New website highlights the many paths to success

Two alumnae collect Palo Altans' life stories to highlight possibilities in life

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.

They are encouraging alumni to submit their stories and also current Palo Alto students and parents to send feedback to help improve the project.


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21 people like this
Posted by Just what we need
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 10:18 am

This is so on track - we're too stuck in one pressure filled definition of success in our community and it creates so much unnecessary stress for both young students and people later in life who feel guilty getting off the ride.

23 people like this
Posted by Love it
a resident of Downtown North
on May 4, 2016 at 10:52 am

Wish this were around when I was in high school. Expectations of our kids are through the roof these days and important that they realize they have options.

25 people like this
Posted by A recent grad
a resident of another community
on May 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

Wow, as a recent alum from Gunn I wish something like this site existed when I was a sophomore/junior. Most of the career/life advice I've gotten has been condescending or just plain weird. It is refreshing to see so many diverse life paths.. It gives me hope.

9 people like this
Posted by Gunn students working on their path
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 4, 2016 at 11:03 am

The struggle to define oneself or to "find a path" is a lifelong adventure for each of us—with special significance to young people who are trying to understand who they want to become. Gunn High School students capture their struggle and their beautiful emerging selves in this video.

Web Link

I know this group. They are wonderful, talented, warm, accepting and kind with each other—a “family” in all the ways that matter.

Good things are happening at Gunn. Enjoy!

15 people like this
Posted by No More Shallow Alto!
a resident of Midtown
on May 4, 2016 at 11:10 am

This is a terrific idea. I love the site, and found myself spending over an hour reading all the different perspectives from many decades. I think this will be a great asset for both current high school students and any Palo Alto alums who many be questioning where their life might take them (and learn to appreciate all the twists and turns along the way!).

11 people like this
Posted by J. Owen
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 4, 2016 at 11:14 am

I am so proud of Jackie and Michal! I've known them both since middle school, and they are truly fantastic people. Such a wonderfully positive thing, in a city/school district that is sometimes portrayed in a negative manner. Well done ladies!

15 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto alum
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on May 4, 2016 at 11:17 am

This is such a great project. Kudos to the creators!

4 people like this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on May 4, 2016 at 11:32 am

revdreileen is a registered user.

Editorial note: The gender inclusive way of referring to those who attended or graduated from an institution is alums or alumni/ae or alumnae/i. The preferred form is alums.

This is a great project, a wonderful gift to the community.

11 people like this
Posted by Thank you for doing this.
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 4, 2016 at 11:47 am

Great project! I just explored some of the entries. It demonstrates that the paths people take are as unique as the individuals who embark on them.

A friend told me something once when I was very young and immoblized by fear that I might make a mistake and choose the wrong path. His comment made all of my subsequent life choices easier. He said, "You're on a path. Here's a fork in the road where you can make some choices, but know that the choice you make here isn't permanent. Another fork will come...and another. That's how life is."

It was good advice. I have always worked hard. I have traveled several paths in my career and volunteer life. It has been a joyful ride with wonderful surprises and some pitfalls. At age 57, I can say that, all in all, it has been a good journey so far.

Look forward. Worry less. Choose work you love.

6 people like this
Posted by Formerly Concerned Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 4, 2016 at 12:05 pm

This web site has more than what meets the eye. I wish it existed when my daughters were in high school. The stress of facing the future combined with "I'm not sure what I want to be" has become much more pronounced in the new generation. This is probably caused by the rapidly changing nature of jobs. Young students have non role models to rely on and this web site may show them that this is OK. We need this platform to share others' experiences and make sure that every person find his/her path even if it is not known in advance. We are witnessing this week the birth of a new web site that quite frankly, its path is currently unknown.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Would this project exist had not its creators gone to Stanford and Harvard?

12 people like this
Posted by Let's think that
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 4, 2016 at 1:41 pm

Would Micro Soft have been formed if Bill Gates stayed in Harvard?

How about Apple. Would it be formed had Steve Jobs not dropped out of college?
Oh, and more recently mark Zuckerberg seems to be doing OK by not graduating from college.

The question that really popped into my head was Would someone be asking that question if THEY had gone to Stanford or Harvard?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 4, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Clearly all paths do not go through prestigious universities, but it sure appears that paths to prestigious careers or accomplishments preferentially do. Thus it is no wonder that so many of our students aspire to the ivy leagues. Perhaps it's a belief in predestination.

I just find it worrysome when it's so often the elites trying to point out that you don't need to be elite to be happy.

I do agree the website's message is accurate: "... our career and life is a winding path made of different, sometimes unpredictable chapters in which our definition of success shifts." It's an adventure best experienced when you are flexible about the narrative. Well done website, interesting profiles and insights from the participants.

16 people like this
Posted by Great idea and implementation!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 4, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Important resource for students and parents to learn from and be inspired by life stories from an extended family of alums. A startup that could be helpful to other communities as well.

6 people like this
Posted by Every child
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 4, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I think this is a fabulous idea!

I do wish that the underlying premise were not "See, your miserable high school experience did not screw up your life!" We aspire in our district vision to do the best for every child. What do we need to do to support ALL of our kids in their educations so that their educations support and give them wings on these many routes?

28 people like this
Posted by Michal and Jackie
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 5, 2016 at 9:20 am

Dear "Every child,"

Just to note - the underlying premise of the project is to provide inspiration and exposure to the many different paths in life after high school and the variety of ways to be successful.
We wholeheartedly agree that it should be representative of all student experiences which is why we ask alumni respondents to rate their high school experience on a scale of 1-10. We have stories from people who suffered through high school, people who absolutely loved it, and everything in between.

Thank you for your thoughts and continued support!

16 people like this
Posted by wonderful site
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm

This is a wonderful, thought-provoking site. Another interesting site might be "paths TO Palo Alto." Many of us took indirect paths, with a number of detours, before ending up in this Bay Area community.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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