Often when I help someone with learning to use their tech, they want me to just “give them the steps”. I almost always refuse to do this. It’s like giving directions that simply say, “Go 2 miles and turn left. Go another 3/4 of a mile and turn right. My house is a mile and half down on the left.” While these may be accurate, they aren’t particularly helpful if I get lost on the way or miss a turn.
But add a little context to the instructions and not only does it help in case I get lost, it helps prevent me front getting lost in the first place. “Go straight for 2 miles and turn left at the light by the Dairy Queen. At the third light, make a right onto Oak Street. Our driveway is the first on the left after you cross over the creek. It’s the one with the blue mailbox. If you get to a stop sign, you have gone too far.” (By the way, these are completely fictitious directions. If you follow them and get somewhere, it definitely won’t be my house.)
The context here is the little details that help you stay oriented as you go. The Dairy Queen. How many light to go through. The color of my mailbox. How to tell if you have passed my driveway. Without these little signposts, the directions are much harder to follow. And if you strayed from them, getting back on track would be very difficult if not impossible.
This also applies to technical instructions. The little extras I give you in addition to the step-by-step instructions are almost more important than the steps themselves because they help keep you oriented in the new, unfamiliar tech space. And if something goes a little wrong, you have a better chance of getting back on track and being successful.
It does take a bit longer to receive these types of instructions and internalize them, but it is worth it. It’s a bit like getting a map to go along with your turn-by-turn instructions. Imagine if all your GPS did was tell you where to turn and didn’t show you on that little map on the screen. Would it work? Sure, but that little line showing you how to go makes it so much easier. And that’s what I do for the people I work with. My job is to provide the step-by-step instructions together with what the surroundings look like as you go.
So the next time someone gives you instructions for how to do something new, if they don’t give you any context be sure to ask for some, just in case you get lost along the way.
In my experience training people on how to use their technology, I have noticed a recurring pattern. No matter how accomplished or experienced they are, at some level they are intimidated and made to feel incapable in the face of their tech. This puzzled me at first. How can such accomplished and successful people feel so out of sorts around their digital tools? Some even go so far as to try to give them up altogether. What were they finding so difficult?
Whenever we start learning something new, we are complete novices. We don’t even know what we don’t know. We are essentially helpless. For anyone who prides themselves on their successes and knowledge, this is a very challenging feeling to live with. And with technology, there is so much to learn, right? But what if there wasn’t so much to learn?
We often learn best through metaphor and stories. Let me share one with you. When I learned to drive a car, I learned on my family car. I don’t recall what make it was, but let’s just say it was a Ford. At first I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and everyone in my family was afraid to ride with me. Slowly, I got better and more confident until others felt safe whenever I was driving. This felt good. But then I had to drive another make – my grandmother’s Mercedes. While I was nervous about driving her really nice car, I wasn’t nervous that I would know how to drive it even though it was a brand new and different car to me. Why? Because all cars (in the US) work the same. The steering wheel is on the left. The gas pedal is on the right, the brake on the left. The gear shift is generally on the floor to the right of the driver. Sure, how you turn the headlights on and adjust the temperature of the inside of the car are different but the essentials for actually driving the car are the same.
Now, the same is true of any software you use. In fact, I would go so far as to say that once you learn how to use one program, you are about 70% of the way to learning how to use any other. Just like the car, most of what you know in one program works the same way in all the others. Sure the settings might be in a different place, but how you open the program, close the program, and use the menus are the same for all.
The source of much anxiety in learning to use software, then, is feeling overwhelmed by how much there seems to be learn. But with this idea, you can see that there isn’t quite so much as at first seems. In fact, if you can browse the web to read this post, then you are most of the way to knowing how to use any program on your smartphone or computer. Now you just need to learn to play with it!
I’m referring to your smartphone. Or your tablet. Or your laptop. Or that latest program or app you installed or updated. You can’t break it simply by using it. In fact, modern software is designed for you to learn by using it. And it is pretty easy to do. Don’t believe me? Give whatever you are struggling with to anyone between the ages of two and twelve. They won’t ask you how to use it or look for a help file or video. They will just dive in and start using it. And you can, too. You may feel like you can’t or that it is simply too difficult. And that may in fact be part of why you can’t. You’ve “psyched” yourself out and frozen your natural playfulness. Here is a story from my family to illustrate my point (sorry, Dad!).
My dad is an incredible mechanic. The smell of oil and gasoline surrounded him when he came home from work. Every time I get my car serviced is a trip down memory lane. The last place my dad worked before he retired, he completely rebuilt a service truck. I mean he stripped it down to the frame and rebuilt it, improving each system on it. It was an incredible achievement of engineering. This brilliant man tells me that he just can’t get the computer. I lovingly tease him that it isn’t an inability but rather a lack of desire. You see, my dad loves to tinker with and build stuff – in the physical world, anything he can put his hands on, figure out how it works, and then make it better. Because computer software is a black box that he can’t see into or wrap his hands around, he has convinced himself that he can’t learn it. But we can all find a way out of our struggle struggle to learn if we decide to bring a sense of play to the experience.
Children have this innate desire to play and have fun. When kids are most focused on something they are enjoying, adults often mistake this for “getting serious” about something. For the child, they are just immersed in their world of play. As a toddler, I bet my dad sat on the floor playing with Tinker Toys/Lincoln Logs/Legos. His work as a mechanic was just an extension of what for him was play. And that childlike sense of play is the approach we all need in learning how to use our electronic doodads.
Here are some tips for turning that phone in your pocket (or other gadget) into a source of fun instead of frustration.
- Treat your technology like a toy or a puzzle. Find something about it that you enjoy and play with it. Feel free to ask your family or friends for help.
- Be patient with yourself. Few of us are very good at something the first time we do it. It takes time to learn. So be kind to yourself.
- Share your victories. When you figure something out or discover something new, share it with someone close to you. Play is for enjoying and sharing with others.
Let me know how implementing these ideas helps you by leaving a note in the comments. And have fun!