Here is to lessons from lost computer files. In 1990, I sat in a computer lab working on a research paper that was due the next day. It was a semester-long project that occupied close to a hundred hours of work and filled almost forty pages. At that point in my life, it was my longest writing project. I remember staring at the screen, proud, content, and happy to be ready to type the final few pages. These last pages were not part of the formal paper. Instead, the professor asked us to conclude with a written personal reflection about the writing process, what we learned about ourselves through the project, and any lessons that we might take away from this experience. I decided to take a break, eat dinner, and return for this final section.
From Content to Panic
In those days, that meant saving the paper to my floppy disk. I did that, enjoyed my dinner with some friends, and returned to the lab. When I inserted the disk, my contentment shifted to panic. There was an error trying to read my disk. I tried everything that I knew at the time, elicited the help of the lab monitor, but to no avail. My entire paper was gone. Fourteen weeks and close to a hundred hours of research, writing and thinking gone.
I was a triple major at the time in education, history, and theology; and this class was called Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Essentially, it was a class on methods of interpreting passages in the Scriptures and the professor assigned me a small section in the fourth chapter of the book of Philippians. Philippians 4:11: “ I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Perhaps you appreciate the humor in this situation. There I was, staring at an error message on an otherwise blank screen with a massive paper/project due the next day. Did I mention that this project was worth a third of my grade? Without it, my highest possible grade was a “D.” And the topic of my study was a 1st-century apostle writing about being content regardless of the circumstance. I was far from content in this circumstance. I felt panic, despair, and anger…but eventually I just felt numb.
Then something else emerged. I vividly remember this thought. “You still have fourteen hours until it is due. Get to work.” So, even though I was numb, I just started writing again. I wrote the first section and, to my surprise, a good deal of it came back to me rather quickly. The same thing happened with the second, third, fourth, and fifth sections. I couldn’t remember the sources that I needed to cite, but I bracketed that problem for later. I wrote until the lab was closing and they kicked me out, which I think was about four or five hours later. I looked at the document, and I had a little under twenty pages written.
A Dark Library
With no computer in my dorm room and the lab closed, I decided to get to work on looking up the sources again. I headed to the library, where I happened to work. That included the job of opening the library on some mornings, which meant that I had keys. So, I spent the entire night wandering through a dark and closed University library, hunting down the sources that I used in the paper, taking all the necessary notes. I was there until sunrise. I snuck out, slept an hour or two, and then headed back to the computer lab that morning to finish my paper.
An hour before the class and the deadline for submitting my paper, I found myself at the same spot that I was the evening before. I had a slightly shorter paper, about 30 pages, and all I needed to complete was the personal reflection. What did I learn about myself from writing this paper? What lessons will I take with me?
The Final Section
Should I tell the truth? I decided to do so. I explained the irony of writing a 40-page paper about the secret of contentment only to find myself in the discontent position of losing all of my work the day before the due date.
- I wrote about the lesson of working through the initial feelings of loss, despair, anger, and apathy…ending up with a decision to just keep moving even though I didn’t feel like doing so. Just start writing and see what happens.
- I wrote about how the more I wrote, the more motivated I became.
- I wrote about how I didn’t lose my paper. In fact, the technological glitch was a gift in that it showed me how much of my paper was stored in my mind, not just on some floppy disk. Deep and meaningful projects change and grow us, and that is part of the purpose of such projects.
- I wrote about how this second paper was better than the first. Then I reflected on the fact that, even if I failed to write this second paper, the experience reminded me that there was more to this experience than meeting a deadline or getting a grade.
- I also included the practical lesson of remembering to always keep a backup of important work.
Lightning Strikes Twice
If only I had remembered that last lesson. Fast forward twenty-five years to last week. Four months ago I switched from a Macbook Air to a Surface Pro as my primary computer. With my Macbook Air, everything that I write is automatically backed up in two places in the cloud. The chances of losing something in the case of a computer crash are slim. Even in the worst case scenario, I might lose a day or two of work.
Since I’ve only had the Surface Pro for a few months, I didn’t get around to setting up those fail-safes yet. I should have done so, but I did not. During those months, I wrote 20,000+ words of a book that I hope to give to my children one day. I did thorough revisions of two nearly complete manuscripts on books that I hope to publish this year (one on formative feedback and another on self-directed learning). I also had just about 75,000 words of writing on other essays for upcoming articles, blog posts, and portions of these and other books. I write and edit for 15-20 hours a week, so I had far more than a couple hundred hours of work on that device…and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get around to backing it up.
Last week I heard a pop on my new laptop and noticed that the keyboard stopped working. The battery was low so I tried to find a way to quickly set up a means of backing up my core files to the cloud by using the touch screen, but the wifi stopped working as well and none of the USB ports were functional. I tried several things only to watch the battery charge go to zero, the screen turn black, and the computer would not accept a new charge. It was/is, for all practical purposes, dead. I sent it off to a lab that specializing in data retrieval but the people at Microsoft tell me that you can’t retrieve data from this sort of integrated, solid-state hard drive. Time will tell. Regardless, I found myself with a very familiar set of emotions that I experienced twenty-five years ago with that first paper. I don’t know how this one will turn out. It was certainly foolish not to have a more recent backup of my work.
Nonetheless, I find myself looking for some lessons from all of this. Here is what I have so far.
- Save your work. Really. We are in the digital age. That is as basic as looking both ways before crossing the street. Now that I have that out of the way…
- You are more than what you write or create. In fact, what you write and create is often a way of becoming. You are refining your thinking. You are clarifying your convictions. You are deepening your knowledge and expanding your wisdom. You are becoming more of something as you write and create. That really is a valuable part of the experience, even apart from the final product.
- Keep moving. There will always be setbacks. It is natural to struggle with some negative emotions, but keep moving through it because resolve and persistence is what makes the difference between an abandoned effort and a proud achievement.
- Life isn’t about easy, but it can be deeply purposeful and meaningful.
- I write. Sometimes what I write gets shared. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets saved. Sometimes it gets lost. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes I miss the mark. In the end, at this phase in my life, I truly believe that part of what I’m supposed to do is write. It isn’t just about the outcome or the product (although I do have some specific goals that I keep in focus). What is it that you just do, something that is about more than the outcome?