talking about what the future looks like for you now as you think about your life there in Bangkok and the language teaching that you’re doing. What’s next for you?
Karen: That’s a very good question, and I don’t know the answer.
Joseph: That’s okay.
Karen: Something I’m better at now is not knowing the answer and being okay with that. I just think that for the future, I would just like to continue to do work that I enjoy and that is useful to other people in some way. Also, something that I wish for my future is that, if I do ever feel like I’m on the wrong path again in the future, I will get off it faster than I did before.
Joseph: That’s a great tip. I was just thinking about that today, about how often we actually know deep down that we’re on the wrong path, whether it’s something small, like who you’ve decided to work with on a particular project, or if it’s something bigger, like the direction we’ve chosen to take our career. Sometimes, we’re just better off not hanging on and just letting go much more quickly instead of going through the agony of thrashing about and trying to force it to work.
I do that myself. I think I tend to hang on a little bit too long. I think I want to make things work out and to not give up. At the same time, it seems like there’s a real value in just moving on quickly.
Karen: It’s really difficult, isn’t it? I think we do get told when we’re younger that it is obviously a good thing to not just give up at the first hurdle, etc., but there’s always a balance to be had, I think. Perhaps when I was younger, I would take that idea of not giving up and just take it too far and not bring in the balance of asking yourself, ‘Do I really want this? Is my ladder up against the right wall as it were?’ That old saying.
It’s a difficult thing to judge. I guess we just make mistakes, and then we just learn from them, and that’s it, really.
Joseph: That’s true. I guess that’s part of being human.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Karen, for telling us more about your former life as a doctor, your transition to being a language teacher, and also your move from the U.K. to Thailand. Best of luck with everything you have going on out there, and I’m looking forward to catching up again in the future.
Karen: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.