Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The Road Less Taken

In Long form on August 1, 2011 at 9:59 am

The two scenes could not have been more different. Three thousand miles separated the pristinely manicured fairways and greens of the Bighorn Golf Club from the cramped dormitory at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Lined with the Palm Desert’s historic date palm trees and illuminated by the SoCal sun, the tournament beckoned its competitors westward with a chance at wealth and fame.

Situated in New Hampshire’s unrelenting granite hills, the dorm offered only a sense of history, the collective legacy — or burden — of 221 years of housing America’s patricians-in-training.

The two settings perfectly encapsulated their respective inhabitants. Michelle Wie was West Coast to her core. Born in Hawaii to South Korean emigrants, Michelle’s natural golf talent was emblematic of generations of Americans who had left the East Coast to chase Pacific dreams. The Zuckerbergs were an upper middle class family from White Plains, N.Y. Their educated background and financial stability meant that Edward and Karen Zuckerberg could offer their son a chance at success. And yet, while they could provide the prep school education, possibly even afford their son an Ivy League degree, the future would be Mark’s to create. Not so, for Michelle. Her future was not a series of possibilities. It was preordained — a destiny of golf superstardom.

Michelle played her first round of golf at the age of four. By age 10, she qualified for her first amateur tournament, becoming the youngest female American player to make an amateur cut. The next year she won both the Hawaii State Women’s Stroke Play Championship and the Jennie K. Wilson Women’s Invitational, two of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in Hawaii. In 2002, she won the Hawaii State Open Women’s Division — by 13 shots.

Tournament organizers invited her to participate in the Sony Open’s pro-junior competition. Surrounded by professionals with years of tour experience, Michelle consistently smashed 275-yard drives with machine-like repetition and sank putts like a golfer twice her age. Young phenoms were not new to golf. Bobby Jones had been one of the premier amateur golfers in the United States by the age of 14, and he won his first U.S. Open by age 21. Tiger Woods won his first amateur title at 15 and his first major by 22. But never before had a female golfer received the hype that was growing around Michelle Wie.

Not just hype — pure, harnessed potential. Her swing? “Perfect.” Poise? “Either you have it or don’t, and this girl has got it.” Her drive? “She can bomb it.” This wasn’t just another young golfer with ability. This was a once-in-a-generation talent. “She’s going to be a world-beater on the LPGA tour.” For a moment, a middle schooler was the most talked about figure in the golf world. Stanford soon came calling.

For a girl who idolized Tiger Woods, what could be more fitting than following in his footsteps and playing for the Cardinal?

He just wanted to help. Well, maybe not just help. His father would certainly be impressed, and what would a 13-year-old boy like more than the appreciation of his father?

Although he wasn’t the interpersonal kind himself, Mark Zuckerberg was fascinated by communication. It was what first made him interested in ancient Greek and Latin texts. It fascinated him: the formation of the words, the syllables, the letters and the knowledge that they contained. The information.

That’s what Mark’s father needed help with, transporting and accessing information. Edward Zuckerberg’s dental practice wasn’t big enough to house the complete collection of medical and financial files. A larger space was out of the question financially, so Dr. Zuckerberg had to keep some of the practice’s files at home.

ZuckNet would change that. If Dr. Zuckerberg couldn’t make the trip home to access a file, why couldn’t the file come to him digitally? For Mark, it was as easy as alpha, beta, 1001. With ZuckNet, the computers at his father’s practice and the home computer could constantly communicate by pinging each other. The following year, a software company released a similar program. AOL Instant Messenger now has the largest share of the instant messaging market share in the United States.

If ZuckNet was an abacus — simple, useful, a tool — Synapse was a marble statue. Many of Mark’s friends were artists. When they would hang out, Mark would take their drawings and design them into video games. Programming became art, from organization on the page to organization on the screen. But could that organization go further, and why couldn’t the computer do it by itself?

To Mark, the MP3 file was a favorite song. To the computer, it was simply digital information. Synapse would change that. With Synapse, the computer could recognize that MP3 file as a favorite song and could create a playlist based entirely around that one song. With the program, the computer knew what kind of music you liked. Had Apple or Microsoft debuted similar software for their music players? No. Did they want that software? Yes. Microsoft’s final offer for Synapse: $2 million and a big-time programming job with the company. Mark had not even graduated from high school.

For a boy who always wanted to make a living programming data, what could be more fitting than working for the largest software company in the world?

Robert Frost wrote a poem about the road not taken making all the difference. Most people dwell on the wrong part of the poem. They take the road itself, the chosen pathway, as the soul-building exercise. But it’s the decision at the fork in the road, not the road itself, which makes the difference.

Two people with seemingly unlimited potential both faced with a choice. Perhaps that’s oversimplifying it. It’s always easier in hindsight to locate the solitary choice that sets the seemingly unalterable course. But therein lies the attraction. It is simple, and that simplicity allows us to trace in our minds back to that single instance and thereupon lay the sum of our thanks, or our blame.

Michelle Wie had a choice. Stanford offered her the chance to play four years of golf on their dime at the highest levels of amateur competition. Or she could eschew Stanford’s offer and enter professional competition as one of the most hyped female golfers in the history of the sport.

Mark Zuckerberg had a choice. But was it really a choice? He’d gotten into Harvard, which was an accomplishment in itself, but his family would have to pay for it. They had some money, but he was by no means rich. Microsoft was offering him seven figures and a job for a program he created in his spare time. This wasn’t an offer. It was a golden ticket. This was not a choice; it was a future.

You can trace the ramifications through the headlines.

Steep Drop.” It wasn’t supposed to start like this. When Michelle went pro, everyone — her parents, the media and definitely herself — saw it as the beginning of an historic golf career. LPGA titles? They were a given. The real question was, “would the ‘L’ be necessary?” Annika Sorenstam had tried to make the cut at a few men’s tournaments, but she found little success. Michelle was taller, stronger, and she had that will to win, to prove herself. She’d had it since she was four.

Her first professional event, the LPGA Samsung World Championship was unremarkable. Her 71 was good enough for one under par, but lingering questions over a drop on the seventh hole of her third round resulted in a two stroke penalty assessed after the tournament. Michelle was disqualified from the tournament and forced to forfeit her fourth-place prize money. But there was always the next tournament. That’s when she would find her form. “One careless mistake will not diminish Wie’s brilliant future.”

But that professional form never came. “Wie narrowly misses qualifying for Winged Foot.” “‘88 Rule’ was looming when Wie withdrew.” “Wie’s old coach says he can fix her swing.” Michelle Wie is only 22. If she finds her professional form, many will be happy for her. But by then, it will no longer be remarkable. Michelle Wie wunderkind won’t be applicable. Michelle Wie professional golfer will suffice.

We aren’t like that. We make enough money.” Mark didn’t go to work for Microsoft. He went to Harvard and studied computer science. During his sophomore year, two seniors — twins, crew captains, secret society members — offered Mark the chance to work with them on a website. They knew it would be popular, maybe even make some money. Mark could become the main programmer for the successful student start-up company and become a name at Harvard.

But Mark didn’t go to work for the twins either. Instead, he and his roommates decided to create their own website. Thefacebook.com would be a place where people could share information about themselves, make new connections, move their social experiences online. It would be huge.

Within months of launching the company, the website grew exponentially. First there were hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of members. Venture Capitalists submitted offers for Thefacebook. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Mark didn’t sell the company. Today, with a net worth of over $13 billion, Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire and one of the wealthiest men on the planet.

Trace them back and you return to those choices. Familiar choices —  not the same, but similar. Find a job or go to grad school? Move back to home or head west? Head east? Head international and everything in between? Again, perhaps that’s too simple. Perhaps it’s not the choice itself, but when you make it. Michelle Wie saw fame and fortune and jumped at it at a young age. Was she arrogant to do so? Mark Zuckerberg turned down massive sums of money and certain employment to develop a dream with no guarantee of success. Is he a fool for doing so?

We’re often quick to take a seemingly good deal at first glance. Money is tempting. A good job certainly is. But neither is as tempting as certainty — the certainty of financial stability, of employment, of some measure of success. We ride the wave until we see the vast unknown of the ocean and are all too happy to get off when we rise just above the horizon.

But what if we don’t get off? What if we stay on the wave and see how high it rises? 

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