learning to be a pro

The most common response to procrastination is indeed to try to “get the right emotion”: to try to motivate yourself to feel like getting on with the job. The problem is that feeling like acting and actually acting are two different things. A person mired deep in procrastination might claim he is unable to work, but what he really means is that he is unable to make himself feel like working. The author Julie Fast, who writes about the psychology of depression, points out that even when a person is so depressed that she is unable to get out of bed in the morning—something Fast has experienced for herself—it’s more accurate to say that she’s unable to feel like getting out of bed.

This is from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. There’s no point trying to feel like writing. Truthfully, I’m only ever “in the mood” when I’m unable to. Put me in front of a laptop and that mood evaporates. That said, I can choose to start writing at any time. To help drill this in, I switched to a mechanical Pomodoro timer. Tactile, loud. I give it a twist before I even open my laptop so it’s clear when I’m on the clock. Sure, writing is my job, but I’m still learning to be professional. I’m on the long road to mastery.

And when I think about mastery, I think about Mariusz, the best boss I ever had. 

Back in high school, I got a summer job at a high-end Mac repair store. This was Apple’s nadir, the late 1990s. Steve had just returned to the company; things had yet to turn around. Macs were overpriced, underpowered, fragile as snowflakes. Ad agencies, design shops, photographers, and (successful) authors came to us because they needed the best. They used their Macs to do lucrative, time-sensitive, high-stakes work and it was worth our rates to get them up and running. Though Apple’s prognosis as a company looked grim, they simply wouldn’t risk the switch to Windows—they needed to be fully operational 24/7 for the next all-or-nothing project. Macs, meanwhile, continued to get more expensive, less competitive with PCs, and—above all—more unreliable.

So we were busy.

Mariusz, a slim, blond Polish émigré, knew how to fix every finicky, beige, fruit-stamped model in Apple’s enormous lineup of PowerBooks and Power Macs. He had the degree of mastery that makes the work itself look effortless, even fun—to a novice who doesn’t know any better. His expertise and experience gave him unshakeable confidence, unflappable calm.

I want to write books like Mariusz fixed Macs.

A lesser technician might have found this job stressful. People came to us with ailing computers containing the only digital copy of an entire life’s work: novels, theses, mission-critical business files. They didn’t know about backups. No one in 1998 backed up. This despite the fact that hard drives failed constantly. Plus, our customers typically faced terrifying, non-negotiable deadlines, the violation of which would threaten their very livelihoods.

Everything was on the line with every repair. We often heard yelling coming from reception. No matter. Coolly, Mariusz would lug the next machine to his bench, pop it open, and get to work. However long it took, he’d troubleshoot the issue and resolve it. Then he’d send me to the front with it and move on to the next. No ego, no perfectionism, just flow.

He was a good teacher, too, more than happy to let me take a crack at even the most expensive and delicate piece of hardware. How else would I learn? It’s not like a repair would ever not be a time-sensitive, career-threatening crisis for someone. I distinctly remember the audible snap of a copper prong breaking as I tried to wedge a graphics card into an aging PowerBook. Mariusz heard it, too.

“Get another one.” Not “that part cost over a thousand dollars.” Not “I warned you to be careful with those prongs.” Dutifully, I went to the supply room, got another card off the shelf, and installed it. (OK, I might have broken one more before getting it done. Blame late 90s Apple quality control.)

I learned a lot that summer. You learn best when there’s a lot of work to do and it’s safe to make mistakes while you’re doing it.

Like any master craftsman, Mariusz held to strict routines. He had a clear and established working method. After completing a repair, he would rigorously test the system. The customer might be out at the front desk having a fit. No matter. Mariusz would fire up Marathon and spend a few minutes slaughtering aliens with those twin shotguns. I’m not sure what he was testing for exactly; nothing ever “failed” Marathon. The point is: professional rigor.

It was a great team, a great working environment. Even though my co-workers hacked into my computer every night to put lewd images on my desktop, I always felt accepted. They gave me a strange nickname—Spider—and frequently told me to go home and get my fucking shinebox. Though I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, I imagined it all boiled down to professional camaraderie.

(Near the end of the summer, I finally asked. Their jaws dropped when they realized I’d never seen Goodfellas and hadn’t understood pretty much anything they’d said to me all summer. My last day at the company, they gave me the VHS as a parting gift. Watching it later, I was touched by the gift but chagrined to discover that they wanted me murdered by Joe Pesci.)

The youngest technician at the shop wasn’t quite as friendly as the rest. Everyone else was a repair tech, period. They loved the job: dressing like slobs, hacking into each other’s computers to place lewd images on the desktop, “testing” Macs with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis or The Secret of Monkey Island. They got away with acting however they pleased because they knew how to fix Macs really well. I got the sense that this one guy, like me, had other ambitions. One day, he asked me what I wanted to do after high school, college, all that.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” he said, suddenly angry. (In today’s parlance, we’d say he was triggered.) “You are a writer? Like, now? What do you write?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Stories?”

“Stories about what?”

“Different kinds.”

“Great,” he said. “Tell me one.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, if you write stories, go ahead and tell me one.”

I was flummoxed. A story? I mean, I’d been writing words down about various characters doing various things, mostly with swords. Did any of that constitute a story?

Thankfully, another technician stepped in at that point with an urgent request for me to go and get my fucking shinebox. And that was that. The other tech and I didn’t talk again. But I was shaken. Did I not know how to tell a story? What was a story, really? How did stories work?

I learned two pivotal things that summer. I learned that I didn’t have a clue how to tell a story, even though I went around calling myself a writer. And I learned what a professional looks like. 

I don’t know where Mariusz is today. Maybe he’s an Apple Genius. Maybe he was in the backroom of the Brooklyn Apple Store the other day, replacing the battery on my iPhone SE and testing it with Alto’s Odyssey. Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing it, he’s handling it like a pro.