This got me thinking more broadly about the most important lesson I ever learned. The lesson is quite simple, and may sound familiar:
Just do it.
Simple right? I would like to think so too, but it took me 23 years to properly apply it outside of just having fun.
I’ve never been good at doing what I’m “supposed” to do.
I was never the model Asian child. I talked back to my parents. I listened to 2pac during class at Chinese school. I cut summer school classes to bike around and explore. This exploring had a few negative consequences: I was caught for stealing a few times*, and put on probation for 2 years after accidentally setting a brush fire.
Despite having a PhD, I was never the model student. I didn’t do homework if it was boring. In college, I stopped copying homework because it took too much time (even with a good friend often offering to give me the answers). I skipped labs to play basketball. It wasn’t long until I brought home my first B, and then my first C, and then D.**
Now this is all fine and dandy, except for when there is something you actually want to do! When you have bad grades, you look like crap on paper. When you look like crap on paper, people don’t take you seriously. It turns out there are tons of people that don’t look like crap on paper, and many that look awesome on paper. And when people don’t take you seriously, it can be hard to get started on whatever you want to do.
At the end of my junior year, I found something I wanted to do. I took a course on computer architecture and found it fascinating. I decided that I wanted to do research in computer architecture.
When I arrived at the M.S. program at the University of Colorado, I was very excited. It was time to start doing research! There was just one problem. I didn’t have an advisor. My friends that looked awesome on paper (and who actually are awesome) started with an advisor funding them. Unfortunately, I started without an advisor and without funding.
I began bugging professors to be my advisor. I went door-to-door, introduced myself, talked with them about their research, and asked if there was something I could help with. All of the professors rejected me in some form. I continued bugging a few professors every week. Each time, I was rejected. This continued for months, and I began to feel hopeless about the situation.
One night, over a few Jack+Cokes, I told one of my good friends about my problem. I told him about the professors I was bugging. I told him about the months of rejection. I told him about how hopeless I felt.
And then I heard perhaps the best advice I will hear in my lifetime:
“What are you doing? Why don’t you just start doing research?”
This blew my mind. I thought I needed an advisor. I thought I needed guidance to begin research. But all of that was wrong. The only person stopping me from doing research was myself.
I began going into a research lab every day. Without a summer internship, I went through the summer. I set my own research agenda. I learned, coded, and collected preliminary data all summer. I also connected with one of the senior students in that lab and he began mentoring me. By the end of summer, I showed a professor the preliminary data, and soon became a funded graduate student. Years later, I completed a PhD in computer architecture, and landed a great industry research job in computer architecture (which I recently quit, but that is a different story).
We all have goals. We all have things that we want. No one is going to hand you what you want on a silver platter. The flip side to it is that no one is there to stop you from getting started. So just do it! Whether you reach the goal or not is irrelevant. Most likely you will gain a lot along the journey.
I’ve found this lesson broadly applicable. If you want to learn anything, just do it. No one will stop you. If you want to do anything, just do it. Just make sure you can live with the consequences. If you see a cute girl/guy and want to talk to them, just do it. You may get rejected, but no one is stopping you from trying. It applies to just about everything.
I’m not saying I’ve always followed this lesson. But, when I have, it has paid off. And, when I haven’t, I have often regretted it.
* I haven’t stolen in years. When you get caught as a minor (and if you do it enough, it is inevitable), you only get slapped on the wrist with a phone call to your parents. As an adult, it’s a stupid way to seriously mess up your life.
** I never got an F in my life. It is actually pretty hard to get an F. With a little bit of work, a D- is very attainable. And, I’m still a horrible student. My PhD advisor once told me, “you are bad at school, but could be a good researcher.”