Just in Time!

Man setting a big clockSomeone asked me yesterday, “How do you know all of this stuff? How do you remember it?” after I’d answered a technical question.

I laughed. REMEMBER? Who remembers anything these days? I’ve been living with an antibiotic-resistant sinus infection for more than 6 weeks. Who thinks at that point? But I can still function and deal with technical issues…and I’m going to tell you my secret.

You ready? I wing it.

No, I do NOT mean that I make stuff up.

If I know the answer to a technical question off the top of my head, that means I’ve fought the same issue recently. So, if you ask me how to fix something that is broken and I know how to fix it without thinking — that means I broke the same thing a few days earlier. Or someone else that I know did.

I know where to find answers. My mother once said, “I may not have taught you much, but I taught you how to read!” That one gift has been a blessing.

I’ve done technical support for years…before Google, even. Actually, I was doing technical support when most people didn’t have computers at home. I worked with law students. Believe me, you haven’t seen someone mess up a computer until you try to fix one broken by an over-stressed, under-rested law student.

Okay, so an x-ray machine on the same power circuit as a computer can do a lovely job as well, but I digress.

I used to call this “flying by the seat of my pants” and I kept it a closely guarded secret. When people would ask me how I knew these things, I’d usually let out a fit of maniacal laughter and then mention assorted degrees.

The degrees are real. But most of my technical knowledge didn’t come from college. Really? I study. A lot. Every day.

And there is no way I could ever keep up with the pace of change in technology, much less the publishing industry.

So, for years, I’ve wondered if I was a fraud. I knew I was good at what I did. I knew people loved the creativity and uniqueness of the designs and solutions I provided. I knew people loved the work and the answers I gave. But deep down, I knew what I didn’t know and it scared me. When I worked in technical support, I could say, “hold on, let me get my supervisor.” I’d put the caller on the phone and scream, “TERRI! Help!”

More recently, though, I have been my own boss. Technical questions come in via email, so folks don’t hear me say, “you did WHAT to your computer? HOW?” They also don’t see me banging my head on the desk and then hitting Google up for answers.

Recently, I saw a wonderful blog post about “just-in-time learning.” I wish I’d written down the reference, but wasn’t thinking and now I can’t find it. I did find an amusing definition. (What’s funny about it is that the “example citation” is dated earlier than the “earliest citation” (1990). The concept is just now hitting the technical industry and I can hear thousands of web designers sighing in relief. Someone has finally put it into words: we’ve been making this stuff up as we’ve been going along. Think about the web design industry for a moment — we were building the technology as it grew. We built new technology when we needed it. We learned new skills when we needed them.

Who knew this approach would be a highly-effective strategy for the modern age?

Here’s how just-in-time learning applies to writers (and anyone else trying to live in our modern world). Technology is changing. If you don’t understand this, look in your pocket. Do you fully understand that cell phone? Or did you just learn to use the functions you need? Can you set a customized outgoing message? How about set a custom ring tone that rings on your friend’s phone when they call you? Unless you’re a teen or a prankster, I’m betting you haven’t taken the time to learn that one!

I once watched a friend try to place a call on one of the very first smart-phones (this was before they were called smart phones, by the way). Just-in-time learning. Months later, someone complained that a piece of software should be as intuitive as a cell phone. “You don’t have to read the help for a cell phone!” was the line that sent me into hysterical laughter. Maybe that person didn’t, but my smart friend and I certainly did!

Just-in-time learning works this way: if you don’t need to know it right now, don’t study it. Also, don’t worry about it. If you know you will need it in the future, study an overview.

WHY? Because by the time you need it, it will have changed and you’ll have to learn it all over again. Studying it now may be satisfying, but ultimately time-wasting.

As a young girl, I studied computer science. I’m not sure the subject is taught any more, because the material is so basic. Binary. Logic. How a computer works deep inside. It involved a soldering iron. While I was studying this (before the Internet, before knowledge and advancement outpaced the human brain) my boss came to me and offered me a job as a programmer. There was a new programming language: FORTRAN. Could I learn it in time to finish a project on a deadline? Sure. (FORTRAN is to computer programmers what Latin is to English — I just dated myself!) Over the next few days, I learned to program in FORTRAN and started writing code. I made mistakes. I learned. I fixed the mistakes. I took innovative approaches because I hadn’t studied “the right” way to do it. The client and my boss were delighted with the outcome. Over a year later, I took a FORTRAN class in college. I got 104% in the class — saved my GPA.

Authors in this whirlwind world of innovation and changing technology need to know a lot of material: marketing, blogging, changes in the printing methods, Twitter, even elements of graphic design. Who is the best reviewer for your book? Where will you get the trailer? Wait, books need trailers? (No, not the kind on the back of a truck.) What do these rights mean? I constantly hear, “I read on a blog that I have to _____.” Usually in a tone of absolute and utter panic as the author considers something foreign. The next words are usually, “Do I HAVE to?” and remind me of my children when faced with a daunting task.

No, you don’t have to.

There, I said it.

BUT — you may want to.

Even worse, you may wind up loving that task so much you forget to write.

Oops. Do not raise your hand if you’re guilty.

I was recently told by an author, “my time is too valuable to learn to do that.” At the time, I was offended because author had just asked ME to do this task for free. Once I stopped yelling at the monitor (always a nice safe thing to do provided you aren’t on a video chat) I realized he had a point. He was writing and couldn’t be bothered to handle this technical detail. Perhaps he should have chosen a publishing path that allowed him to off-load some of those technical details. (No, he wasn’t a Heart Ally customer and no, I did not do the task.) He was not practicing just-in-time learning. He was practicing a sister-skill: find someone else to do what you don’t know how to. Barter. This is a valuable skill not to be ignored. Write first.

Days later, I was approached by one of my clients to teach her how to do a task. I offered to do the task for her because it would take time. (Still stinging from the other author’s comments.) This second author evaluated the options and said that no, she wanted to learn. She needs the skill, she wants to do it, and she will use it. Just-in-time learning. She will learn only the minimum required to do the task and then she will go back to writing. (Keeping writers writing is one of the key concepts of Heart Ally Books.)

In this publishing and writing environment, it helps to embrace just-in-time learning. You don’t have to know how to do everything. You don’t have to know how to blog or use the social networks or e-pub your book. What you need to know is that these things are possible, and that you CAN do them when you are ready. But first, you have to write. All of the marketing in the world will not get your book done.

Don’t dismiss something just because it is hard or requires technical skills you do not have. Don’t say “I can’t do that.”

A couple of my favorite quotes — whose authors will go unnamed, but will laugh when they read them here:

“I’m not sure I can write a blog…I’m terrified.” — successful blogger

“I’ll never use an e-reader.” — currently can’t put the e-reader down

“There’s this thing called Twitter. Do I have to?” — author who later went on to Twitter without realizing it

“What do these agents mean when they talk about social marketing? What is THAT?” — author I need to smack away from social networking and back to writing

Straight up? I’ve done and said all of those things just like the authors I mention. I suspect deep down most of the successful bloggers remember saying something similar in the weeks before their first blog post. Ditto for the other comments. Double ditto for stopping all of that and getting back to writing!

What I learned from the forgotten blog I mentioned earlier is this: professionals use just-in-time learning proudly.

Just-in-time learning is a valuable skill.

And here I thought I was just winging it.

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