Last January, I got a copy of a book in the mail called "The Confidence Factor." The author, Judith Briles, argued that self-confidence is not something that women get through supportive families from birth, but rather that it can be acquired.
"The confident American woman," wrote Briles, "is not the young kid on the block, the one with all the enthusiasm, naivete and optimism. Rather, she is older, has a family and more than likely a career, has had more than her share of personal crisis in her lifetime; the bottom line is that she often credits her own experience and self-reliance with being the greatest source of her confidence."
This was my kind of book. There was a study of 6,000 women and hundreds of anecdotes about women turning disasters and defeats into building blocks of success. Accomplished and self-confident women, Briles wrote, were not afraid to fail. Here was a new spin on the whole self-esteem story, which was very much in the news last winter.
I called the publisher to find out how to reach the author. The publisher, who is someone I have known for many years, told me how to reach the author and then we got to talking and she said, "If you ever want to do a book or a collection of your columns, I'd really like to publish it." This was not the first time that idea had been proposed, but it was the first time a publisher had proposed it while I was deep into reading about self-confidence. Once you take a puff of the self-confidence cheroot, nothing is beyond you.
The deal was struck, the papers signed. There would be some new writing that would bridge a dozen sections of columns that were related to each other thematically. The new writing, it turned out, was the easy part. The columns were stored on a data base in Oklahoma. A colleague in the library explained how easy it was to download these onto our computer at home. She said: "We could do it for you, but it would be better if you did it so you would know how to do it in the future."
She wrote down what to do. She wrote down her home phone number. What she didn't write down was all the years of experience she had doing this that made it look easy. There are some things that self-confidence can't compensate for, and experience with downloading from a data base in Oklahoma is one of them.
My husband, who had long urged me to get rid of my antique computer, assured me that this project would be simple if I used his computer, which has a hard disk and the Xywrite word-processing program. He showed me how to sign on and start a file. I wrote most of that afternoon. About 5:30, I told him I wanted to print out what I'd written. I said: "How do you make it double-spaced?"
He said: "I don't know."
That was the first clue I had about the information gap that existed between me and the future. I called the computer systems office in the newsroom at The Post. Turns out we use Xywrite in the suburban bureaus. Turns out, however, that learning how to double space was just the beginning of the new technology I didn't know. I had to learn how to work a modern computer, how to work a powerful word-processing program and how to work a new communications system. Selling real estate was starting to look like a good second career.
During the next six or eight weekends, I developed a close relationship with one of my colleagues in the systems office who repeatedly came to my rescue as disasters kept occurring. I linked up with the data base and gave it some dates of columns I wanted. The data base signaled back that it had found the columns. I told it to send them to me. It did. And then it also sent what appeared to be the longest piece ever to appear in our Sports section about someone named Charles Mann.
I started over. I finally got some columns downloaded, and flush with success, tried to call them back up on my screen. They had vanished. My new best friend in systems figured out that they had been filed in the communications file, not in the main file. Not long after that, I also downloaded a major piece on the winter Olympics and some others on an international banking conference. Once set in motion, the data base had a mind of its own. Meanwhile, I was losing mine: I was having the kind of personal crisis that could build a year's worth of self-confidence.
What saved the project in the end were my colleagues, who gave new meaning to the word patience. The lesson to be learned out of all of this, of course, is not to let technology get ahead of you.
The other lesson is that too much self-confidence can be a dangerous thing.