A few weeks ago, UC San Diego experienced its first ever inter-collegiate hackathon, SD Hacks. More than a year ago, I decided that I wanted to make this happen, and set out on one of the longest journeys of my life to see it to completion.
Before I even begin to start talking about the event, let’s talk about why I started.
For some background — as of this article being written, UCSD is ranked as the 14th best university in the world by the ARWU. This is definitely something to be proud of, especially as a public university, and even more notable when you look at the university’s “hockey stick curve” through university ranking charts… but to our generation, it’s something of a torture.
As a 19 year old computer engineering student, I have tried to explain this idea to the generation of alumni above me for quite some time, and have failed. Let me see if I can better put it into words this time.
There’s a quote I like from Fight Club:
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
In the midst of the brink of a new era, with ‘opportunity’ left and right, we are deluded by the education system to keep our heads down, and are told everything will be okay. Go for a stable job, and you’ll get a stable life.
As many of us are finding out … we are not okay.
We are anything but stable.
We are a generation of adderall addicts. Of SAT, ACT, GRE, and every other initialism test-prep classes. Many of our parents gave us three options: doctor, engineer, or disowned. Yet at the same time, I’ve heard my parent’s generation lament the fall of outdoor play, of true hard work, and of good ol’ fashioned fun. I lament the fall of an era where dropping out of high school to marry a teenage crush and keeping the same job you had at 16 was an acceptable option.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
So many of my peers are locked into tunnel vision: lots of studying → good grades → good internship → good job → good life → good death? Break the mold and who knows what I’ll lose.
If I can’t do this everyone will think I’m a failure.
14th in the world is good. But it is thirteen places behind many others. Can I still succeed? Did I just relentlessly spend two decades of my life to be 14th best at something?
Am I actually good at anything?
Education is like religion or financial status. It runs deep. Most people I meet either have a lot of pride or a lot of shame in where they went to school.
There is an exception to this rule though. On some occasions, we cannot avoid judging people on actual merit. In some mediums, we forget to ask about who, but instead only marvel at what has been done.
One of those magical places is at a hackathon.
At hackathons, few people ask where you are from. Everyone asks what you are building. If you have not been to a hackathon, go. ASAP. They can be some of the most paradigm shifting experiences you can imagine.
Forget the last two decades of struggle, failure, and unfulfilled expectations. In the past twenty-four hours, I did this.
I had to bring one to UC San Diego, and I had to make one people could be proud of. I had to help the people who lost faith in themselves.
It was a long process getting the event up and running. Listening to stories of illicit plots, circumventing bureaucracy, and other nightmare-ish things from other hackathon organizers, I knew I wanted to do this event the ‘legitimate’ way. Little did I know how much of an uphill battle that would be.
For more than a year, I worked with school administration, the UC Office of the President, the City of San Diego, dozens of companies, our regional economic council, and more to get the event off of the ground. And although it took time, it happened.
Most of all though, I have one group to thank.
There were several times I thought SD Hacks was not going to happen. There was so much to do, and even staying up 50 hours straight, there were deadlines I could barely make. Ironically, in trying to solve the problem of self-perception, I wasn’t good enough to make everything happen.
Post-event, I can see that all of my concerns panned out. Media coverage is still going well, and I am getting congratulations left and right.
Most of all though, I have one group to thank.
I don’t feel like I deserve this.
A lot of times people who win things like to give out a lot of thanks. The one guy at the podium after the Oscars says “I’d like to thank my mother and my spouse, who I could not have done this without.” Bullshit. Your mom didn’t pull off that awesome scene on stage when the boat was sinking.
This is not that kind of thank you.
When SD Hacks was at its most critical points, the people who I have the honor of calling my friends stepped up and made it happen.
“What do you need us to do?”
They stayed at the event as long as I did.
“I know just the person to do that.”
They called in so many favors to get some core pieces of the event together.
“We are here for you!”
If it were not for the people that love me, SD Hacks would have failed. This event, clocking in at 5% of my lifespan worth of work and at $300k of expenses is by far the largest thing I have ever done; it is also by far the most humbling thing I can imagine to know that my success is solely a product of my community’s support.
I talked to one of these friends after the event.
“Don’t say you don’t deserve it,” she said. “We all came out because we believed in you!”
You all will never know how much you mean to me. Thank you.
Another friend of mine, who goes to another university, asked me a question over Facebook.
Let’s do a quick summary on what I’ve gained from planning a hackathon…
From SD Hacks, I have gotten about ten million thank you’s.
I’ve introduced a lot of people to an outlet for expressing creativity and learning new things, setting normal limits aside.
I met people from many walks of life, and from many levels of power and influence.
Soon I’ll be in touch with the founders of Angel Hacks, to learn about scaling hackathons even more.
I managed to start an intra-UC community, with the UC Office of the President promising more resources to schools to help with more personalized forms of STEM education.
I am now taken seriously by people who once doubted me, because I have a massive success under my belt. My potential to do more good has exponentially grown.
I’ve been told by a few people that work in the San Diego that I’ve grown more mature, patient, and understanding. It’s hard to know how oneself has changed, but I’ll trust them.
But most importantly of all for me, I made lots of friends and experienced the depth of old friendships. I now know that I can tackle large projects, and I now know who is standing behind me when I recklessly charge into the future.
I was looking to build a hackathon to demonstrate that people can do anything. I think I did a better job of proving that to myself.
But what about “side projects?” Like my friend asked, shouldn’t one focus on their own personal projects? Helping the community for the sake of being a good person is great and all, but don’t I need to take care of myself to succeed? What about my GPA, my resume, my money, my life?
I gave up a lot for SD Hacks. I really did. And of course, whenever you are fighting something that seems like a losing battle, you want to quit.
Maybe I’m better off doing something else.
I once got in a fight with someone on the beach. I called them selfish for giving up on their community, and knowingly choosing to stop doing things that helped others in order to focus more time on being self-serving.
Perhaps there is no shame in that. Life is short; if you aren’t spending your time somewhere that feels good, stop now and go find something else.
Seriously. Go be happy.
Still, I think most people misjudge the self-gain of giving back to the community. Even for SD Hacks, it was apparent that my success came from a special kind of interdependence, a network where people who believed in my cause wanted to see me personally succeed.
If you help your community, they will be sure to help you too.
I still owe my friends so much.
The key here is balance. Through what I’ve given to the community, I’ve met people I’ll start new, more focused projects with (startup maybe?) Win or lose, I’ll give up my knowledge to help others. Through the help I offer to others, I’ll make more connections to more cool people, and open up more windows to cool projects. With some luck in startup world on these cool projects, I’d love to buy a few sports cars and maybe a house or two. I’d love to donate to UCSD, who gave a considerable donation to get SD Hacks started. Maybe I could even get a campus parking permit.
I give some to myself, some to those around me — quickly those two feed from each other.
It’s a cycle; being a part of it is the quickest way I know to accelerate the number and quality of opportunities that appear in your life.
“When I grow up, I want to do things that matter.”
SD Hacks 2015 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I think it proves that:
- People (aka you) are capable of a lot. Believing you can is half the battle.
- There is no shame in a moment of weakness. Everyone needs a little help, but everyone can also do great things.
- Community is essential; people can always do more when they keep in mind helping each other.
Three perfect points! It’s like I have extremely mild OCD and a little voice that talks in my head in all italics!
Next year Yacoub and Jeff will be taking my place in leading SD Hacks, and I know they will do a fantastic job. That’s certainly not the end of me and hackathons though — I’m excited to come back to help them out whenever needed, and still have a few more surprises up my sleeve.
I can’t wait for SD Hacks 2016, and for the rest of the fun projects that lie ahead.
Thanks again to my team, my friends, and all that have supported my sanity through this process. Another big thanks to those who helped me edit this essay.
Chancellor’s office, if you read this, I really do want a parking permit. A little birdy told me OB passes are the shiz.
This article was originally published on Medium.