When You Come To The Fork In The Road
(This column originally appeared in the Westchester Guardian of July 7, 2016 — http://www.westchesterguardian.com/7_7_16/wg_7_7_fin.pdf, along with columns by Lee Daniels, Mary Keon, Robert Scott and famed critic John Simon. It is my 205th column in the series.)
by John F. McMullen
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changes normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.
When You Come To The Fork In The Road
Ex-major league catcher and famed sportscaster and television personality Joe Garagiola used to tell a story (which may or may not be true) of the first time he went to visit the new home of his friend and famed philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra (a/k/a “Yogi”). Berra sent him directions to the new house — directions that included the phrase “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”
In 2009, the biography “Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee” by Allen Barra was published (W. W. Norton & Company), and it included a wonderfully appealing rationale for Berra’s famous remark. While traveling to Berra’s house one may choose the left fork or the right fork and both are acceptable decisions because both efficiently lead to his house: 7
From Quote Page xxxv — Generally speaking, there is a significant difference between the genuine Yogiisms and the pseudo-Yogiisms, and it is this: the things Yogi said that he actually said usually make sense in fewer words than most anyone else would use. “When you come to the fork in the road, take it” refers to the quickest way to get to his house (it’s the same distance whether you whether you keep to the right or left) (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/25/fork-road/).
Whether or not Barra’s interpretation is accurate or whether Berra felt that his buddy would understand the directions, that comic phrase became a mantra for me in advising students throughout my teaching career (in fact, students once gave me an award with that phrase inscribed on it). I have taken it to mean (as have others who have written about the phrase) that when coming to an unexpected “fork in the road” (and without the benefit of GPS and Google Maps), one can either remain sitting at the fork forever (or, at least, until someone comes by so directions may be asked) or make a decision and follow it. Another canard, possibly a cliché, is “It is better to make a bad decision than no decision.”
When one makes a decision at a fork, one can only hope that it is the correct one — that, perhaps innate knowledge, experience, or luck will have guided the decider along the right path.
In Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Stanford Commencement Address (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA), he spoke of “connecting the dots,” looking back and seeing what got a person to some point in his / her life. He said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
I’ve come to a number of significant forks in the road in my life, professional and personal, and looking back to connect the dots, I’ve been very fortunate, even lucky, in the paths I chose to get me where I am.
Some background — I was an English Literature major at Iona College and had decided that, after graduation, I would look for a job that would help pay my tuition at Fordham Law School. In the spring of my graduation year, sitting in the cafeteria one day, a friend, Ed Lynch, asked me if I were going to take “the government test” which was to be given on a Saturday at Iona. I replied that I had no interest in working for the government but he said “You should take it anyhow; it gives you something to fall back on — and, besides, you can drive me up” (we were both commuters and I had a car and he didn’t). I reluctantly agreed but, on the night before the test, I stayed out very late (the bars closed at 4AM and I stood on the corner talking until about 5) — if I hadn’t promised him, I would have blown off the test that I didn’t want to take anyhow but I had promised him — so after an hour sleep and a shower, I picked him up and was off.
After the test results were in, I kept getting requests to come in for interviews for such positions as “border guard in Arizona” or “IRS auditor” — and I ignored them all as I began going to law school and working for a major insurance company.
Within a year, the bloom was off law school — I found “Real Property” and “Personal Property” to be extremely boring — and my work at the insurance company was no better. Just then, I received a telegram from the Department of the Army asking me to call for an appointment to be interviewed for a highly selective Department of Defense pilot program. I did and wound up selected to be one of four trainees who would spend six months working in various areas at the Brooklyn Army Terminal and then, I would have a choice of what area I wished to work in (if that area was willing to accept me).
At the end of the training when asked by a personnel officer about my preference, I expressed my desire to work in what was then called “Electronic Data Processing” — computers! To anyone who had known me, that would have seemed to be a strange choice — I had never seen a computer before going to the training program and had absolutely no interest in ever seeing one! My choice was based on the fact that the majority of the smartest people that I met during my six months were working in this area — and thus began an over fifty-year career as a technologist!
After approximately fifteen years in the field, I had worked for the government, been an officer of a major Wall Street firm (Dean Witter & Co. — now part of Morgan Stanley), and was an officer of two consulting firms. In the course of the last position, I made a presentation of our products to a four-person team (three men and a woman) at the brokerage firm Bache Halsey Stuart. While they didn’t choose to purchase our product, I was particularly impressed with the woman and, when two years later, the Director of Programming and Systems at Morgan Stanley, a client, called to ask if I knew of this woman who he had interviewed, I recommended her without out reservation (I don’t know how much my recommendation played into the hiring decision but I was dismayed when I called to congratulate her on her new position, and she said, “Thank you, Tom”).
Coincidently, within a few months, I was offered a management position at Morgan Stanley which I accepted. In less than a year’s time, the extremely intelligent and attractive woman that I had recommended, Barbara and I decided to get married.
At that time, our relationship would have been against the “non-fraternization” policy of the firm and one of us would have had to leave. Rather than do that, we decided to both leave and form our own consulting firm — we would specialize in what was our strength — financial systems that ran on large computers, “Mainframes.” Morgan Stanley was extremely good to us — allowing us to use its spaces for a number of months (at full pay) to build our business and providing us with a number of desks and file cabinets for our offices that are still in use.
One day, while still in this process of winding down, we were standing by an elevator about to go to lunch when a friend from the firm’s trading area, Seth Gersch, came along to wish us well and then asked “Have you seen the computer on Ben Rosen’s desk?” A — I had never heard of a computer on a desk; the ones that I dealt with took up rooms — and B — I didn’t know who Ben Rosen was. Seth explained that Ben was the firm’s Electronics Analyst and told us where he was located and we went off to see him. Ben, later a venture capitalist who helped bring Compaq Computer and Lotus Development Corp into existence, couldn’t have been nicer. He showed us an Apple II which had just arrived at his desk — it couldn’t do much but we were captivated and an Apple II became our firm’s first hi-tech purchase.
Within a few months, the first electronic spreadsheet, “Visicalc,” came out — we read about it in Ben’s newsletter and got one of the early copies and began to install whole systems for clients all over the country based on Visicalc and the Apple II.
In the early 1980s, Popular Computing magazine asked Dan Bricklin, one of the two creators of Visicalc who had become a friend, to write an article about the use of the product. He demurred, saying that was not what he did but recommended that the editor “speak to Barbara McMullen who knew more about the product than anyone not within his firm.” The editor did call Barbara and she wrote the article with me editing (shortly thereafter our roles reversed and, since then, I have written over 1900 articles, columns, and news stories for such publications as Computer Shopper, Newsbytes, InfoWorld, PC Magazine, Westchester Business Journal and the Chicago Tribune and this is my 205th Westchester Guardian column in the Creative Disruption Series — we also wrote one of the early books on microcomputer communications and that book as well a novel and a book of poetry that I wrote are available on Amazon).
One day in 1984, we were driving back from a visit to an upstate NY client and stopped in a restaurant in Cold Spring, NY, “Plumbush’s” for dinner. While eating, I overheard an older gentleman at an adjoining table telling the other guests about his experiences with his Apple II. When an opportunity arose, I introduced myself and mentioned that Barbara and I had a lot of experience with the same computer. As we talked, he recommended that we get involved with the New York Apple User Group, “BAUG,” a group that I didn’t even know existed.
We did get involved with BAUG and I wound up as the President of it for nine years. During that time, we were asked by members to teach courses at NYU and at the New School for Social Research and, eventually, that lead to over 30 years of teaching and administrative work at those institutions and Marist College, Westchester Community College, Tufts University, Monroe College, Bard College, Purchase College, and Iona College.
So my / our forks in the road over the years were in a college cafeteria, in a personnel office, on telephones, by an elevator, and in a restaurant. Where were yours? When you come to the fork in the road, take it!
Back in 2 weeks!
I welcome comments on this piece to firstname.lastname@example.org.
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at www.johnmac13.com, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2016 John F. McMullen