Head to Head
By Sheldon Wolfe, RA, FCSI, CCS

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It's been thirty-three years since I took my first job as a specifier. This glorious career came to an early end a few months ago when I left my last office, where I had worked for twenty-two years. Add to that the years I worked in "real" architecture after graduating from architecture school in 1975, and it's been a long road.

My last firm regularly announced milestone anniversaries, and, beginning with the tenth anniversary, each honoree was given the opportunity to say a few words. At my tenth and fifteenth anniversaries, I took a project manual to the lectern, opened it, and intoned, "And now for an interpretive reading of a specification section." The next time you speak, try it; it's always good for a laugh.

For my twentieth anniversary, I couldn't help but think back on my career. I decided I should compare myself to another writer, and, for reasons I can't explain, I chose Tom Clancy. That might sound crazy, but we're both prolific writers, and there is a resemblance…

Mr. Clancy's statistics are easy to find. I found the number of books in print, number of video games sold, number of books rated number one on the New York Times best seller list, number of weeks the hardcover version of Hunt for Red October was on the best seller list, number of weeks the paperback version was on the list, number of words per book, and so on. Clancy began in 1984, and I wrote my first specifications in 1985. Unfortunately for him, Clancy died in 2013, so I had the benefit of a few more years. The time we had been writing could have been a factor, but in the end, it played no part.

Oddly, my own statistics were harder to find. I started with the number of project manuals I had issued, then estimated the number of specification sections, the number of words per page, and the number of pages to determine the total number of words. I discounted the mechanical and electrical volumes, and took partial credit for civil and structural specifications, mixed in a few other considerations, and decided I had published the equivalent of 400 books. With that as a start, I thought, I could at least be competitive. 

Tom Clancy is credited with writing over 100 books. I didn't include mechanical and electrical specs in my total, so I didn't include the many books Clancy co-wrote. Also, because much of his celebrity is based on his fiction writing, I decided to not include his non-fiction work. In the end, I gave him credit for 25 books. So, coming out of the gate, I am far ahead, 400 books to 25.

Other than the number of books written, I wondered, how else could I compare our work? 

Although I had written more than Clancy, none of my books made the New York Times Best Sellers list. Clancy scored 17. 

Producing best sellers obviously means an author's books are being read; Clancy wins this category as well. Assuming all the books he sold were read, more than 100 million people read his books. It's likely that many of those books were passed on to others, so the total could easily be twice that number. 

No one bought any of my project manuals, but, at least in theory, each of my project manuals was read by at least the project architect, other staff architects working on the project, our consultants, several people on the owners' staffs, and all the contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, and installers working on my projects. Even though I could throw modesty aside and claim all those people had read my project manuals, we all know better. In reality, the number of my project manuals that were read is probably closer to three, and those only partially. 

With all the best sellers he wrote, Clancy was an obvious candidate for Hollywood. Of the books he wrote alone, five were made into successful movies. Because of the number of project manuals I issued, I'm sure someone from Hollywood has tried to contact me, but they're probably using an old email address. 

And then there are the games. More than forty video games and a few board bear Clancy's name. Although none of my project manuals have been made into games, there have been occasions when one contractor or another seemed to think they were games.

Finally, I compared our incomes. When I learned his net worth was estimated at more than $780 million, I didn’t bother to find out what Clancy made for each of his books. I'm still counting on the lottery to get me to millionaire status, but who knows, maybe I'll win one of those billion-dollar Powerball payouts. 

With money comes property, and here again I come up just a bit short. According to Wikipedia, Clancy had an 80-acre estate that was once a summer camp in Maryland, with a panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay. His $2 million home had 24 rooms and a shooting range in the basement; in the yard was an M4 Sherman tank. He also had a condo in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. My wife and I have a five-acre plot in rural Minnesota, with a pond in the back yard. We had a 1949 Ford F3 pickup in the yard, but that's gone. 

With that sobering view of my career, you might think I am disappointed. Although it would be fun to publish a real book, and even more fun to have it be a best seller, I don't think I've wasted my time. Working in construction offers a satisfaction unknown in most other occupations; I can point to many buildings that fulfill the owner's needs - and will continue to be useful for decades - and say, ‘I had a hand in that!’