November 29, 2012

The Best Mistake I Ever Made

Editor's Note: In response to my good friend Kevin Fox, who shared on his blog today how the college selection process, aided by a youthful blunder on his part, helped launch his career. Unsurprisingly, I've got a similar story, and that makes it time to share.

In 1994, I was applying to colleges. The oldest in my family, I was the first to move on from high school, and beyond the occasional lecture from guidance counselors at school, I was pretty much finding my own way. My best friends and I essentially banded together, comparing SAT and ACT scores, and scoured the college ranking and comparison books, even mocking the terms "Selective" and "Highly Selective", used to separate the good schools from the great.

Money constraints and a non-perfect high school record wouldn't have led me too far out of state. My best friend and I eventually settled on UCLA as our dream school. He was going to major in Film Studies, and I had picked Communication Studies, as close as I could get to Journalism. I applied to UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Davis, as well as Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, which would have pleased some of my friends at church, while keeping me intellectually bored, and, in the event of complete disaster, I even filled out a form for Chico State, playing the role of obvious safety school.

Between my friends and me, we thought we had the process nailed. I wrote the essay over and over and had it reviewed by my teachers, knowing I might be on the bubble. I packaged up the essay with all my materials and sent it in the mail on the first day possible to UCLA, Berkeley and Davis, along with $120, $40 for each of the three schools' admissions fee. For UCLA, I listed Communication Studies as my major, with Political Science as the alternate. Berkeley placed me with Mass Communications as my major and Political Science as the alternate. If I remember correctly, Davis was English.

Three weeks later, I got a thin envelope back from the UC Regents. Expecting some kind of confirmation, instead the letter included a $40 refund from UCLA - stating that Communication Studies was open only to junior transfers, making me as a freshman ineligible. As I had selected other UC campuses, and the Regents assumed each school of equal valor, they just sent me my $40 back, instead of what I thought was the more obvious move - moving my application forward with Political Science.

Needless to say, I was panicked, and nobody had any real good advice. I essentially reapplied to UCLA and sent back the same $40 admissions fee, with Political Science as my intended major this go around, but this time seeing the envelope leave my house near the end of the 30 day period, not the beginning. I'm pretty sure this didn't help, as open slots for the impacted schools became more scarce.

In the ensuing months of my senior year in high school, we all played the waiting game. BYU was the first to respond, and I got in. I didn't see that as a big deal, although many friends of mine from church had received rejection letters. Chico State let me in, to no surprise. But the big wins were to come in March, from the UCs, especially UCLA, as my best friend and I shared these aspirations of being roommates and challenging one another for four more years and as we started our careers.

Come early March, Davis led off with a big fat acceptance envelope. I remember marking off an X in the Yes column on an index card at home, with UCLA and Berkeley yet to respond. I was 3 for 3, with 2 to go. But the next day brought a big shock. Instead of the big envelope, a small one from UCLA came with the well known refrain, "We regret to inform you... blah blah blah... lots of applicants... don't let the door hit you on the way out... blah blah." I was stunned and felt hollow - faced with the concept of not being with my best friend, and facing a reality of having to pick between the nearby but non-thrilling UC Davis and the complete life change that would be shipping off to Provo to be a Cougar.

This being at the very beginning of the era of constant communication, I had my mom's cell phone, playing chauffeur for my younger siblings, so I couldn't call her, and when I called my best friend, I just started to tell him before the reception was so bad that hung up on me. I was devastated, and it's all I wanted the world to know - that my dream had been dashed. In the days afterward, as I saw other friends get their welcome notes into the Bruins fold, the school counselors would pause their congratulations, turn toward me with concerned faces, and ask, "Now, how are you doing..."

After the promised deadline for acceptance letters, I finally heard back from Cal. A big, fat, glorious acceptance envelope filled my mailbox in late March that changed everything. My mom, lacking irony, exclaimed, "That's like getting into Stanford!" when I proudly announced I had the opportunity to become a Golden Bear, ruling out the Aggies of Davis and putting BYU way back in second place. The acceptance letter from Cal put UCLA as less critical, and started me feeling like I had accomplished something. I wasn't going to be palled up with my best buddy, chasing our dreams, but instead got the opportunity to stake out my future on my own at an incredible school.

Attending Berkeley ended up being a godsend, placed remarkably close to Silicon Valley as the tech revolution expanded through the first dotcom boom, and placing me with startups before I even claimed my double major degree in Mass Communications and Political Science.

Had I attended UCLA, I could have transferred into Communications Studies my junior year. It's probable my best friend and I would have even more great stories to share beyond those we still dredge up from high school. But it's just as likely we'd have met fewer people because we were too comfortable and cliquey. It's especially likely that I'd have ended up well outside of tech, and the unique experience that is the Silicon Valley. Maybe I'd have ended up writing for the LA Times or joined MySpace or Mahalo - spending my unfair share of time on the Web in Southern California and not the Bay Area. But my mistake of entering a major unavailable to freshman entrants changed my life - pushing me in a direction I'm happy with and continue to be fulfilled by.

As Kevin writes in his own parallel story, the mistake in the short term may have been awkward and disappointing, but the long term benefits of this choice ended up probably being the best mistake I ever made. By the way, if you're not reading Kevin on his blog or on his Twitter stream, you should.