Staring at the Ceiling

Life, business, success…it’s just like a nightclub.
There are always three ways in.
There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves
around the block; where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to
get in.
There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires,
celebrities, and the people born into it slip through.
But what no one tells you is that there is always, always…the Third
Door. It’s the entrance where you have to jump out of line, run down
the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window,
sneak through the kitchen—there’s always a way.
Whether it’s how Bill Gates sold his first piece of software or how
Steven Spielberg became the youngest studio director in Hollywood
history, they all took…the Third Door.

“Right this way…”
I stepped across the marble floor and turned a corner, entering a
room with glistening floor-to-ceiling windows. Sailboats drifted
down below, gentle waves lapped onto the shore, and the afternoon
sun bounced off a marina and filled the lobby with a bright, heavenly
glow. I followed an assistant down a hallway. The office had couches
with the most plush cushions I’d ever seen. The coffee spoons
sparkled in a way I’d never seen spoons sparkle before. The
conference room table looked like it had been carved by
Michelangelo himself. We entered a long corridor lined with
hundreds of books.
“He’s read every one,” she said.
Macroeconomics. Computer science. Artificial intelligence. Polio
eradication. The assistant pulled out a book on feces recycling and
placed it in my hands. I flipped through it with sweaty palms. Nearly
every page was underlined and highlighted with scribbles in the
margins. I couldn’t help but smile—the scribbles had the
penmanship of a fifth grader.
We continued down the hallway until the assistant asked me to
stay where I was. I stood there, motionless, looking at a towering
frosted glass door. I had to stop myself from touching it to feel how
thick it was. As I waited, I thought of all the things that led me here—
the red scarf, the toilet in San Francisco, the shoe in Omaha, the
cockroach in the Motel 6, the—
And then, the door opened.
“Alex, Bill is ready for you.”
He was standing right in front of me, hair uncombed, shirt loosely
tucked in, sipping a can of Diet Coke. I waited for something to come
out of my mouth, but nothing did.
“Hey, there,” Bill Gates said, his smile lifting his eyebrows. “Come
on in…”
THREE YEARS EARLIER, MY FRESHMAN DORM ROOM
I flipped over in bed. A stack of biology books sat on my desk, staring
back at me. I knew I should study, but the more I looked at the
books, the more I wanted to pull the covers over my head.
I tossed to my right. A University of Southern California
football poster hung above me. When I’d first taped it on my wall, the
colors were so vibrant. Now the poster seemed to blend in with
the wall.
I turned onto my back and stared at the silent white ceiling.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Ever since I could remember, the plan was for me to be a doctor.
That’s what happens when you’re the son of Persian Jewish
immigrants. I practically came out of the womb with “MD” stamped
on my behind. In third grade, I wore scrubs to school for Halloween.
I was “that kid.”
I was never the smartest kid in school, but I was consistent. Like, I
consistently got B minuses and consistently read CliffsNotes. To
make up for my lack of straight As, I always had a sense of direction.
In high school I “checked the boxes”—volunteer at a hospital, take
extra science classes, obsess over the SATs. But I was too busy trying
to survive to stop and wonder whose boxes I was checking. When I’d
started college, I couldn’t have imagined that a month later I would
be hitting the snooze button four or five times each morning, not
because I was tired, but because I was bored. Yet I continued
dragging myself to class anyway, checking the premed boxes, feeling
like a sheep following the herd.
That’s how I found myself here: lying on my bed, staring up at the
ceiling. I’d come to college looking for answers, but all I got were
more questions. What am I actually interested in? What do I want
to major in? What do I want to do with my life?
I flipped over again. The biology books were like dementors,
sucking the life out of me. The more I dreaded opening them, the
more I thought about my parents—running through the Tehran
airport, fleeing to America as refugees, sacrificing everything to give
me an education.
When I received my admissions letter from USC, my mom told me
I couldn’t attend because we couldn’t afford it. Although my family
wasn’t poor and I grew up in Beverly Hills, like many families, we
lived a double life. While we lived in a nice neighborhood, my
parents had to take out a second mortgage to cover the bills. We went
on vacations, yet there were times when I’d see notices on our front
door saying our gas was going to be cut off. The only reason my mom
allowed me to attend USC was because the day before the enrollment
deadline, my dad stayed up all night, talking to my mom with tears in
his eyes, saying he’d do whatever it took to make ends meet.
And this is how I paid him back? By lying in bed, pulling the covers
over my head?
I glanced at the other side of the room. My roommate, Ricky, was
at a small wooden desk doing his homework, spitting out numbers
like an accounting machine. The squeak of his pencil mocked me. He
had a path. I wish I had that. All I had was a ceiling that wouldn’t talk
back to me.
Then I thought about the guy I’d met the prior weekend. He’d
graduated from USC a year earlier with a math degree. He used to sit
at a desk just like Ricky’s, spitting out numbers just like him, and
now he was scooping ice cream a few miles from campus. I was
beginning to realize that a college degree no longer came with
guarantees.
I turned over to the textbooks. Studying is the last thing I want to
do.
I rolled onto my back. But my parents sacrificed everything so
that studying would be the only thing I have to do.
The ceiling remained silent.
I flipped over and planted my face in my pillow.
I trudged to the library the following morning, my biology books
under my arm. But as much as I tried to study, my internal battery
remained depleted. I needed a jump start, something to inspire me.
So I pushed my chair back from the study tables, wandered to the
aisles of the biography section, and pulled out a book on Bill Gates. I
figured reading about someone as successful as Gates might spark
something within me. And it did—just not what I’d expected.
Here was a guy who started his company when he was my age,
grew it into the most valuable corporation in the world,
revolutionized an industry, became the richest man alive, and then
stepped down as the CEO of Microsoft to become the most generous
philanthropist on earth. Thinking about what Bill Gates
accomplished felt like standing at the base of Mount Everest and
staring up at the peak. All I could wonder was: How did he take his
first steps up the mountain?
Before I knew it I was flipping through the biographies of one
successful person after another. Steven Spielberg climbed the Mount
Everest of directing, so how did he do it? How did a kid who’d been
rejected from film school become the youngest major studio director
in Hollywood history? How did Lady Gaga, when she was nineteen
years old and waiting tables in New York City, get her first record
deal?
I kept returning to the library, searching for a book that held the
answers. But after a few weeks, I was left empty-handed. There
wasn’t a single book that focused on the stage of life I was in. When
no one knew their names, when no one would take their meetings,
how did these people find a way to launch their careers? That’s when
my naive eighteen-year-old thinking kicked in: Well, if no one has
written the book I’m dreaming of reading, why not just write it
myself?
It was a dumb idea. I couldn’t even write a term paper without half
the page coming back covered in red ink. I decided not to do it.
But as the days pressed on, the idea wouldn’t let me go. What
interested me wasn’t writing a book so much as embarking on “a
mission”—a journey to uncover these answers. I figured if I could just
talk to Bill Gates myself, he had to have the Holy Grail of advice.
I ran the idea by my friends and found out I wasn’t the only one
staring at the ceiling. They were dying for answers too. What if I go
on this mission on behalf of all of us? Why not just call up Bill Gates,
interview him, track down some other icons, put what I discover in a
book, and share it with my generation?
The hard part, I figured, would be paying for it. Traveling to
interview all these people would cost money, money I didn’t have. I
was buried in tuition payments and all out of Bar Mitzvah cash.
There had to be another way.
Two nights before fall semester final exams, I was back in the library
when I took a break to scroll through Facebook. That’s when I saw a
friend’s post about free tickets to The Price Is Right. The game show
was filmed a few miles from campus. It’s one of those shows I
watched as a kid when I stayed home sick from school. Audience
members would get called down to become contestants, they’d be
shown a prize, and if they guessed closest to the actual price without
going over, they’d win. I’d never seen a full episode before, but how
hard could it be?
What if…what if I go on the show to win some money to fund the
mission?
It was absurd. The show was taping the next morning. I had to
study for finals. But the thought kept crawling back into my mind. To
prove to myself it was a horrible idea, I opened my notebook and
wrote a list of the best- and worst-case scenarios.

I searched online to calculate the odds of winning. Out of three
hundred people in the audience, one wins. I used my cellphone to do
the math: a 0.3 percent chance.
See, this is why I didn’t like math.
I looked at the 0.3 percent on my phone, then at the stack of
biology books on my desk. But all I could think was, What if…? It felt
as if someone had tied a rope around my gut and was slowly pulling.
I decided to do the logical thing and study.
But I didn’t study for finals. I studied how to hack The Price Is
Right.