I sold my sailboat to a boat dealer for sixteen thousand dollars,
which for a college student feels like a million bucks. I felt so rich I
kept buying Chipotle for all my friends—free guacamole for
everyone! But after the holidays, when I returned to school for
spring semester, the party was over. It was hard for my eyes not to
gloss over in my premed classes as I imagined what it would be like
to instead learn from Bill Gates. I counted down the days until
summer, when I could finally focus all my time on the mission.
Just before school let out, I had a routine meeting with my premed
adviser. She clicked away at her computer and scrolled through my
transcript, studying my “unchecked boxes.”
“Uh-oh, Mr. Alex, we have a little problem.”
“What is it?”
“Looks like you’re behind on credits. To stay premed, you’ll have to
take chemistry this summer.”
“No!” I blurted, the word slipping out before I could catch it. “I
mean, I’ve got other plans.”
My adviser slowly swiveled in her chair, turning away from her
computer and leveling her gaze at me.
“No, no, Mr. Alex. Premeds don’t have other plans. You either sign
up for chemistry by next Wednesday or you’re no longer a premed.
You’re either on the track, or you’re not.”
I dragged myself to my dorm room. All the usual suspects were
there: the white ceiling, the USC football poster, and the biology
books. Except this time, something felt different. I sat at my desk to
draft an email to my parents, telling them I was switching from
premed to a business major. But as I tried to type, the words
wouldn’t come. For almost anybody else, switching majors isn’t a big
deal. But for me, after my parents had told me for years that being at
my medical school graduation was their biggest dream, each time my
fingers hit the keyboard, I felt I was shattering their hopes, one
stroke at a time.
I willed myself to finish the email and pressed send. I waited for
my mom’s response, but it never came. When I called, she didn’t
That weekend, I drove home to visit my parents. As I walked
through the front door, I found my mom sitting on the couch,
sniffling, a crumpled tissue in her hand. My dad was beside her. My
sisters, Talia and Briana, were in the living room too, but as soon as
they saw me, they scattered.
“Mom, I’m sorry, but you just have to trust me.”
“If you’re not going to be a doctor,” she said, “what are you going
to do with your life?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you planning to do with a business degree?”
“I don’t know.”
“So how are you going to support yourself?”
“I don’t know!”
“You’re right: you don’t know! You don’t know anything. You don’t
know what it’s like in the real world. You don’t know what it’s like to
have to start over in a new country with nothing. What I do know is
that if you become a doctor, if you can save people, you can do that
anywhere. Going on an adventure is not a career. You can’t get this
I looked at my dad, hoping he’d support me, but all he did was
shake his head.
The emotional barrage went on all weekend. I knew what I had to
do. I did what I’d always done.
I called my grandma.
My grandma is like a second mother to me. When I was a kid, my
favorite place in the world was her home. I felt safe there. Her phone
number was the first one I’d memorized. Anytime I argued with my
mom, I’d tell my grandma my side of the story and she’d get my mom
to cut me some slack. That’s why when I called, I knew she’d
“I think,” she said, her voice landing softly on my ear, “…I think
your mom is right. We didn’t come to America and sacrifice
everything, just so you could throw it all away.”
“I’m not throwing it away. I don’t understand what the big deal is.”
“Your mom wants a life for you that we never had. In a revolution,
they can take your money, they can take your business—but if you’re
a doctor, they can’t take away what you know.
“And, if it’s medicine you don’t like,” she added, “then fine. But an
undergraduate degree is not enough in this country. You have to get
“If that’s what it’s about, I can get an MBA or go to law school.”
“If you do that, then, okay. But I’m telling you: I don’t want you to
become one of these American kids who gets ‘lost’ and then tries to
find himself by traveling the world.”
“I’m just switching my major! And I’ll still get my MBA or
something like that.”
“Well, if that’s your plan, then I’ll talk to your mom. But I need you
to promise me, that no matter what, you’ll finish undergrad and get
“Yeah, I promise.”
“No,” she said, her voice hardening. “Don’t tell me: ‘Yeah, I
promise.’ Tell me jooneh man that you’ll get your master’s.”
Jooneh man is the strongest promise in the Persian language. My
grandma was asking me to swear on her life.
“Fine. I swear.”
“No,” she said. “Say: jooneh man.”
“Okay. Jooneh man.”
The days got warmer and summer finally arrived. I cleaned out my
dorm room and moved home. But on my first day back, I felt restless.
If I wanted to be serious about the mission, I needed a serious place
Late that evening, I grabbed my mom’s keys off her nightstand,
drove to her office building, climbed the stairs to her storage room,
and flicked on the lights. The space was tiny and covered in cobwebs.
There were old filing cabinets, run-down storage boxes, and a beatup
chair crammed behind a rickety wooden desk.
I packed the storage boxes into my car and put them in our garage.
The next morning, I moved in a few bookshelves, vacuumed the
dusty carpet, and taped a USC banner above the door. Then I
installed a printer and made cutout business cards with my name
and number. As I took a seat behind my desk, I kicked my feet up
and smiled—it felt like a corner office of a Manhattan high-rise.
Although, in reality, it looked more like Harry Potter’s cupboard.
That first week, dozens of brown Amazon packages arrived. I tore
them open and pulled out books I’d bought using my Price Is Right
money. I lined an entire row with books about Bill Gates. Another
row on politicians, then a row on entrepreneurs, writers, athletes,
scientists, and musicians. I spent hours on the floor, arranging the
books by height on the shelves, each one another piece of my
On the top row, I placed one book on its own, the cover facing out
as if it were a shrine: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
(pronounced shay), the CEO of Zappos. When I had first been hit by
the “what do I want to do with my life?” crisis, I had volunteered at a
business conference where copies of his book were given out. I didn’t
know who he was, or what his company did, but college students
don’t say no to anything free, so I took one. Later, when my parents
became hysterical over my decision to switch majors and I was torn
about whether I’d made the right decision, I saw Tony Hsieh’s book
on my desk. It had the word “happiness” in the title, so I reached for
it as a distraction. But then I couldn’t put it down. Reading about
Tony Hsieh’s journey—about the leaps of faith he took despite
everything that could go wrong—helped me find the courage within
myself I didn’t know I had. Reading about his dream fueled me to
pursue my own. That’s why I put his book on the top shelf. Whenever
I needed to remember what was possible, all I had to do was look up.
While putting the finishing touches on the storage closet, it dawned
on me that I’d never asked myself exactly who the “most successful”
people are. How was I going to decide whom to interview for the
I called up my best friends, explained my problem, and asked them
to meet me at the storage closet. Later that night, they walked in, one
by one like a starting lineup.
First came Corwin: his messy hair dangling past his shoulders, a
video camera in his hand. We had met at USC, where he was
studying filmmaking. I felt like I could always find him either
meditating or crouching on the ground, peering through the
viewfinder of a camera. Corwin was our fresh eyes.
Then came Ryan: staring down at his phone and studying NBA
statistics, as usual. We’d met in seventh-grade math class and Ryan
was the reason I’d passed. He was our numbers guy.
Next was Andre: also looking down at his phone, except knowing
Andre, he was definitely texting a girl. We became friends when we
were twelve, and for as long as I’ve known him, he was the ladies’
Brandon followed next: holding an orange book in front of his face,
reading as he stepped in. Brandon could read an entire book in a day.
He was our walking Wikipedia.
And lastly, there was Kevin: a giant smile on his face, his presence
making the storage closet come alive. Kevin was the energy that held
our crew together. He was our Olympic flame.
We sat on the floor and began brainstorming: If we could invent
our dream university, who would be our professors?
“Like, Bill Gates would teach us business,” I said. “Lady Gaga,
“Mark Zuckerberg for tech,” Kevin yelled out.
“Warren Buffett for finance,” Ryan said.
We went on for half an hour. The only person who hadn’t
suggested a name was Brandon. When I asked what he thought, he
just lifted his orange book and pointed to the cover.
“This is who you need to talk to,” Brandon said, his finger on the
author’s name. “Tim Ferriss.”
“Who?” I asked.
Brandon handed me the book.
“Read it,” he said. “He’s going to be your hero.”
The brainstorm continued—Steven Spielberg for film, Larry King
for broadcasting—and before long, we had the list. After my friends
headed home, I wrote the names on an index card and put it in my
wallet for motivation.
I jumped out of bed the next morning, more determined than ever.
I took the index card out of my wallet and stared at the names. My
certainty that I could interview each of them by the end of summer
was the fuel that got me going. If I’d known then how my journey
would unfold—how beaten and broken I’d soon find myself—I may
never have started. But that’s the upside of being