I was 22 with less than $5 in my pocket when I landed in Chicago in June 1977 from India. My plan? To complete my master’s degree in computer science and pursue the American Dream.
Then, just 22 months into my studies, I quit.
Not the smartest move, some might say. But I’ve never looked back. Here’s why:
When I arrived in the U.S., funding my education topped my list of challenges. Fate and circumstance intervened, and I received a job offer from General Automation (GA), one of the four largest manufacturers of minicomputers in the world at the time.
I joined their software development team, which was focused on building real-time operating systems. The subject matter of my master’s curriculum mirrored my day-to-day operating system function design responsibilities at GA very closely. It was a great match, and everything was linking together nicely.
But when it came time to write my thesis, the gap between my studies and my job felt as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Failure to Launch
I began writing my thesis based on my work at GA and the product the company was planning to launch. I drew inspiration from the experiences and insights I’d gathered by working as part of the core development team.
But my thesis professor had other ideas. He basically insisted that I structure my thesis around his view of the world.
So, I quit.
Initially, the uncertainty following this decision was scary. I didn’t know it at the time, but that decision set the stage for the next four decades of my life.
I soon made peace with the fact that notching up a degree to put behind my name wasn’t all that important, but pursuing my vision was. I recognized that while being part of the master’s program had given me confidence, it was my work at GA that inspired my personal vision and armed me with the experience I needed to re-invent myself – and on my terms.
I was in my element, working on the front lines in a field that was exploding with innovation and at a job with a company that was leading the charge. I delighted in participating in the challenge, absorbing ideas, building, and executing.
Yet, my relentless vision spurred me on further still. After about two years, I approached the head of software development with a proposal:
“Why don’t we establish a consulting arm for the company?” I asked. “Yes, we have all these customers, but they need our help to get the full value out of our computers running their real-time software applications.”
The company accepted my proposal, but with a twist. They offered me ownership of the business if I set up shop.
So, that’s what I did. I still regard this decision as one of the best I’ve ever made in my life. And it probably wouldn’t have been mine to make if I hadn’t made the equally important choice to quit my master’s program years before.
Since then, I have built several billion-dollar global companies and pioneered several industry-firsts. I am also leading a new innovation project, Rise of the Machines, with my recent portfolio of AI patents called “real-time adaptive machines.” It’s very likely that none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for those decisions I made early on in my time here in America.
The Road Not Taken
What advice would I give young people in situations similar to the one I was in when I was pursuing my master’s? It’s pretty straightforward: If you believe in something passionately, but the choices of others are pulling you down, it’s OK to follow your own path.
Banish fear. Embrace risks, and concentrate on reaping the rewards of doing something you truly love. Imagine the impossible while exploring the art of the possible. Discover what it is you want out of life, then work with all the energy you’ve got to make it happen.
That’s what America is all about.
I often look back at my passionate but penniless younger self. What do I think? Is there anything I would tell him to do differently?
In closing, here are some wise words from Robert Frost, a U.S. poet and winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes. He penned the following words in his literary masterpiece, ”The Road Not Taken.”
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”