March 6, 2010

On circumstances and somebodies

March 6, 2010 - Categories: life, passion, reflection

How much of a role does luck play in success? A lot. Malcolm Gladwell goes into this in great detail in his book Outliers, which explored the systemic, situational factors that contribute to people becoming wildly successful.

To call it just luck is to ignore the hard work that people put into recognizing and taking those opportunities. To shrug it off as a life lottery shuts one to the possibilities that stretch before them. We have many, many stories of people who have changed the world from unconventional starting points.

Stop worrying about luck. You’re always luckier than someone and not as lucky as someone else.

When I was growing up, I used to feel pretty darn lucky. I stumbled across computer programming at an early age. I had an aptitude for it, which developed into a passion.

Then I heard about people my age—or younger!—in other countries doing even incredible things, and I felt insecure. Maybe I’d missed out. Maybe I’d never be able to catch up.

It wasn’t even the bright stars like Marcelo Tosatti, who became the Linux 2.4 stable kernel maintainer in 2001. We were both 18 then, and he had attained my then-pinnacle of geek coolness. It was the fact that in other places, ordinary students were hacking on incredible things. I remember feeling despondent about the fact that our operating systems course in computer science had a reputation for being more theoretical than deep-in-the-guts-of-an-operating-system practical, and I felt envious of universities like Georgia Tech, where undergraduates experimented with Linux on the Compaq iPAQ PDA. The Internet could get me curricula and whatever resources people shared, and it could let me participate in open source development, but it couldn’t give me those hallway conversations and interesting project experiences people no doubt enjoyed there. There were the coop opportunities that I would never get to explore, because I wasn’t in Silicon Valley or Waterloo. People I wouldn’t bump into. Mentors who might never find me.

Then I decided I wasn’t going to let being in a third-world country stop me. And I learned, and I hacked, and I ended up committing code to the Compaq iPAQ bootloader, which was actually my first public commit with my name on it and which made me feel that hey, I could stand up there with everyone else. (Story: I had sent in patches almost every day for a week. This was either final exam week or the week before that, so coding was a great way to procrastinate studying. ;) It got people’s attention, and Jamey Hicks of the Compaq Research Labs actually called me up, long-distance, to find out who I was and how they could help me keep hacking. That felt awesome.)

And then I decided to stop stressing out about prodigies and possibilities and uneven distributions, and instead work on helping people surpass me by sharing as much of what I learned as I could.

After I finished my degree, I taught computer science in university to students who grew up with even better tools and better resources than I did. The things I helped them learn how to build in first year were better than what I built in first year. Awesome!

Do I feel a twinge of envy when I see a 12-year-old girl publishing books and speaking at TED? Yes, a little bit. But it’s drowned out by a feeling of inspiration for doing it, pride that the world makes it possible, and excitement about what can come next.

You know what’s even more inspiring? The people who discover their passions late in life, and make a difference anyway. The people who develop and deepen their understanding into something that changes the world. Life is not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and we’re all in it together.

There will always be someone luckier than you are, and someone less lucky. There will always be someone who knows more and someone who knows less. It’s what you do with what you have that makes you who you are. It’s okay if you didn’t start ten years ago. Start now. Find and develop your passion.

Thanks to Mylene Sereno for the nudge to write about this. Hang in there! Everyone starts somewhere.