I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the Bulgarian National Math team and after that into MIT if I had followed commands. It happened when I was 7th grade and my school was selecting a team to compete in a national mathlete competition. The days the team selection exam was supposed to happen, there was also a literature exam, part of the standard curriculum, which my mother told me to attend to. After a brief argument, I said I will, but proceeded to go to the math team selection instead.
I qualified to one of four spots, out of about twenty students and proceeded to go to my first math competition in a different city called Varna. During the competition we did OK, we weren’t the best, but overall I really liked traveling and bonded with the other kids on the team. I was hooked and decided I wanted to go to more competitions. I did OK, but wasn’t making it towards the top.
After a couple of years I got an advice from a member of the national team. He said “Read 10 math books over the summer vacation, and you might get to the level of the National Team.” I followed his advice, really enjoyed learning hire about geometry, number theory, combinatorics and inequalities, and as a result the next year I made it to first the extended national team of 12 people and then to the national team for the International Math Olympiad - the most prestigious competition.
I never had any idea about all the benefits and the opportunities I would get from potentially getting into the national team when I disobeyed my mom’s order to go to the literature exam. I just did it because I was feeling that math is my strong side and wanted to see if I were any good at it. All I knew at the time of making the decision was that will have to probably retake the exam, but might win a trip to Varna, and that I can test my math skills. I didn’t know that I will become more excited about learning math and that I will find other students who feel the same way and that will push each other to get better. The opportunity cost of not applying for the math team could have been that I end up never discovering math’s beauty and never making it to the national team and MIT.
While missing the literature exam, testing my math skills and winning a trip to Varna were known knowns and know unknowns about my decision, becoming a part of math community, and potentially qualifying for international math olympiads was unknown unknown to me at this time. I majorly undervalued the potential upside of my decision, because I just really had no idea what good might come of it.
Currently, I’m trying to tell myself more that whenever facing a decision that involves exploring something new, the opportunity cost of not doing it is beyond my understanding - I rarely have any intuition about what I might discover when I do the exploration, and while a lot of time it might be nothing, sometimes it is a gem, and every once in while - a treasure.