My Journey from GED to PhD Student at UC Berkeley

It was anything but a straight line.

Celebrating life in the warm seas of the Bahamas (2018)

The outlook was extremely grim for me in 1998, and few would have predicted any success for this unemployed, teenaged immigrant and high school dropout with a pregnant girlfriend. Truth be told, if I was aware 20 years ago of the pain that awaited me beyond the horizon — homelessness, sexual assaults, racial assaults, and mental challenges beyond my wildest dreams — chances are I would have run in the opposite direction and sabotaged my own destiny. Thankfully, I was biased toward optimism and oblivious about the future as everyone else was.

As I left home for the final time at the age of 18, my mother said to me, “Remember son, persistence negates resistance.” I then kissed her on the cheek and was off into the unknown.

The pact.

Now I’m not a religious man, but the night of December 23rd, 1998 was one of those nights I’ll never forget as it set things in motion for the rest of my life. It was almost like a scene out of Oliver Twist as I stood under a dim streetlight shivering in the cold. It was two days before Christmas and I was far away from everyone I knew and loved — hungry, freezing, almost completely broke, and alone. I’ve come to learn that moments such as these are incredibly valuable.

Desperate for a sliver of hope and gazing up into the night sky with a tear running down my cheek, I made a pact with God right there and then. Speaking out loud to the stars in the night sky, I said, “Alright God, let’s make a deal — I will dedicate my life to doing your will and helping others to the best of my ability … and all I ask is that you promise me that everything will be OK.

Just like that, I entered a contract with God. And from that moment onward, I focused the entire reason for my existence on selflessly helping others without expectation of anything in return.

“You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.” — Zig Ziglar

Something powerful happens when you embody the truth that “everything will be OK in the end.” For one, it frees up a lot of psychological resources that would normally be wasted worrying unnecessarily about life. After all, why worry about a tiny pothole in the road when the ultimate destination is beachfront paradise?

Blessed with a newfound spiritual safety net, my life journey became fun, and ‘impossible’ challenges transformed into exciting opportunities because I “knew” that everything was going to be OK.

What’s interesting is that as I held up my part of the contract of helping as many people as I could to the best of my ability, I received more in return than I could ever ask for.

My first opportunity to serve others with love? A clogged, overflowing toilet.

Sometimes opportunity doesn’t knock — it overflows.

It may not have been my finest moment, but there I was, down on all fours in an attempt to unclog a ladies’ toilet in front of an audience of women dressed in business attire. My level of focus was so intense that thoughts of shame or feelings of embarrassment never entered my mind. I remember thinking two things: “I will do this to the best of my ability,” and “what the heck is down there?” After fixing the clog and cleaning up, I decided to inspect every other toilet in the building to see if they were in proper working condition. That’s when I struck a toilet gold mine hidden in plain sight.

While most of the remaining toilets in the building were OK, there was one men’s bathroom in the basement that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in 20 years. The only reason I could gather that it was still in use, was its convenient location to the offices in the basement that saved a 5 min walk to the ground floor.

While most others saw that bathroom as a smelly, rusted, stained, and disgusting place, what I saw was an amazing opportunity to serve. Without being asked, I made that forgotten space my personal pet project.

“If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cleaning the “bathroom from hell” became the most important thing I could do with my life in that moment. That weekend I purchased supplies, then proceeded to scrub, paint, and sanitize every square inch of that space for 8 hours non-stop. It wasn’t exactly Buckingham palace when I was done, but Queen Elizabeth could surely use it in a pinch — and it looked, felt and smelled great.

On Monday morning the department lead who worked in the basement, Jim, was so impressed by the unexpected surprise that he asked around to find out who did the work. After finding me, Jim shook my hand and sincerely thanked me over and over again.

Yes, it was only a dirty bathroom and not a cure for cancer, but somehow I accomplished something meaningful that no one else would.

Years later I would discover that, unbeknownst to me, Jim had submitted a glowing letter of appreciation that resulted in my getting promoted with increased pay and responsibility later that year. It may sound like hyperbole, but I often use that dirty toilet as the reference point for all of my successes leading up to this day.

The list that changed everything.

When people ask me, “How’d you do it, D?” I’ve been known to respond with:

“When you have a strong enough ‘why’, the ‘how’ will present itself.” — Darryl Diptee

Then I tell the story of the list I made at the age of 21. It wasn’t written on magic paper, but it might have well had been, because I accomplished everything on that list down to the last detail up to and including acceptance into a prestigious PhD program.

One day back in 2000, I took a blank piece of paper and decided to map out the next 10–20 years of my life. With no distractions, I sat there for over an hour staring deeply into a single piece of paper, and writing little more than 50 words with deep conviction as I listed the things I wanted to achieve in life. I also included estimates of when each goal would be accomplished and drew arrows that connected them together in sequence. That list was a life map that captured my deepest intentions and was a future projection of what was to come.

You’ll find success on a dance floor, not a path’s end.

The journey from where I once was to where I am today, was anything but a predictable line. Looking backwards, I can now tell that the path was in fact riddled with land mines, close calls and what some would call divine strokes of “luck” at perfect moments when I needed it most.

But here’s the secret about what many call “the path to success”: there is no path. What worked for me might not work for you because life, circumstances, and the world is ever changing.

You can only see the path after you’ve walked it, by looking backwards at the steps you’ve taken. But looking forward into the unknown, there is no path … only dance steps to be taken to the music of life.

Run into an obstacle on the dance floor on the way to your goal? Dance around it. Need to dance backwards for a while? Enjoy the life lesson. But no matter what happens, have fun and keep dancing toward your goal.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” — Steve Jobs

If you remember one thing from this article, let it be this:

Worldly success will not make you happy.

You might have heard this before, but it is a difficult life lesson: No amount of money, love, ‘likes’, or adoring fans will make you happy.

Period. Full-stop.

There’s nothing wrong with setting audacious goals and dancing toward them to the music of life, but remember: true happiness has nothing to do with success.

It took me the first 30 years of life to learn that if you are unable to find happiness within yourself right now, then any future success will either magnify that unhappiness, or keep you numbed with pleasure until the “success high” wears off. Achieving goals can only pacify you for a while the way a hungry baby calms down after sucking on a bottle, but it will not resolve the core of your underlying unhappiness.

Bob Marley alluded to this in Running Away, as he once famously sang, “ Ya running and ya running and ya running away … But ya can’t run away from yourself.” That’s because the underlying cause for our unhappiness resides within each of us. Material success will never satisfy an inner void.

This is seen time and time again with extreme cases of success — highly “successful” people often experience massive unhappiness and depression once they realize that the insatiable void in their hearts is still there. Their inner voice narrative thus tragically concludes, “I’ve conquered the impossible by achieving everything I ever wanted and I have every pleasure at my disposal, but the emptiness inside is vaster than ever before.” Yet, like a moth to the flame we strive to acquire massive amounts of wealth.

Chances are, you are not immune to the disease of the insatiable void. Without a strong mental foundation, worldly success tends to destroy the human spirit. Simultaneously burn the candle at both ends by striving for success in both the inner and outer worlds, and you will be able to experience a continuous stream of happiness as you journey toward and beyond your life’s goals.

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