Bad Luck, PC Hell and Healing From Grief

burning-computer2.jpgRisk management has always been tricky. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine the myriad ways in which something could go wrong until it goes wrong. While being a pessimist helps, even staunchly negative thinkers can sometimes be surprised by the smorgasboard of disasters the life serve up. I recently experienced a triple decker computer disaster that lasted 2 months and derailed several key projects as well as siphoned off every ounce of patience and calm that I had at my disposal. What can we do when unforeseen, and perhaps unforeseeable, risks descend upon us like a flock of buzzards? Sometimes it feels personal. Read on for the gut-wrenching chronology of my own brush with computer hell, and one possible approach to dealing with strings of unmitigated bad luck on a personal level.

My old laptop was tattered nearly beyond recognition. The ESC key had flown off a couple of weeks prior, one screen hinge was busted, most of the frequently used letters were worn off so that only a touch typist could use the darn thing, and the only thing holding it together structurally were a bunch of visitor name tags I’d collected from lobby receptionists during client consulting engagements. With just 2 weeks to go before a 35 day stint working in Japan, I sprung for an expensive new laptop. Spare no expense, I got the best I could find. After all, this was my primary business computer and a vital tool in earning my living. Four days, 12 downloads, 7 updates, 4 CDs and lots of glasses of wine later my laptop was ready to use, almost as good as the old one! The next day when I pressed the power button, nothing happened. OK, there was a little green LED that lured me into thinking that something was going to happen, but not so – it was completely dead. R.I.P.

Back to the store, exchanged for a new one, got that all working in another 4 agonizing days (I know there must be a better way, but I’m a business leadership and project management expert, not an IT professional!) and, just in time to catch the flight for Japan, presto, almost as good as my old computer, which was now serving as the recipe finder and weather predictor in my kitchen. Whew! That was close! Naturally I was delighted to have had the failure before I went on my long trip as I had many clients to visit on this whirlwind tour of inscrutable Japan.

During my second week there this computer died with suspiciously similar symptoms as it’s identical twin brother. Utter panic! While I had my critical files on a back up drive, my only working computer was on another continent, in a time zone 16 hours behind, and was being used to look up recipes for bouillabaisse. No matter, my work is more important that what’s cookin’ in the kitchen, so a small fortune was paid to overnight the decrepit old machine to my Tokyo hotel. I was never so delighted to see such a worn out piece of junk computer in all my life! It actually turned on! My only regret was that my nearly completed book was still stuck in the hard drive of my second brand new computer, and it wasn’t coughing it up. With the deadline to my editor rapidly approaching, I made a nightly ritual of attempting to revive that PC by various means. Meanwhile I contacted the people whom I’d been paying $50 a month for off-site recovery protection only to find out that they couldn’t restore my files due to some kind of glitch in their system (I think they mentioned something about a new 45-bit encryption, the challenges of Vista, and staff incompetence, but it could have been something else. I just don’t recall because it was hard to hear them over my screams.)

On to reviving my dead PC. First, I did all of the normal things, like praying for a band of angels to descend and fix it for me. Then I tried powering it up 600 or so times. As I became more desparate, I put it into the hotel refrigerator for 4 hours, no dice. Then I went drinking. Upon my return, emboldened by the sake, I dropped it 10 times from 3 feet, once on the top, once on the bottom, once on each of the 4 edges, and once on each corner just for luck. Presto! It turned on and worked perfectly from then on! Only instead of making my life better, things actually got worse. My old clunker of a laptop was starting to show signs that it would soon give up the ghost, so I started using the new, recently dead, but revived laptop. Concerned that any minute it would completely fail once again, I took to backing up data obsessively, every 15 minutes when I was working on something near and dear to my heart, sometimes every hour when I felt cavalier. I populated my entire FTP site with old files that I will probably never use just so I could get them again from anywhere in the world. As luck would have it, the born again computer survived until I could return in to the store that sold me both of these lemons.

Naturally I didn’t want a third computer with what I had now concluded suffered from at least one terminal design flaw. After 2 painful weeks of escalating begging, pleading and threats I finally received my third new PC in exchange for my frozen, dropped PC. (No, I didn’t mention this to the sales guy that this is how I got it working again. Can’t wait until they get their report from failure analysis! “Sir, there’s some frozen tuna on the mother board, and the shock indicator has registered 10 earthquake-size jolts.”) The third computer is still working, but I’m not taking any chances. I’ve got two 160 GB drives that travel with me and I back up to them every day, more frequently when I am feeling paranoid.

Looking back on the entire experience, it was like having a root canal that lasted 2 months. I went through all of the stages of the Kubler-Ross Model of dealing with grief:

  • Denial (“Surely it will turn on this time!”)
  • Anger (“Those SOBs! I will NEVER again purchase this brand or from that store!!)
  • Bargaining (“OK, just let it boot up once more long enough for me to retrieve my almost-finished book.)
  • Depression (. . . uncontrollable sobbing over Skype to a compassionate friend . . . )
  • Acceptance (“If I can’t get this computer exchanged and a new one working by this Wednesday I’ll just buy another one from a different store and write off the $2500 as a business loss.”)

The unfortunate part of this story is that I continued to tell it, over and over again, sometimes several times a day, to anyone who would listen. With each telling I became agitated anew, feeling the depth of my disappointment and frustration as though it were fresh. Fortunately for me I ran into a friend who was enthusiastically telling her sad tale of woe over and over again. When we heard how pathetic the other person sounded wallowing in our own sad story, we both had a good laugh and vowed that it was the last time we’d ever tell it, except to write about it in our blogs. What a relief! I have gone 3 whole days without repeating the events of the my personal computer hell, and I feel much better as a result.

We all have bad experiences, that’s a given. If you’re an experienced project manager and you don’t have any mental baggage from it, you haven’t been paying attention. But dwelling on our negative experiences and keeping them alive by retelling the stories just gives them more power. What story do you need to stop telling?


1 thought on “Bad Luck, PC Hell and Healing From Grief”

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    Yow… it does kind of remind me of some of my post-project lessons learned sessions. Sometimes it does feel like telling the horror story just gives it more power — so why go over it. I never thought of the grieving process as an analog to learning from adversity — it’s so apt. For me, I try telling the story just as Kimberly has done – with humor. Humor at the situation and laughing at myself (I’ve done more than a few things… ask me about some strange fist-sized holes that appeared in my walls during one particular project). Thanks, Kimberly, for the reminder about not letting the negative have the power.

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