In high school, when it came to scholastics, I qualified as a good student in a class of incredibly smart kids. I made straight ‘A’s in virtually every subject except English and typing. Hard as I tried, English was my nemesis. My writing skills were just awful and I couldn’t even spell sh… well, you get the point. In elementary school Grandma Slone would make me sit at the kitchen table every school night and write our weekly assigned words. My younger brother, Vel, still tells how I would bribe him to help me prepare for spelling tests. (Ok, so I picked up a few tricks from my older brother, Guy. Bribery works on young brothers.) With Vel I would run a nice warm bath, lay back, place a warm, wet washrag over my upper face, and relax while Vel tested me, over and over. I became a very accomplished “memorizer”. As a result I scored well on spelling tests. Problem was, a month later I couldn’t spell a third of the words and when I tried to make full sentences they rarely made sense. Creative thoughts and ideas? I had plenty. Put them on paper? Bad news. This flaw would dog me long after graduating from Stigler High School.
Overcoming my writing skills would become a turning point in my life. After receiving a Masters at Kansas State I entered the PhD program. Then, our family’s future changed with a single call from Arthur Young (AY). We moved to Tulsa and I became a computer consultant with one of the world’s largest audit and management consulting firms. We helped businesses be more productive and profitable. In a sense, it was about helping people, business people, and I knew it would be my lifelong, dream occupation.
Then reality settled in. After three good years of consulting I came up for promotion to Manager. During our annual evaluations my boss set me down and said:
“Jay, you are a good consultant. Clients love you, but your proposal and report writing skills are horrendous. I don’t see any way you’ll ever be promoted without those skills. We want to find you a good leadership position for one of our clients.”
Obviously crushed, I couldn’t argue the facts. Still I loved this work and I was determined to succeed. I returned the next Monday and said I wanted to stay on for one more year and show what I could do with my writing skills. I immediately enrolled in a nonfiction-writing course at Tulsa Junior College. I took the challenge serious and worked hard. Then I took a fiction course. I figured what the heck, half of our proposals are near fiction anyway; it might help. My writing improved. In one statewide contest I won an award for my fictional short story. The next year I won again for a memoir about my youngest son’s birth. I joined a writer’s club and soon served as an officer.
Then Linda Christy, another member of the club, approached me. She had written Prentice Hall, one of the world’s largest publishers, and discovered their number one need was books about computers, especially microcomputers. During my PhD efforts I designed and actually built a microcomputer from scratch for part of my dissertation. I remember staying up late the night Jimmy Carter won the Presidency and soldered the motherboard and memory boards. It would be one of the most complex things I ever undertook. It required mapping every output from every chip to input connector to another chip/control switch, etc. Basically it was a well-designed bird’s nest but, in the end, it worked. So I knew microcomputers inside and out, hardware, software, and operating systems. Since at that time Linda knew little about computers, she proposed we pick the topics together then she would interview me on each subject, write a chapter, and pass them back to me to edit and correct. Four months later we sent the completed manuscript to Prentice Hall and they bought it.
“The ABC of Microcomputers” became one of their top non-fiction best sellers. Adopted by high schools all over the US, the book became a book-of-the-month club selection. After being translated into Japanese it sold well in Asia and Europe. Ok, so it was not very professional, and in today’s world a third grader knows more than we taught, but in those early days of personal computers it was a hit. After such success, I wanted to do a more professional series on managing a company’s computer resources. I wrote a proposal for a four book series and mailed it to our editor at Prentice Hall with a sample chapter. They bought the idea.
About this time, one of the really talented new comers to Arthur Young’s consulting group was Dave Bonner and he expressed an interest in eventually retiring to teach college and write books. I suggested he join me in writing the four books. We wrote “How to Find and Buy Good Software” and the book was more successful than the ABCs book. Next Dave and I wrote “Up and Running, An Implementation Cookbook” which was equally successful. Soon I found myself traveling around the country speaking on ‘Future Technology Trends’.
I loved the new experience. I would speak on how the microchip shrank in size every year while costs were dropping like a rock. (This is the late 1970s.) I predicted within ten years microchips could be found in everything electronic. Every home would have at least one computer, maybe three or four and every office desk would include a microcomputer. People chuckled. Next, I predicted microchips would soon appear in our watches, controlling our cars, even in our bodies to monitor our life systems. Now people laughed. No one believed me, but they seemed to enjoy the colorful image I created.
One evening, I spoke in Bartlesville, Oklahoma at a dinner for the local CPA organization; the Chief Financial Officer of Phillips Petroleum happened to attend. After the speech he asked me to give the same presentation to the Phillips’ management team and, long story short, I sold a half million dollar engagement for Arthur Young and Company (now Ernest and Young) to give the presentation, enhanced to make an all day workshop, to all the employees of Phillips, worldwide. When the next year’s performance evaluation came around I was promoted to Manager.
Communication skills, written and verbal, are essential elements of any human endeavor, great or small.
Now, Stigler High could not be blamed for my writing flaws. Stigler provided excellent teachers but only the student can facilitate the lessons taking root. Even as a good student, I developed no interest in English or writing and saw no application as a mathematician or a scientist. Try as I might, writing sentences and connecting ideas simply didn’t take hold. In Stigler I failed to recognize an important truth: Communication skills, written and verbal are essential elements of any human endeavor, great or small.
You can take your most glaring weakness and hone it into a powerful asset. You’ll never regret the effort.
The point of this little story is to reach out to the youth of our communities to emphasize a point: whatever your weakness, whatever skill might be holding you back, you can overcome with will and determination and you will become a better person for it. From this traumatic experience, I learned you can take your most glaring weakness and hone it into a powerful asset. You’ll never regret the effort. In the end, attacking my glaring weakness head-on allowed me to continue my career as a management consultant and writing became a corner stone to my future both in my chosen occupation and in my personal life. I may have failed to develop good writing skills in Stigler but I did develop the ‘can do’ attitude our class exemplified.
And that is how I came to study writing.
This is an extract from one of Jay’s works-in-progress titled Love’s Fate and other stories growing up in Small Town America.