Don’t Call Yourself Stupid

As you might expect, I hear a lot of questions from many different people. I also hear a lot of different comments, complaints, excuses, and justifications.

I also hear a lot of frustration and often helplessness.

It’s understandable. Computers and technology can be frustrating at times and leave you feeling quite helpless. Heck, that’s why Ask Leo! exists.

And while many of the different comments, opinions, reactions, and complaints can occasionally leave me feeling frustrated, there’s one that really, really bugs me.

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You’re not one of them

What statements get me so frustrated?

“I’m dumb,” or “I’m stupid when it comes to computers.”

YOU ARE NOT.

Yes, there are indeed stupid people out there, but you’re not one of them.

How do I know? Easy. Stupid people don’t know that they’re stupid. Stupid people don’t go looking for help. Stupid people don’t ask questions.

I know, I know. You meant “when it comes to computers.” It doesn’t matter – the same statements apply.

Defeated before you even begin

The problem is by labeling yourself as dumb or stupid (even if just when it comes to computers), you are telling yourself that you are incapable. That belief will get in the way of any answer that I give. Trust me, that belief will even prevent you from seeing the answer that might be staring you in the face.

You have defeated yourself before you’ve even begun.

You’ll not bother to learn because deep down, you don’t believe that you can.

And trust me again, you can.

Otherwise, what a waste. What a terrible waste.

Attitude matters

Attitude is everythingHere’s a not-so-secret secret: it’s likely that it’s only your attitude that’s stopping you from making progress. It’s your fundamental assumption of failure that is leading most of what you try to fail. If those beliefs weren’t in the way, I truly believe that your experience with technology would be a significantly more positive one.

I’m not saying that changing those beliefs will fix all of the problems that you encounter, but I’m absolutely convinced an attitude of “I can” will result in your making more progress on your own and ultimately experiencing fewer problems and frustrations.

Computers can be damned complicated, and yes, they often are very frustrating, but that’s not your fault. But negative self-talk (like, “I’m dumb when it comes to computers”) is almost guaranteed to make things worse.

Sadly, it’s when problems arise that I see person after person giving up and putting the blame on themselves.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced society has set up some really high standards: if you don’t “get” this stuff instantly, you must be stupid. That couldn’t be more wrong, particularly when it comes to computers.

Stepping back and taking a little time to understand calmly and patiently what was happening, how things work, and how things interrelate are worthwhile investments. Spending some time understanding some basic concepts can save you hours of frustration later on. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I rarely give “just the answer” without a little gentle education as to why something might be the way it is. That little bit of knowledge might help you figure out similar situations on your own, and with less frustration, in the future.

The age thing

Right up there with “I’m too dumb” is “I’m too old.”

Bull.

Seriously, there’s nothing standing in your way but you own attitude.1

Some of the most rewarding comments that I get from time to time are from senior citizens who’ve resolved an issue and have gotten themselves online, perhaps enabling a new level of communication between the generations.

One of the saddest thoughts are all of those out there who think that they’re “too old” or “too dumb when it comes to computers” who could have been doing the same if not for that attitude in the way.

Please, don’t let that be you.

So if I’m not dumb – what am I?

Language matters a lot. Self-talk matters. And I desperately want you to stop using words like “dumb” or “stupid” or “too old” when referring to yourself.

But I also get that you’re trying to give me a sense of your experience or knowledge when it comes to computers. OK, so use terms that reflect that.

“I’m not very knowledgeable…,” and “I don’t know a lot about…,” are great ways to express a sense of ignorance (a very valid term that simply means “lack of knowledge”) when it comes to technology.

“I’ve never used computers much…,” “I don’t have a lot of experience with…,” and “I’m new to…,” are good ways to point out that you don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with whatever the topic might be.

“Computers frustrate me…,” “I have trouble understanding….,” and “This doesn’t make sense to me…,” are ways to narrow down exactly what it is that you might be having troubles with – not necessarily the specific information, but perhaps how it was presented might be at fault.

All of those approaches can be accurate and descriptive and they can give the additional context that you might feel helpful, without demeaning your own abilities.

Be willing and able

For any of those statements, consider adding the phrase “… but I’m willing and able to learn,” even if only in your own mind.

THAT is the attitude that will help you cope, help you grow, and ultimately, help you deal with whatever frustrating and complex issue it is that you’re facing.

That is the attitude that will help me – and others like me – help you.

This is an update to a podcast – The most frustrating thing I hear… – originally posted August 4, 2007

Footnotes & references

1: This statement always causes some to respond “just wait until you’re older!” a) I’m 57 as I write this, and b) I regularly hear from people in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s who are absolutely loving what technology offers them. Perhaps things take a little longer, but that’s not stopping them. It’s not about age – it’s about attitude.

23 comments on “Don’t Call Yourself Stupid”

  1. I’ve gotten a couple people who claim to be too old for computers to try them by reminding them that kids didn’t invent them, people like them did.

  2. Although it does not actually agree with the dictionary definition, I like the distinction I heard long ago – probably before many of your readers were born. It goes like this:

    Ignorance is not having information available.
    Stupidity is having information available, but not using it.
    There is no shame in being ignorant, but there’s no excuse for being stupid.

    Being nearly three-quarters of a century old, I get really upset when I hear “too old” for anything. Usually when a person says they’re too old for something, it really means they don’t want to put forth the effort to try it. “Old” is an attitude not related to age.

  3. I am 82 years YOUNG, still learning and luvin it. My wife is exactly the opposite, and likes to use the “dumb” and “stupid” comments about herself, even when I tell her that it bothers me. I look for new things to learn, she refuses new things to learn.

    Different strokes for different folks.

  4. I have a friend who just celebrated her eighty–sixth birthday. She has two PCs, two printer/scanners, a Kindle reader, and an iPhone. I’ve been her “tech support” guy for a few years, and I can report that nothing keeps this lady from trying new stuff. It’s all a matter of attitude.

  5. So – any book that is ‘for Dummies’ will only entrench the feeling of being stupid. I will never buy or recommend a book with those words in the title.

    • Yeah, I have a real hard time with those titles, and the similar “for Idiots” books. It plays on people’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacy to sell books. I know that some, at least, are actually quite helpful, but their amazing success speaks volumes about how people feel about themselves.

  6. You’re right about attitude, Leo. That’s my biggest problem when working with my pcs. When pcs started coming on the market, I heard how great they were; how much they can do; how fast they were, etc. So my attitude problem is a shortage of patience. When I’m working at a computer, I expect it to do what I want it to do; virtually read my mind. When it hangs up on something, I don’t want to stop what I’m trying to do to solve a computer problem. And my immediate reaction is to take the instrument and throw it out the window. I don’t, but, on the other hand, I just shut it down and walk away to do something else until I feel I have to get back to the computer. I still haven’t solved the problem, but I can usually go on with what I set out to do before I hit the wrong keys.

  7. I totally understand the point of this article – I even agree with it.

    But in my personal experience, there are (admittedly very few) people who ALWAYS have issues. They know what to do, and by their apparent actions are indeed doing the right things – but things keep on going wrong, elementary mistakes keep on being made.

    Some people really are chronically inattentive, and I don’t know what to tell them. It’s not an issue of intelligence or attitude – according to this article, they have the right amount of both. But it’s something they can’t be helped with. I’ve directed OTHER people to this article; I know it helped them. But this handful of people, I’ve showed them this and it brings them down – to be told ‘it’s a matter of perspective’ comes across as condescending when said to someone who HAS the right perspective.

    I don’t know if you will ever respond to this (this is an old article, after all) but I really would like to know – what would YOU say to these people?

    • If they’re calling themselves stupid (which is what this article about), then they don’t have the right perspective. In my experience there’s little that CAN be said to people who persist in believing less of themselves – purposely or otherwise. As I field questions every day, these are questions I’m often likely to skip.

      • That’s the thing – they AREN’T calling themselves stupid. They are interested in learning – they ask for help, write down the advice given, carefully follow the advice, and yet seem to always do something wrong – the electronic equivalent of that guy who is always misplacing his car keys.

        That’s why I was asking – I showed them the article and they were almost offended to have their problem reduced to ‘you just need to be positive’, especially because they already are. They are ready and willing to learn, and they do not give up or say bad things about themselves. They ARE positive – “I know I’ll get it this time” etc.

        Maybe they are just unlucky. Maybe there’s a fundamental misunderstanding that just hasn’t come up so it hasn’t been corrected.

        The feeling I get from your response to me is that you believe that they are ‘secretly’ having a non-constructive attitude. But I really can’t see how me accusing them of ‘not really trying’ is going to help.

        • Not at all. The people you describe are not the people I’m talking about. They’re not calling themselves stupid, and it sounds like they don’t have the fundamental negative attitude that this article is about.

          • I’m sorry, you’re right, my comments are not greatly related to the subject of the article.

            I was just frustrated – with them, not you. Being on call support for people who can’t seem to do anything right in spite of their good intentions can wear on you. I wish I knew how to help them, that’s all. I guess my question really should have been ‘why are some knowledgeable people walking tech support nightmares’, and that’s probably not a question you can answer.

            Sorry for wasting your time.

  8. You should make a t-shirt or at least a fortune cookie “Little can be said to people who persist in believing less about themselves.” Amen!

  9. …..and then there are those people who join groups (Yahoo for example) and forums to learn more about computers. Yet, when they ask a question, one or more of the experienced members challenges them, oftentimes pushing their own “beliefs” onto the person asking the question. This not only intimidates the person asking the question, but those who were thinking of asking a question. People with more experience who are in groups or forums should be more understanding and helpful. People are not “dummies,” they are people seeking knowledge from those with more experience. I know a little more than the average person when it comes to computers and I have no problem with the “Dummies” books. My library currently has 18 such books. I don’t feel intimidated by them because the authors explain things in plain and simple terms, not condescending like in some of the aforementioned groups.

    Leo – this was a fantastic article and once again, great job.

  10. I have never understood the popularity of computer games – getting the damned thing to work (let alone the way I want it to!) is QUITE enough of a challenge for me !

  11. Re: ‘Don’t call yourself stupid’. I am 81 and a relative newcomer to computing, having acquired my first computer 6 & 1/2 years ago. For myself, I believe that it is just a matter of “I do not fully understand everything that I know” about this ‘Devil’s Instrument’ of mine. I then try to figure out what happened, and perhaps why. I also realize when I have strayed into something that is beyond my capabilities, it is time to back off and seek help. I read a lot, keep nosing about, at times needing tech support, but eventually my mess gets sorted out. Through your articles I am able to solve most problems without help.

    Leo,Your insight is really quite valuable. Thank you.

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