One person attended high school in Palo Alto in the 2000s, went on to study music and technology at California Lutheran University and is now working as a video editor for MTV's "Real World."
Another who attended high school here in the 1960s studied at De Anza College, Foothill College, Cuesta College and San Francisco State University and has worked in retail, publishing, film, health care and nonprofit organizations.
Another who was severely depressed, anxious and contemplated suicide in high school, failing most classes, went on to major in social work at Utah State University and defines being successful simply as "being happy."
These are a few of the more than 80 life stories that Palo Alto alumni of all ages have submitted to a new online anthology, launched this week by two lifelong friends from Palo Alto who felt compelled to share with current students something valuable they've learned with age: There is no single path to success.
"Our goal is to shatter the myth that we believed growing up -- that our career and life follow one linear path with the end goal of achieving one universal definition of success," a description of the project, called Paths from Palo Alto, states. "We hope to replace it with the reality we've uncovered -- that our career and life is a winding path made of different, sometimes unpredictable chapters in which our definition of success shifts."
Michal Pasternak and Jacqueline Gowen, now in their late 30s and living in New York, have known each other since elementary school, going through Palo Verde Elementary, JLS Middle and Gunn High schools together. (They joked that Paths from Palo Alto is the third class project they've worked on together, following one on the tundra in elementary school and an 1800s newspaper project in eighth grade.)
Both grew up believing in the Palo Alto mentality and followed it more or less until later in life. Both attended prestigious universities, obtained high-level degrees and found traditional success in their respective industries. Pasternak, a Stanford University-trained mechanical engineer, worked her way up at an East Coast digital agency and was named to magazine Advertising Age's annual "40 under 40" list. Gowen attended Harvard Business School and got a job in strategy consulting at global management firm McKinsey and Company.
But certain life events for Pasternak, a friend's serious illness, and for Gowen, having her first child led them to major career shifts. As close friends, they talked about it and wanted to start a project together to honor and encourage the belief in finding one's own definition of success particularly for people who grew up in Palo Alto.
"We had just experienced major shifts in our own careers, and the many stories we were hearing around us (friends in their 40s stuck in a job they hated but couldn't afford to leave; college grads finishing school saddled with debt, unable to find a job, and with no idea what they wanted to do; and the pressure our friends and their growing children felt trying to 'have it all'), led us to begin to explore the career and life-planning space," Pasternak and Gowen wrote in an email.
So they did research reading books, news articles, academic research on topics like education, philosophy and psychology and even conducting first-person interviews with current high school students, college students, adults in their 30s and 40s and retired people, all from Palo Alto.
A pattern emerged, they said: "Younger people tended to believe life and career was more of a linear path ... while older adults saw life and career as more of a series of chapters, or even twists and turns that they couldn't have predicted at all when they were younger."
The two friends developed a series of questions they wanted to put to Palo Altans in all these different life stages and decided that they would launch a website to capture their answers.
The result is Paths from Palo Alto, where alumni can share anonymously about everything from their high school experience, including the grades they got, to where they attended college, the places they've lived and industries they've worked in.
Pasternak and Gowen also asked for responses to more philosophical statements like "To me, being successful means ..."; "My biggest mistake or regret so far and what I've learned from it"; and "Did your education prepare you for your career or occupation?"
Pasternak and Gowen said they long debated whether the stories should be anonymous. They decided anonymity was a higher priority in order to ensure a "real, honest, unedited story," Gowen said.
"We really wanted the focus to be on truth, authenticity the stories you would never hear on a LinkedIn. The stories you would never hear on a Facebook," Pasternak said. "There's a lot of posturing that goes on throughout adulthood, too and people don't want to show their flaws, their weaknesses, their stumbles.
"We just wanted to make a place where actual life experiences could shine through," she said.
On the site, the MTV editor tells of getting a bad grade in his/her intended college major (psychology) and a much better grade in another class (music), which led to a decision to "pursue a degree in something that I found a lot more fun." The person's definition of success changed from believing that accolades "trophies, degrees, wealth, etc." were the most important to believing in "creating a life in which happiness is achieved."
Another post, titled "A Circuitous Route," describes the path of a person whose expectations changed.
"When I was in high school, I thought I had to do what was expected, in the right order, and on schedule to be successful," the person wrote. "Now, 30-ish years later, I know that the fact that I took a different path (put myself through college, graduated in my early 30s) means that I have a true understanding of what's important. I value that journey."
Another alum wrote: "My biggest regret is thinking I was suppose to suffer for success. Pushing myself to do things that wasn't right for me at the time, in the name of 'no pain, no gain.'"
The titles convey other messages: "Your past does not define you"; "I Never Fit the Palo Alto 'Mold!'"; "The Employed Philosophy Major"; "You're Not What You Do."
The stories are also searchable by decade and category (including particular colleges or locations), and some include a contact button so that a reader with questions can get in touch with the author.
Within 24 hours of launching the website, the number of stories the two friends had received doubled, they said.