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The art of standing out

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Problem Solving

Growing up in Istanbul, Carl Sagan was one of my childhood heroes.

He would speak to me through the original Cosmos series. I didn’t speak a word of English, so I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying. But I listened anyway.

When I started exploring options for college, my first choice was Cornell, where Sagan once taught.

But there was a snag: High school and I didn’t get along well. The outdated education system, with its emphasis on rote memorization, stifled my curiosity. So my grades, while good, weren’t quite Ivy League level.

But I wasn’t about to give up on my dream. I asked myself, How else can I get there?

That question led me to an unconventional path. When I was still a high school junior, I was accepted into Cornell’s Summer College—a six-week program for high-school students where you live on campus and take two college classes.

To me, this was an ideal way to prove my potential as a future Cornell student: Excel in classes taught by Cornell professors, graded on a curve alongside actual Cornell undergraduates.

I chose Computer Science 101 and Astronomy 101, both subjects I was passionate about. I loved the material, and it showed—I got an A+ in both classes.

That strategy paid off when it was time to apply to universities. My Computer Science professor was so impressed with my work during the summer program that he wrote a glowing recommendation letter—and, in a highly unorthodox move, personally delivered it to Cornell’s admissions office.

I got in.

This experience taught me a crucial lesson: There’s more than one way to reach your goal. The most obvious path is often the most crowded path—and therefore the most difficult.

So now, I frequently ask myself, “How else can I get there?”

For example, after deciding to part ways with my literary agent earlier this year, I took an unconventional approach to finding a new one. Instead of submitting query letters and hoping to stand out among thousands of emails in agents’ inboxes, I wrote about my search publicly on this blog and invited agents to query me. At the end of the post, I added a PS line: “If you’re a literary agent reading this post, and you’ve felt creative synergy with my work, I’d love to hear from you.”

I received numerous responses, but one of them stood out. Two of my readers—who didn’t know each other— forwarded the post to the same agent, a friend of theirs. This agent read my work, felt a connection, and reached out to me. She’s now my agent.

Some might say, “You got lucky” or “It’s easy if you have a platform.” But luck is only part of the story. For years, I had been building my platform, sharing my ideas, and connecting with people who resonated with my work. By the time I needed help, my platform was able to attract the right opportunities.

Many people focus on defining their dream destination (“This is my goal!”). But few call out the importance of crafting their unique path to get there. Dreaming sets the vision, but it’s the unconventional routes you carve out for yourself that transform those dreams into reality.

So next time you’re facing a crowded path to your goal, step back and ask yourself, “How else can I get there?”

Create the paths you want to walk on.

You might just discover a journey that’s not only less crowded but also far more fulfilling.

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