On circumstances and somebodies

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.

  • http://www.flaviosouza.net Flavio Souza

    Hi Sacha, this is a great post! It helps me see things in a different way. Sometimes we are too worried about the others and we forget to look at ourselves and discover the great things we accomplish daily.

  • http://www.catehuston.com Cate

    Love this! Been angsting about turning 25 and having achieved nothing lately, so it’s good to get some balanced perspective!

  • http://mylenesereno.wordpress.com/ Mylene Sereno

    Thank you sooo much Sacha. This is a great post. Inspiring…and somehow an eye-opener for me.

    I really got insecure when I read your first posts. (I checked them out last Friday, I think..after realizing that I’ve been checking out your blog almost everyday – my Yahoo first, Gmail, Facebook, then your blog). I somehow got awed that I am still learning the things that you were doing ten years ago. That’s why I said in my blog that I felt obsolete. =D

    I was really surprised when your mom left a comment on my blog and was touched that she really took time to correct my twisted idea: rich = more opportunities (lucky ones). I almost felt embarassed for being so immature. Hehe..

    But I don’t regret having written that post anyway coz I got to meet your mom (plus a new interesting blog to read) and you were able to write one of my favorite posts.. ;)

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      Imagine how much more you’ll be able to do because you can learn from what I learned the hard way! =)

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  • http://www.dejibu.net dejibu

    This reminds me how I felt after the first semester in UP. I had heavy pangs of envy once in a while, esp during exams when I see people effortlessly ace exams (i’m from Engg) and I shed blood, sweat and tears just to pass. To think I felt like the shizniz at my old high school!

    But it does reflect maturity to realize that to a certain degree you are less and more than somebody. And you can be whatever you want to be within the limits of your imagination.

    Great post! I wished I caught you at Ignite Toronto. Hopefully next time. :)