Here’s a suggestion that struggling users should welcome. As Einstein himself suggested, don’t fill your head with facts; know how to find things out instead. That’s the most important skill behind every computer wizard.

The secrets (sshhh!) of the computer wiz

The wiz that everyone turns to for help has a secret: She doesn’t actually know as much “tech stuff” as you think! She often doesn’t know the answer to your tricky question or even to the problems that pop up on her own computer. But she knows how to check out possible sources of the problem and how to look up an answer – often so quickly that you think she knew it all along.

When an answer doesn’t appear, the wiz is also quick to deploy an awesome secret technique. Here it is: just try stuff. It’s a lot harder to “break things” on the computer than beginners think! Computers aren’t actually waiting with bated breath to lose data or blow a circuit if you experiment a bit, and if you’ve got even modest experience, you’ll know how to really cut down any risk of making things worse. So, where many a timid beginner facing a problem will forlornly sigh, the wiz will forlornly poke around. It might not fix things right away, but will probably reveal clues to a solution – and once again, the wiz will look like she knew what she was doing all along.

That brings up another  secret the wizards have on their side: Learning this computer stuff is far easier than the world thinks. Anyone can do it on his or her own with a computer and (ideally) an Internet connection; you don’t need training courses, lecture series, expensive workshops, grueling residencies, any of that. Not only is the subject matter easy once you grasp a couple of key concepts (see the previous two articles in Three Keys to Get Ready), the computer itself lets you get at all the learning material you could ever want. (A machinist workstation, or a salmon processing plant, isn’t nearly as helpful toward those who have to learn its ways.)

Plus, learning about computer stuff is rather luxurious, as education goes. You couldn’t ask for more comfortable learning conditions, sitting in a soft chair while listening to music. In short, it’s true that the computer wizzes have a lot of knowledge in their heads, but much of it is easy knowledge to gain. (If you find yourself forgetting that, just look at any computer enthusiast’s hands. That’s not engine oil or coal under those fingernails; it’s Doritos powder.)

So, how do you learn how to find things out? The first step is knowing what resources are available. Start with the following, take note of what each can do for you, and keep discovering more resources as you go.

Resources

Let the computer help!

Your computer’s software is sure to have some built-in help functions: answers to common questions, mini-manuals for applications, maybe even some how-to demonstrations for common tasks.

Once you’re up and running and facing the computer’s screen, the first thing you should check out is what help functions are available. Offerings will differ by computer, so I can’t cover details here, but you’ll probably find some sort of help function that tells you how to use each of your applications, as well as “the computer” as a whole (see the previous article). Remember how to get at those help features, and use them often! Get in the habit of looking into the help function for every question you have – or even just browsing help to see what unexpected tricks you’ll find in there.

Learn to use Google search

Google search knows all. Or finds all, anyway. Beginners often feel that they don’t know where to find help, when the ultimate search tool is right at their fingertips. Open your web browser, find the Search field (or head to Google’s web page, http://www.google.com), and start typing in words that relate to your question. Whatever words come to mind: the name of the application you’re having trouble with, the exact text of the error message you’re seeing, some words to describe the goal you’re after. You should be surprised at what you get in return.

Learn from forums and support sites

So much help and support these days takes place not inside a computer’s help function, but in online web pages.

Any application or device you’re using has a manufacturer, and it’s a sure bet that that manufacturer has a web site with a support page. That’s often a great place to start looking for help. (To get to that page in the first place, see the above notes on using Google.)

You can find online communities, too, where people gather to discuss every topic imaginable. Find one on the topic that concerns you, create an account if required, and start asking questions! Complete strangers can be amazingly friendly to a person with questions. (Or not. Read a little farther down the page for an important note on getting friendly responses!)

Asking for help from people nearby

Can’t find an answer on your own? Get a geek!

I use “geek” in the appreciative sense, of course: a person who’s built up interest in and knowledge of a technical topic (computer stuff, in this case). A friendly geek can obviously be a huge help.

But let me toss in caveats up front:

First, you won’t learn much by instantly shouting for help with every question; you’ll probably annoy would-be helpers, too. Try to solve things on your own first, or at least learn more about the problem. Let your friendly geek be a last resort, or an aid when you’re really pressed for time, and not the first solution you turn to!

Next, be sure to give your helper as much information as you can: exactly what the trouble is, under what circumstances it does or doesn’t occur, what you attempted as a fix, and so on. In particular, if at all possible, tell your helper what application(s) you’re talking about. Hearing that you couldn’t select some command in “the menu”, and that “the computer” beeped some error message, doesn’t help much. Hearing that the Super Dictionary application wouldn’t let you select the Print menu command, and that your Power Scrabble 2018 application tossed up a “Could not load game” error message, helps a lot. For many problems, “What application?” is the single most important thing your helper needs to know.

Finally, keep in mind that not all geeks are going to be good at teaching what they know. Your local wiz might fix your problem with a few clicks, but even her well-intentioned explanation of what happened may leave you in the dark on how to avoid a recurrence. And in the geek’s defense, let me note that teaching is often much harder and time-consuming than just fixing the thing and being done with it!

If your geek can’t seem to transfer her knowledge into your head, that’s fine; save what bits of know-how you can for your further learning. Either way, always offer plenty of gratitude for any help, including the best thanks of all: Show your techie friend that you’ve taken notes, in the hopes of not bothering her again with that same question.

Tips for finding things out

There are countless sources of information to answer your questions. Sorting through it all is the hard part. A few tips will get you to to the good stuff more quickly:

Be a detective

When you’ve got a question or problem, take charge. Take on the role of a sleuth, and start acting like Sherlock Holmes would. Define the problem: What exactly isn’t working? What are the symptoms – error message, unresponsive application, missing file, what? Try to gather more clues: for example, does the problem appear in other applications, or just one? Are there any possible causes you can eliminate?

And so on. A guide to sleuthing may be a big topic for later, but feel free to put on that sleuth cap and dive into things. As I said earlier, it’s that willingness to explore a problem, not existing knowledge, that really separates the wiz from the rest.

Online people help those who help themselves

Online forums are supposed to be a place to get help – but aren’t they really just places to get yelled at by grumpy techies for asking stupid questions? The truth is that they can be. People on forums can’t see each other and typically don’t even use their real names; on top of that, more than a few participants have likely spent too much time in front of that computer and are up past bedtime. On some forums, it’s not hard to get yourself “flamed” (that is, rudely yelled at).

But it’s not hard to avoid such bad experiences, either. Following a few simple rules will catch you some far friendlier fish! I’ll place notes on a separate page; take a side read now if you like (the link below should open up in a separate window, so you don’t lose this page), or just head back here and follow the link in the future, when you’re ready to seek help from strangers online.

Side topic: How to get friendly help from online communities

Take notes

Learn something new? You probably will forget it, meaning you’ll waste time, and you’ll discourage your helpers when you ask them about the same problem again and again. Whatever you’ve learned – new technical terms, answers to questions, nifty shortcuts to do things faster – jot it down right away!

What’s the best way to take notes? Well, the most obvious tool is right in front of you: Use the computer! Open up your favorite word processor or other application that’s good for writing, and just start typing in what you’ve learned. Save the file somewhere that lets you get at it quickly. (Or… If creating a document is still a challenge that lies ahead of you, then take notes on paper. Go ahead. Paper works.)

Learn the lingo

I know, computer-y stuff is filled with all kinds of funny words that never seem to make much sense. But I’m going to be a little strict on this one. While there’s nothing wrong with asking “what’s that thingy called again?” a second or third time, you’re pushing everyone’s patience when you ask it for a tenth time. Write it down and remember it!

If you’ve got a friendly geek trying to help, you’ll drive the poor soul nuts by referring to “that round thing on the screen” every two minutes, or by calling your computer “my modem” despite a half-dozen corrections. On top of that, correct words are vital for self-learning. How are you going to look up help with a problem if you can’t begin to describe it?

Really, learning basic words related to the computer and to its applications is no harder than learning the names of your car’s parts or your kitchen’s devices. Just drop any “I can’t learn it” thinking, and start learning words!

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