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on serendipity, luck, and no brainer opportunities

june 10, 2023

A fellow club member and friend at Berkeley recently posed a question to me, "do you believe in luck?”

I thought about it for a bit. Honestly, I feel extremely lucky everyday. During my daily stroll through campus, I always BEAM to myself and I think about how lucky I am to be here. This is real, by the way. My friends have caught me smiling at nothing on several occasions, asking if there's something wrong with me.

My friend continued to say he did believe in luck, but luck is something that can be created. Keep doing the right things, and good things will happen.

I'm inclined to agree. I often make the analogy: if you flip a coin 1000 times, it is bound to come up heads approximately 500 times, as per the Law of Large Numbers. I use this to comfort friends who are stressed about job applications, school, life events, etc. For instance, transferring required a lot of luck I had to generate on my end, but the fact that specifically Berkeley accepted me is an outcome I couldn’t generate or guarantee. I humbly say perhaps it is likely (touch wood) I would have gotten into another university, but the fact that I got into Berkeley specifically is undeniably lucky.

I graduated from Cal around a month ago, and my time there was EPIC! Reflecting upon my two and a half years there, I can confidently say that my acceptance was a no-brainer opportunity. I think no-brainer opportunities happen very few times in one's lifetime, and I think my transfer was the only one I have encountered thus far. My gut nudged me to attend, and my experiences confirmed my hunch that Berkeley was a no-brainer opportunity. This led to serendipity: I joined a club and made some amazing friends, had the chance to intern for Figma and later Snapchat, and finally, gained intuition and knowledge for software engineering that I wouldn’t have developed otherwise. And I don't say this to show off or whatever, but I want to illustrate how this no-brainer opportunity led to serendipity: a series of incredibly “lucky” events.

So why was Berkeley so transformative? A lot of Berkeley students studying computer science or engineering don't realize this because they don't have another college experience as a point of reference, but I do. The curriculum is rigorous, almost to the point where sometimes I think I am in military training. In the thick of the semester, it is a do or die mentality else I risk performing horrendously. Recruiters are comparably more aggressive when seeking Berkeley engineers. And the ecosystem of student clubs provide practical opportunities analogous to a real job, as many of them do contract work. However, if I had to pick one most important factor to why Berkeley was so transformative, I would say it is because of the quality of talent. My previous institution didn’t have this drive, but there's nothing wrong with that. I think students can have different motivations and priorities. Engineering students at my previous school had primary passions that weren't engineering or school, and that's okay. The environment there was far less stressful, which may be the college experience some people are seeking.

A fiercely competitive student body has its pros and cons. With competition, if you are around average or even slightly below, it pushes you up. Club applications at Cal are undeniably a bloodbath, some with single digit acceptance rates. After being humbled by my first class here, I realized I was objectively a pretty average student. Once I made it to the upper division courses, on occasion I was honestly below average, depending on the specific course material, since in the upper division series, the bottom half of prospective CS majors are cut. This meant I had to learn to be competitive. In my case, being competitive meant avoiding direct competition. Unless you are born a genius, which sadly, I am not, it would be very difficult to be the best student who graduated top of their class. Even so, despite my average academics, I realized I was pretty okay at talking to people and making friends! So I focused on meeting interesting people and learning from them. I'm an OK designer, so I design. I like reading, so I read 1-2 articles from Stratechery a day, digest it throughout the day, write down my thoughts. I've been told I'm a decent writer, so I write. In fact, the reason for the site redesign was to reduce friction when publishing posts. I think—I hope—a unique combination of skills is what allows people to be successful. I don't know what opportunties these skills could open up in the future, but I choose to trust the process. You can only connect the dots looking back, not looking forwards, as Steve Jobs so famously said.

I can confidently say that Berkeley has accelerated my career by 3-4 years, looking purely at career opportunities. In terms of the learning I’ve gained, the people I’ve met, and the perspectives of some of my very smart peers: those experiences are invaluable. So hopefully, if or when my next no-brainer opportunity comes along, I’m lucky enough to take the leap of faith.