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Don’t Call Yourself Stupid

I hear a lot of questions from many different people. I hear a lot of comments, complaints, excuses, and justifications.

I also hear a lot of frustration and 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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Thinking of yourself as less than capable when it comes to technology is not only self-sabotage; it makes it difficult for others to help you. Don’t confuse lack of knowledge or experience with lack of ability to learn. Acknowledging that you are capable of learning can make technology significantly less frustrating.

You’re not one of them

Attitude is everything What statements get me frustrated?

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

YOU ARE NOT.

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

How do I know? Easy. 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

By labeling yourself as dumb or stupid (even if just “when it comes to computers”), you are telling yourself you are incapable. That belief will get in the way of any answer I give. That belief will prevent you from seeing answers staring you in the face.

You have defeated yourself before you’ve begun.

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

And trust me, you can.

Attitude matters

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

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

Computers can be damned complicated, and yes, they are often very frustrating, but that’s not your fault.

When problems arise, I see person after person giving up and putting the blame on themselves. Negative self-talk is guaranteed to make things worse.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced society has set some 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 calmly, patiently understand what’s happening, how things work, and how things interrelate is a worthwhile investment. Spending some time understanding basic concepts can save you hours of frustration later on. It’s one of the reasons I rarely give “just the answer” without a little gentle education as to why something is the way it is. That little bit of knowledge might help you figure out similar situations on your own with less frustration in the future.

The age thing

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

Bull.

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

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

One of the saddest thoughts are all of those out there who think 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. 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 term simply meaning “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 you don’t have a lot of hands-on experience with the topic.

“Computers frustrate me…”, “I have trouble understanding….”, and “This doesn’t make sense to me…” are ways to narrow down exactly what you’re having troubles with. Sometimes, it’s how the information is presented, rather than the information itself, that is your stumbling block.

All of those approaches give the additional context you feel is 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 you face.

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

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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.

40 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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • I think my mom, who’s in her 60’s, is similar to your wife in that it’s more that she refuses to learn something new when it comes to technology (it’s like they get immediately overwhelmed and their brain shuts down). she might learn a tiny bit once in a while but quite a bit of stuff that directly benefits her you can see she just brushes it aside and assumes I or someone else will do it for her and I am not even talking complex stuff either as I can understand many are likely to brush it off if it takes quite a bit of time to learn but I am talking pretty simple stuff that unless someone is truly stupid (which it’s pretty safe to say the EASY majority of people are not THAT slow) can definitely learn.

      for example… something pretty basic she just don’t retain in her brain (like you would think she could easily get this by now since it’s been brought up multiple times and is pretty simple), but I think it’s more that she just does not want to learn it is, when it comes to a TV for example… her grand son uses a Nintendo Wii (which I setup on the old coaxial connection since it does not have the more common Yellow/White/Red connection that’s been around for a good 20+ years now) on a recent TV she got earlier this year, which is a Samsung TV (it does not have the Yellow/White/Red connection when her previous TV from the early 2010’s did which the Wii used to be connected to), which shows up as ‘TV’ on it’s basic display when cycling through the connections you can use on the TV. but basically all she has to do when her grandson is done playing the Wii and she wants to use the TV like usual is switch it from ‘TV’ to ‘HDMI1’ (since when she watches general TV it goes through this connection) by pressing/cycling the top right button on the TV remote, which is the ‘Source’ button, and for whatever reason she just does not get this even though she’s seen it multiple times now. but I know it’s because she refuses to learn basic stuff and just assumes ill be there to fix it here and there.

      so as you can see when someone refuses to learn a basic thing like that, which effects her directly, it’s pretty hopeless. because I understand someone would not want to learn something that might not benefit them but this is something that directly does but yet she just blows it off and expects me to fix it here and there. it’s pretty frustrating on my end as it’s like pretty basic stuff for quite some time now and it’s not like I am asking her to do more complex stuff on the TV etc. because I tend to vent on her a bit here and there because it’s quite frustrating to me that she does not know this by now as it’s about as simple as one can get when it comes to general TV usage etc. it’s frustrating to work with people like that when they refuse to learn very basic stuff as it’s not like I am saying ‘do this and that and this and that etc etc’ as I am just saying to basically use a single button on a remote and press it until you see HDMI1 and then your pretty much good (you gotta turn on the satellite unit to but close enough since once the TV is off and you press power button on satellite remote like usual it powers on both the satellite unit and TV and then you proceed to use like usual, which she already knows the basics here).

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
    • I agree. I was hired to teach a course in a business college on office productivity software. I checked out a few books and found MS Office for Dummies to be a good option. The college said I couldn’t use a book with that title. I fully understood.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
        • 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.

          Reply
          • 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.

        • Hi Luke,

          I just read this and, as you stated to Leo, don’t know if you will see it as a lot of time has passed. I have already shared Leo’s article with a number of people because of how it resonated with me. As a retired “shrink,” I can attest that Leo is SPOT ON!

          However, to your point/question. It has been my experience that the type of people you describe often suffer from a lack of patience. Even with those in my age bracket (I’m 75), I hear things like: “Well, you’ve been using computers for a while, so it’s easy for you.” It seems to fall on deaf ears when I point out that (a) I was not born with some innate knowledge of computers; or (b) that I, like everybody else, had to start somewhere.

          We live in a world of instant gratification and, in my opinion, it has had devastating consequences for many folks. There is an illusion that we are all supposed to be at least knowledgeable – if not experts – on just about everything. (Seriously, I know a physician who was going to use one of the online language learning apps and was going to “give myself about 10 weeks to see if I can pick up Chinese!” Maybe it’s just me, but he is either a genius or setting himself for a major disappointment!)

          Reply
  8. …..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.

    Reply
  9. 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 !

    Reply
  10. 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.

    Reply
  11. I’m 70 and I get all the Ask Leo! questions before Leo sees them. I’m able to answer most of them. I’m convinced that mental exercise keeps the mind healthy in the same way physical exercise keeps the body healthy.
    My mother got her first computer when she was 79 and used it for email and writing.

    Reply
  12. When my wife says she’s stupid when she has a problem with her PC I point out she has a computerized sewing machine, which I haven’t got a clue how it works. I can hear her now and she is busily sewing on it. We’re both in our 70s.

    Reply
  13. As one comment mentioned , I draw a definite distinction between “stupid” and “ignorant.” I tell many of the folks I assist that there is no shame in ignorance, as it can always be overcome with a liberal dose of “education.” I then try to weave that education into the discussion as I address the particular problem I was called about. I’m meeting one such caller in about 10 minutes; it’ll no doubt be a “find and correct the problem” session but, mixed in with that will be a cup of coffee and a discussion about why “it” happened and how to prevent or correct “it” from recurring. It will be time well spent.

    Reply
    • It’s unfortunate, but the word “ignorant” has gotten a bad rap and has a negative connotation these days. As you say, it means nothing more than a lack of knowledge of some sort, and that can be corrected.

      Reply
  14. I think that most people look past the “For Dummies” and “For Idiots” and take the books for what they do. And what they do is explain technical things in non-technical ways, which is all that is really needed. Alan Cooper (About Face – The Essentials of User Interface Design) said that when people were asked what was important to them at the office, the number one response was “not to feel stupid”. Building unintuitive interfaces, or speaking//writing to users with the assumption that they know much more than they do is a frequent sin. Sprinkling explanations with all the latest industry buzzwords is inexcusable. I got my computer science degree in the late 70s and have worn many hats over my career (software developer/maintainer, dbadmin, sysadmin) and even I frequently get lost in the techno-babble.

    Reply
  15. There’s an old saying in the military about the dumbest question in the world. The world’s dumbest question? The one you don’t ask.

    Reply
  16. What I’ve learned is there isn’t many problems I’ve had that others haven’t had and already figured out how to fix. I started searching for solutions using “AltaVista” as a search engine. It was bad but I soon learned how to blow off the chaff and get to the answers that made sense. I don’t worry about knowing all the answers – using search tools, I can find what I need to get by. Often, I need to refine the search to get an answer that applies to my problem.

    Reply
  17. And there’s the famous slogan used by many corporations.
    “There are no stupid questions. Only stupid mistakes.”

    Although, working at Ask Leo for 10 years, I’ve come across a lot of stupid questions. Those are the ones which have been answered in the article the person is commenting on. 🙂

    Reply
  18. I can see why some people would say that – because they want help and figure they would get help if they put themselves down. I think back to a quote that some people say was said by Albert Einstein (but others say it wasn’t): “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

    Reply
  19. Thank you for a (as usual) terrific article Leo!

    You and your generous sharing of information have helped me a lot over the years both directly and indirectly. Translation: you have helped me learn about computers and been a wonderful resource I have directed others toward.

    I am now 75 and retired, but would say that the type of negative self-talk you addressed was the number one issue I encountered in my professional career as a “shrink.” It still amazes me how many smart people are stuck in a mindset of “I Can’t” or “I could never” or “Not me” thinking without ever having even tried. I was fortunate to have a father who liked to remind us that when Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel, she shared that she didn’t know whether she could do it or not, but only knew one thing – that she would never do it unless she got in the water and started swimming! That same approach works with computers – and just about everything else!

    PS – Thank you also for “Not All News Is Bad!”

    Reply
  20. I was told years ago that it is better to ask what you may think is a stupid question than not ask and make a stupid mistake. I believe this is what Leo is inferring.

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  21. Excellent, Leo ! You are more than just a technology expert, you are also a great psychotherapist. – I am only 72, and I have already started to hear comments about my age. That´s really infuriating. Your article is medicine to my wounds.

    Reply
  22. I help three people with their computer issues – age range 75 to 81.

    The 81-year-old will listen and follow instructions successfully.
    The 78-year-old is like the target of his article – self-labelled as too stupid to understand or remember, and has a definite preference for me to jump on and fix stuff via Team Viewer.
    The 75-year-old doesn’t claim stupidity but blames the computer for every failure, even when I’m trying to fix whatever (user-created) problem.

    I just need these people to TRY. Most of what I know is self taught, with the assistance of Ask Leo and relevant help forums as each issue came up.

    Reply
    • I have a friend who helped me get started with computers and am still at it and learning every day. The few times, early on, when I’d comment that I know so little was responded to with remember when you started and look at where you are now. That did help with the perspective. I must confess, I do have the proverbial “love/hate” relationship with the balance going to love. I’d be lost without my PC. Even while I’m struggling to get Word 2019 on my Taskbar. It seems as though most icons when searched for in the Windows search box have an option, in the context menu, to pin to taskbar. Not so with Word 2019. I shall persist and get it, eventually. There are so many platitudes that fit the subject, I can’t begin to count.

      Reply

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