The Benefits of Wasting Time

August 4, 2016

For no good reason, I purchased an Apple IIe computer. It was 1983, I had just graduated from college, I didn’t need it for work and I didn’t need it for email (this was before the Internet was a thing).

I unpacked the computer in my studio apartment and set it up on a salvaged desk. The apartment had a few poorly selected cooking utensils, dirty dishes in the sink, a ratty couch and – now – a computer. I was obviously a bachelor at this time.

In a burst of pointless energy, I decided to write a simple graphic program. My idea was to move the cursor with the arrow keys, leaving behind a line of illuminated dots. This seemed simple enough, but it took me months to solve all the technical issues related to moving a dot across a bit-mapped screen.

What was I doing?

Friends asked me what I was doing, to which I responded, “I’m programming a $2,000 Etch A Sketch.” They laughed. I grinned, silently questioning my use of time.

What was I doing? I was unemployed. I should have been looking for work. I should have been taking classes. I should have been using my time wisely, instead of goofing around with this computer.

But, for whatever reason, I persisted in writing the $2,000 Etch A Sketch. I learned about the 65C02 microprocessor in the Apple IIe, and learned assembler.

Using what I learned, I moved on to creating a modem program. Then I started an Apple user group in Wyoming. I figured out how to create interface boards and built a text-to-speech hardware card.

I couldn’t stop wasting time on this computer.

A few months later, I moved to Denver for a typesetting job where they had an Apple IIc stashed in the back room. To the puzzlement of my boss, I connected it to the typesetters.

“Explain to me what you are doing,” she said.

“It’s difficult,” I replied. But, using my programming knowledge, we started accepting jobs from clients who had already typed their copy into a computer.

The clients cut costs, we received more work. Money talks.

My next position was connecting a Unix typesetter to a Burroughs mainframe. It was just like my Apple II, albeit with shell script and C, so again my experience with that computer helped. From there, I went to Quark, where my interview with the company founder was pretty much a debate on the merits of the extended addressing mode present in the 65C02 microprocessor.

The 65C02 microprocessor is an obscure topic only interesting to computer nerds. I’m convinced that knowledge and the debate was what got me the job.

That was the last time I used an Apple IIe computer, but I continued to use the core skills I learned in Wyoming. After Quark, I joined Adobe because I knew how to learn computer languages. I joined Lynda.com because I know how to teach computer languages.

Embrace Your Wasted Time

I didn’t know it at the time, but my $2,000 Etch A Sketch was the best career preparation I ever did. If I’d been paying attention, I would have known I was setting up for my next forty years. I was learning lifelong skills.

Career advice is in abundant supply. Some of it works, some is nonsense. For myself, I leveraged my passions and allowed myself to waste time.

Today, I’m using a Raspberry Pi to animate a rubber fish. Is that a waste of time - or another career move?

Mark Niemann-Ross is a course author at Lynda.com. His classes include Up and Running with Raspberry Pi and Code Clinic: R. Check out all of his courses here.

 

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