An Earthquake Jolted Me to Act

Sometimes it’s better not to drop, cover, and hold

Paul Yee
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readNov 17


An ID card was the closest I got to attending Cal. All photos by author

I tell my kids they wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for an earthquake.

It was May 1990, mere weeks before my high school graduation. I was bound for UC Berkeley — school ID and dorm assignment already in hand — when I unexpectedly received a letter from Stanford. The 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake, which the prior fall had upended the Bay Area and heavily damaged the Palo Alto campus, had apparently scared off prospective students. So Stanford plucked me and countless others off the waitlist, belatedly offering us spots in its incoming class.

I often wonder what my life would be like if the earth hadn’t trembled and I had remained a Cal Bear. I was already enrolled as a civil engineering major, so I probably would have dutifully followed that path and be building and bringing structure to the world today. In actuality, I meandered. I entered Stanford undeclared, dabbling about, and ultimately graduated with an urban studies degree and a job as a book editor. I later did a 180 and pursued a career in finance after getting an MBA.

More meaningfully, my wife, Margaret, and I wouldn’t have met. We found each other during freshman orientation, dating for seven years and getting married at Stanford’s Memorial Church. Without the earthquake, we would have led parallel lives across the bay from one another, our paths never crossing. We never would have experienced our greatest joy: raising our sons, Sam and Charlie.

So much of what I cherish — and, more broadly, the person I am today — simply wouldn’t exist. Given these profound “what ifs,” I sometimes think of myself as a ball dropped in a pachinko machine, ricocheting between pins on a path shaped by random events. Life, it seems, is itself a game of chance. With a single bounce forever altering my trajectory, I wonder, how much control do I truly have over my future?

Being waitlisted and barely getting into Stanford was a wake-up call. After largely breezing through life up to that point, I was starting to grasp that hard work alone only took me so far. To underscore this point, I only had to look at my two friends who got into Stanford outright; they not only possessed impressive credentials but were also…