How Mark Zuckerberg Played His Way to Success


Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan play with his child.
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan playing with the next generation. Image from Facebook video posted by Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s hard to find someone more successful than Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. He’s got a great career and a wonderful family, and he has chosen to dedicate most of his billions in wealth to charitable causes.

How did Mark get where he is today? The story began when he was a child.

Whether one is 4, 12, or 40, “play” is not the opposite of “work.” It’s actually the process by which we discover what delights us and what we really care about.

Mark wrote software for fun 

Mark recently wrote a post on Facebook about the origins of some of his ideas for the company. His post was triggered by an announcement from AOL that its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service would soon be shut down.1

AOL Instant Messenger was a defining part of my childhood. Growing up, I lived in a different town from most of the kids I went to school with … and every day I took a bus across [a] bridge to school and back home. That meant every day after school all of my friends were on the other side of this bridge. A lot of my interaction with them was through AIM.

I didn’t like that I had no control of whether AIM told my friends I was active online, because sometimes I just wanted to code without being interrupted unless someone I really wanted to chat with signed on. This may have seemed like a small detail to whoever designed it, but it was my social life and I really felt it. So I hacked together a tool that let me set myself as if I’d been idle for a long time, even if I was actually at my computer. (Because of this, Facebook chat today always lets you turn off your online activity indicator.)

In essence, Mark was playing around. Controlling who knew he was online mattered a lot to him. He cared enough to change AIM to do what he wanted. The story goes on:

My friends and I spent a lot of time curating our online identities. We spent hours finding quotes for our AIM profiles that expressed how we felt, and we picked just the right font and color for our messages to signal what we wanted about ourselves. I built a tool that let me send messages with the letters fading between any colors I wanted. It was simple, but it was fun to build and it made my messages look different.

By playingMark created something useful

While Mark is telling a story about writing code — a decidedly technical endeavor — his ultimate purpose was to express emotion. Nothing more “serious” than that. Once again, he was playing around and having fun (and no doubt learning a great deal about writing software in the process). He continues:

One day my dad saw me using AIM and asked if I could set it up in his office so he could communicate with the other dentists and hygienists. I told him I didn’t think AIM was ideal and since he controlled the network in his office I could make him something better.

I built him a system I called ZuckNet that he used for many years afterwards. In addition to chatting one-on-one, he could broadcast an update to everyone in the office at the same time. It also saved every message you received so you wouldn’t lose them when you closed your chat window, and it queued up messages to be delivered later if a person wasn’t online at the time. Everything was encrypted so sensitive information could be secure. These were all features that solved pain I felt using AIM. ZuckNet improved how the dentists communicated and changed how they worked.

Children can build things that matter

By this time, Mark’s “playing around” had evolved into something useful for adults. He was no doubt thrilled that he could use his skills and passion to help his dad do something better. He ends on a reflective note:

As a child, many people will tell you that you don’t have the skills or experience to build something that matters. I was certainly told that many times. But these days I wonder if children actually have a unique perspective to build some of the most important things.…

I always loved coding. I vividly remember riding home on the bus across that bridge after school thinking to myself that now I had the whole evening to build things on my computer. Fridays were the best, and I remember being even more excited because I had the whole weekend to build things.

Those early projects and experiences had a lot of the seeds of what would become Facebook. Since early on, AIM shaped a deep aesthetic sense that the world works better when we can all connect and share. I’ve lived these ideas since I was a child, and I still believe them deeply today.

Mark cultivated technical and emotional skills through coding

Notice that the technical skills he used to create Facebook were not the only thing he was cultivating as a boy. He was discovering and developing his commitment to use his growing skills to help people connect and share.

Whether one is 4, 12, or 40, “play” is not the opposite of “work.” It’s actually the process by which we discover what delights us and what we really care about. I’ll admit it, we can’t always appreciate the particular activities that fire our children’s imaginations, especially if they’re not the ones we ourselves loved when we were young. But if you see that your child is intrigued and involved, have faith. Like Mark Zuckerberg’s parents, let your child play his way to success.

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How Mark Zuckerberg Played His Way to Success
  1. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook feed, October 7, 2017.