17 May, 2015

Why I Am Taking a Semester Off to Travel

Coming into Berkeley my freshman year, I would have never thought I would be taking a break from school. I was ecstatic to immerse myself in the environment of one of the best university in the world. I was gung-ho to make it the best experience of my life.

And yet, it has only been a month since I decided I wanted to take a semester break. I took some time to think about my decision, and ultimately decided this was for the best.

For those of you who wondered why I’m making this jump, let me enumerate my reasons.

Life too on track

I remember having a conversation last year with my former roommate, Patrick. He told me that my life was too on track and that the best antidote is for me to drop out of school.

I thought about that for some time, and decided that Patrick was right. I honestly have no complainable worries. I don’t have the same problems most young adults have. I have a great set of friends. I don’t have to worry about my grades. I’m one class away from being able to graduate. No dependencies or responsibilities. No kids, wife, or girlfriend; sick family members or pets. Pretty good job security for the foreseeable future. Nothing to complain about.

Most people who see my life would say that I’m set for life. While the comments are intended to be positive reinforcements of what I accomplished during my time at Berkeley, I can’t help but feel stagnant. Somehow, the imagery of where I will end up in 5 years is too vivid. That scares me.

Because I have no obligations (personal, academic, financial), I get to diversify my experiences. This is a rarely time and opportunity in my life to have so much freedom and mobility, and I intend to take advantage of it fully. My second biggest fear of my travels (the first being putting my health in danger) is actually that I’ll fall in love abroad and never come back. That kind of obligation would ultimately end my journey.

UC Berkeley/Silicon Valley: I’m not quite sure why I’m here

I attended an advising session today to learn that I was actually one class short this semester from being able to graduate! That’s crazy! I was actually going to complete a class that completes the requirement this year, but ultimately got kicked out by the overfilled class. My realization led to two thoughts


  1. I’ve always been busy here at Berkeley. I’ve taken all the classes that interested me, participated in every activity and club I could possibly fit into, and rushed through my experience in a way that left very little to be savored. I could have graduated in 2.5 years!
  2. Staying in Berkeley now is largely of my own free will and choice. Given it’s the default choice, I should more consciously consider why I’m here. This ultimately leads to the question “Why am I here at Berkeley?”

There’s something about junior year that feels too similar to sophomore year. Maybe I’m little burnt out, but it also feels like I’m going with the inertia of the decisions my sophomore self made. I need time to understand what value I can get out of my time here.

When I was a senior in highschool, I thought I wanted to be a tech entrepreneur. I wanted to change the world by building a social networking site that facilitated young adults to meet up. After some years pursuing this goal of mine, I took some serious thought over what I really wanted. I think I romanticized the idea of being the next Zuckerburg, or was infatuated with the idea of being in a news article, none of which brought me any permanent joy. After continually being exposed to the startup culture in the bay area, and seeing both the grand optimism of tech startups paired with the amount of bullshit in the scene, I admit that maybe, right now, tech entrepreneurship isn’t for me.

For one, if I wanted to change the world, there are other ways of doing so with equal merit and impact (more on that later). Similarly, if I really just wanted attention, I could have pursued other careers. Being in the Bay Area has subtly limited my scope of possible ways to pursue my goals. Want to educate children in 3rd world countries? Built an education startup. Want to change government policy? Start a company. For those who don’t live in the bay area, know that these types of conversation occur more often that I would like.

I like to think of the mentality as this way: Ask a 10 year old what he wants to be when he grows up. The 10 year old eagerly says, “I want to be a policeman!”. That’s cute, most parents would say. But most parents wouldn’t take their children seriously. What does a 10 year old know? Does he know being a policeman involves a lot of office work? Many policemen never get to live the lives they see on television. Do 10 years old know that they are other jobs? Like being a computer scientist? Or a radiologist? Or thousands of other jobs that he had failed to consider or realize? What does that say about the 10 year old, who’s presumably dead set on being a policeman? I’d chuckle and say “that’s cute” too.

I believe that’s a similar reasoning that can carry well on into the 20’s of one’s life. How can one say for certain what they want to do for the rest of their lives if they’ve never tried other things? I don’t intend of being an ageist. Experience correlates with age, and frankly I don’t think I’m old enough to say I’ve experienced enough of life to know for certain what I would do when I’m older.

I lived in the bay area for almost 10 years now. Before those 10 years, I had regularly traveled around the world, roughly once a year (I had moved countries 7 times by the time I was 10). I believe traveling will allow me to step back from the environment to evaluate it for what it’s worth, and at the same time explore other cultures to see other possible pursuits as well. Hopefully, when I come back, I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend my time in Berkeley/Silicon Valley.


The Black Swan Events

Some of the most significant events in my life are largely due to random chance, whether it’s discovering computer science, finding a romantic partner, or stumbling across profound wisdom.

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, coins the term “Black Swan” to describe such events — highly impactful but largely unpredictable events. Black swan events shape our day to day life when we’re exposed to them. Yet, one is rarely going to meet their soulmate if they study in the library all day. I would not have learned about computer science as a career choice had my friend not invited me to a tech conference, and he would not have invited me had I not written a blog post about doing things you love in high school.

So your “luck surface area,” or the amount of exposure you have to lucky event, is largely a matter of personal choice. Being in an environment I’m largely familiar and doing things I already do, I haven’t had many lucky breaks. That’s why I’m going to explore new possibilities for activities, and meet new people across the world.

Success (however you define it) comes from expending energy on the right ventures (ventures broadly defined). The problem breaks down into two general steps. 1. Finding out what think success is and the right way to pursue it and 2. Execution.

I’m still in phase 1, so it’s best to find out more information and ultimately decide what I want in life and the right way to do it.

Since I’m in phase 1, I’m purposely diversifying my experiences to expose myself to more black swan events, and see what is feasible.

The Trip: The Details

I’ve read that your trip around the world so revolve around activities, not places to visit. Considering that, here are my top goals for my trip.

  • Physical Peak: I’m still young (I hope), I want to reach my physical peak during my trip. This means doing lots of physical activities like biking, skiing, snowboarding, snorkeling, Muay Thai, dance.
  • Be a Good Dancer: Some of my favorite moments in Berkeley have been involved in the dance community, and I want to pursue it further. I love learning kinesthetic skills, so dance is a great traveling pursuit. I also believe dance communities around the world are a great way to dive deeper into each culture.



I want to thank my family and friends for supporting my decision to a semester off.

I want to thank my parents for being supportive of the journey. I always feel super lucky and grateful to have my parents. Both of them grew up in rural Taiwan in relative poverty. They worked extremely hard to give my siblings and I the opportunities they never received when they were young. They sure as hell never traveled the world when they were in college.

I want to thank my sister, who is vicariously living her traveling dreams through me.

I want to thank all my friends, who either were supportive of my plans or were concerned enough of my well being to talk me through it.

The funny thing. I’m scared shitless.

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1 Response

  1. 17 May, 2015

    […] Instead of attending my 6th semester at UC Berkeley. I decided to take a semester off to travel abroad. I have had whims of this nature every spring semester now since I’ve entered Berkeley. My freshman spring I did rejection therapy. My sophomore spring I decided to hit the gym. However, this year my sporadic nature came early. By mid-way of my Fall semester, I’ve already yearned to do something new. I’ve highlighted some of the reasons in a personal note I wrote in November. […]

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