Arab Spring Break
Credit: Courtesy Chris Jeon
That summer, Jeon sat in a cubicle for 12 to 18 hours a day in BlackRock's San Francisco headquarters. He spent weeks preparing a report on the micro- and macroeconomic potential of the medical-insurance industry and researched the balance sheets of Brazilian mining companies. Jeon's mind wandered. He'd Google things like "most interesting places in the world" and "unexplored frontiers." He was ready to start living differently.

He went skydiving, but it wasn't thrills he was looking for. One weekend, he did a dollar trip to Las Vegas, passing himself off as a bellhop at the MGM Grand even though he wasn't dressed as one. He simply took bags out of open trunks and led guests on meandering, confused journeys through the massive hotel. Somehow he managed to make $20 in tips. He played craps with the money and drank complimentary cocktails on the pit floor. He returned to BlackRock on Monday, bleary-eyed and unshowered, wearing the same suit he'd left in on Friday. His supervisor warned him that his behavior was unprofessional. He didn't care.

"Each day at BlackRock felt the same," he says. "But every day on a one-dollar trip lasted so long. There was so much more substance – the emotions were so intense because I was living on nothing. In terms of experience, I felt like I was getting so much more bang for the buck."

Interns were expected to keep up on how world affairs might influence oil prices and stock indexes – and Jeon became captivated by the scrappy rebels fighting in Libya. At the time, they were advancing on Tripoli with a ragtag army outfitted with Cold War-era rifles and pickup trucks jury-rigged with antiaircraft guns. It's like a one-dollar war, he thought.

In early August, Jeon went out for sushi with two other interns, Astrid Fernandes and Letian Zhang. He told them that he was thinking of going to Libya to join the rebellion. It was a chance to see something historic before school started, and he wanted to feel what it was like to have different kinds of problems. "No more PowerPoints or crazy-ass spreadsheets," he said. Libya seemed like the obvious next step in his journey.

"Are you fucking crazy?" Zhang asked.

Zhang took out a pen and started drawing on the place mat. He'd studied math at Stanford and was heading into a statistics-focused sociology Ph.D. program at Harvard. He made a probability map for Jeon. There was a 25 percent chance Jeon would get shot before making it to the front lines. If he did make it, there was another 25 percent chance he'd be killed in the cross fire, since he didn't speak any Arabic and had no idea what he was doing. He gave his friend a 50 percent chance of dying.

Jeon felt like he was dying already.

A week later, he and Astrid went to a liquor store, where he bought his first pack of cigarettes. He figured the rebels were heavy smokers, and so he wanted to practice. His friend watched him strike a match, take a drag, and break into a fit of coughing.