It’s funny how things work out in life. Sometimes, you end up with a positive result from something that appeared to be a complete failure. My evolution as a computer user is a good example.
I go back to the days of the Xerox 860, which was considered to be the premier dedicated word processor in the late seventies. I owned two of those behemoths, each about the size of a Sherman tank.
If my memory serves me correctly, I believe I paid about $13,000 for my first Xerox 860. I don’t recall the price of the second one, which I bought about two years later, but I know that the price had dropped considerably by then.
The problem was that I didn’t have a clue about how to use these hi-tech monsters. I had two secretaries at the time, and they were absolute masters on the Xerox 860, so there was no need for me to know anything about those monstrous machines.
It’s almost comical to think about now, but each morning my secretaries had to load an operating disk into their machines to crank them up. Again, my memory is a little shaky here, but I believe the disks were a whopping eight inches by eight inches in size.
My modus operandi for writing a book was to type my notes on three-by-five cards, organize them on a thirty-foot-long conference table, then type the first draft of the book on that modern marvel of yesteryear — an IBM Selectric typewriter.
After I typed five or six pages, I would give them to one of my secretaries, and she would retype my words on her Xerox 860. This made it possible to revise each draft without having to retype the entire document.
Within two to twenty-four hours (depending on the volume of work I had given my secretary), I would receive a clean copy back from her, straight out of the Xerox 860 printer (which was about as quiet as a blast furnace). I would then read what she gave me and make revisions in red pen, hand it back to her, and the process would begin all over again.
(In case you’re wondering, I have never been able to use a dictating machine to write. My mind simply doesn’t process the material clearly when I try to “write” verbally.)
In those days, I had a full-time editor on staff, and when I felt that a chapter was clean enough, I would give it to her to review and make further revisions. To research an item in my manuscript, she would sometimes have to go to the library. Not Dictionary.com, but an actual library!
At other times, she would have to count the words on a page for me, one at a time — or, the most time-consuming task of all, search the entire manuscript to see how often I had used a certain word or phrase. We’re talking Stone Age here.
So, writing a book was a full-time project for three people — a secretary, an editor, and me. For five or six days a week, early morning until well into the evening, we focused all our efforts on the book. If I was lucky, I’d have it ready for the typesetter in a year or so.
I self-published all of my books in hardcover to assure that I could control the marketing. Then, by marketing each book to best-seller status, I was in a position to sell the paperback rights for a high six-figure advance.
While that was a lot of money, I came to the conclusion that my approach to turning out books was closer to the way it must have been in the Gutenberg era rather than in the age of computers. So in the early eighties, I did the unthinkable: To the surprise of all who knew me well enough to know that I had an aversion to computers, I finally learned to use that Xerox 860 clunker.
It was like being given a key to my prison cell. Suddenly, I was in control of how fast a project would move along. Because I now had the capacity to edit as I wrote, my first draft was cleaner, and read better, than perhaps my seventh or eighth draft read in my old Selectric days.
After my Xerox 860s finally died of natural causes, I evolved through several generations of computers until, in 1986, I finally splurged and bought what I was told would be the last computer I would ever need — an IBM that had something like 4 MB of RAM.
I hired an instructor to come to my office and give me a few WordPerfect lessons, and the result was like landing on another planet. I could now do in hours what used to take my secretary, my editor, and me days to accomplish working together.
Fast-forward to late 1996 …
By this time, I had become fairly efficient at word processing on a state-of-the-art HP computer, and I made a decision that would forever change my life. To borrow from the title of Bill Gates’s book, it was a decision that would give me the ability to operate at the speed of thought.
At the urging of my executive assistant in New Zealand, I switched from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word. Which seemed like a good idea at the time, but for one problem: I couldn’t figure out how to use this mysterious new program.
So, true to my overkill approach to problem solving, I bought eight — that’s eight — Microsoft Word manuals. Which taught me only one thing: that virtually all computer manuals are worthless.
As a result, I decided to write my own Microsoft Word reference guide, a project on which I spent a year-and-a-half. In the process, I became so proficient at Word that I gave up calling Microsoft’s help line when I had a question, because it became apparent to me that I knew more about the program than the nine-to-five technical-support people who were manning the phones.
I ultimately ended up with a 650-page reference guide that was basically stillborn (because Microsoft was about to come out with Word 97 and my work was based on Word 95). Now, you probably assume that if I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t embark on such a Herculean project. If so, your assumption is wrong.
The benefits of my efforts came from a totally different direction than I had expected. My reference guide never had an opportunity to dazzle the public, but, by researching the innermost workings of Microsoft Word, I became a world-class Word expert. Which is a nice little skill to have, considering that I make my living as a writer.
As a result, today I can do the work of twenty (thirty? fifty? one hundred?) people — and do it better. What I can accomplish in a few days used to take months; what I can accomplish in a few hours used to take days or even weeks. And all because I took one of the weakest areas of my game — a lack of computer knowledge — and put an enormous amount of time and effort into making it one of my greatest strengths.
The lesson to take away from this is that in our Age of Information, you can’t afford to take years to accomplish things that, with the right amount of knowledge, you can accomplish in months … or weeks … or days. In the Age of Information, falling behind can mean financial death.