“Life is always at some turning point.”
I read the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell a few years back. In it, he posited the theory that if you work at something for 10,000 hours, you become an expert. While the notion of 10,000 hours of work serving as the barrier to expertise has been debated, I got caught up in how my own personal story mirrored Bill Gates and then veered. No, I’m not about to claim that I was going to be the next Bill Gates, far from it.
Bill Gates, as a kid, had access to a computer lab thanks to his father. He spent all of his time at that computer lab, working on computers, learning how to program. Gladwell postulates that Gates probably spent 10,000 hours of his youth programming and, thus, mastering the craft.
When I was in 5th grade, I wanted a computer. I asked for one for Christmas, and my parents gave me a copy of Consumer Reports to do research on what the best one was. I did my research and duly came to the conclusion that I wanted an IBM compatible computer than ran on (go figure) MS-DOS.
Why did I want an IBM compatible as a 5th grader? I wanted to program. I didn’t know how to program, but I wanted to learn how to program.
Whether or not it was too expensive (a real possibility, since my father was a state patrolman and my mother was a teacher, neither of which are monetarily rewarding professions) or whether my parents figured I’d be happier having a computer which could play games, I did not receive an IBM compatible computer. Instead, my parents Santa got me a Commodore 64. It was a great computer for playing those early generation video games. I also got a modem (1200 baud even) and got very involved in bulletin board system (BBS) communities. I even played around with designing my own.
There was one huge stumbling block, though. The Commodore 64 operating system was nothing like the operating system for MS-DOS based computers. While BASIC was generally the same, doing something in the Commodore 64 required peeks and pokes and other arcane chicanery. The disk systems weren’t compatible, so if I wrote something on my Commodore, I couldn’t load it onto an IBM. I was locked into the Commodore 64 ecosystem for better or worse. A couple of years later, the Amiga (the Commodore 128) came out, but that was the end of the line for Commodore. I spent hours and hours programming on a system that went the way of the dodo.
A second turning point in my life wound up having happier consequences.
One night, when I was stationed in Germany, the guy I split a house with and I were having a conversation about candles we still had burning for someone back home. I told him my tale and he then told me his. He made one crucial mistake, though. He ended it with “…and I think I still have her number somewhere.” I seized upon that, telling him that he wasn’t going to go to bed until he called her. He laughed at me and headed upstairs, closing the door to his bedroom. I banged on his door and yelled at him, telling him that he wasn’t going to go to sleep until he made that phone call. Finally, after much bellowing, he emerged, calling me names that I didn’t even know existed and trundled back downstairs to make a phone call.
In a year, they were engaged. They felt like they owed me a favor since I’d created the conditions that allowed them to be set up. They invited me to a Millennium New Year’s party where they were going to try to set me up with one of their friends.
The friend that they were supposed to set me up with was very late to the party. It was already a new millennium by the time she arrived. By then, I’d started talking to my housemate’s fiancée’s housemate.
Nine months later, we were engaged, and eight months after that, married.
I rarely contemplate how life would have been different for me had the designated setup arrived on time for that party, since things worked out really well for me.
However, even though things have worked out in a lot of other ways, I always wonder what would have happened had my parents bought me an IBM compatible instead of a Commodore 64. Sure, my field of concentration for my engineering degree was computer science, but I could never crack beyond competence in computer programming. Yes, I co-founded and subsequently sold a software development company, but I wrote zero lines of code in my seven years there.
Would I have founded some dot com company in the late 1990s? Could I have developed some really neat piece of software that would have been gobbled up by a giant like Borland or, dare I dream, Microsoft? Or would I have turned into Milton and worked in a basement guarding my Swingline stapler?
Furthermore, do you know when you’re at a turning point in your life, or can you only tell in hindsight? Ever had that sixth sense that something very important was happening?
Around a year ago, I wrote about how someone who tries to sell you secrets is selling you a load of crap. If you haven’t read it, go check it out!