This may not be a very straight forward question, but how does one even
begin to find a solution to a problem, when they have no idea what’s causing
it, or even the terminology to describe what is happening? Are there any
concrete ways to narrow down a search, or steps to follow? It would seem that
much of the time, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, pretty hit and
miss, and many times if you find an answer at all, it’s by sheer luck that you
have stumbled upon it at all, and then many times, it’s only after days and
weeks of searching. Some times months even.
I love this question because I think it represents exactly where a
lot of people are. I know I get a lot of questions every day where
people try to describe their problem but have no idea what, or even how to ask
the question. The result is that I’m often left scratching my head wondering
just what the heck they’re talking about.
It’s not their fault or problem. It just is. But it also makes dealing with
these issues all that much more difficult.
Now, re-read the question and the response I’ve written, imagining that I
were an on-line car advice guru instead of a computer geek. It all still
applies, doesn’t it?
And as complex as cars are, computers are worse.
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You really don’t need to know the difference between a carburetor and a
catalytic converter if your car breaks down; you just need to know the phone
numbers for tow truck and repair shop. From then on in exchange for some of our
hard-earned cash, (hopefully) well-trained professionals take care of the
Computers are different.
While you don’t need a tow truck, the number of repair shops you might take
it to are much fewer than you’ll find for your car. Even if you find one, the
costs can be comparatively high. And unlike a car, which you hope never breaks
down but accept that it can, the expectation is that your computer will “just
work”. The expense of a technician or repair shop is something that you never
expected and try very much to avoid.
And just like a car mechanic, a trustworthy technician is difficult to
educated about the computer you use …”
By and large, we’re still in the stage where “normal” people are expected to
do most of their own maintenance, diagnosis, and often their own repairs.
Much like the early days of automobiles, actually.
And that means that in some very practical ways, you do need to get educated
about the computer you use, if only to be able to ask the right questions when
you do need help.
And for the record, “I’m too old”, “I’m not techie enough” or any of a
hundred other excuses don’t cut it; they are just that: excuses. I’ve received
wonderfully appropriate questions from several folks in their 80’s and older
as well as folks from all walks of life. All that’s required is a willingness
First off, I’m a big believer in learning by doing. That means don’t be
afraid to do, ask, try, and even occasionally break things. By far the best
education we get is that we get from practice.
It’s great to have a tech savvy friend or family member, but be sure to
“use” them in the right way. Don’t just expect them to fix things for you –
it’s much more important that you learn from them so that you can go
on to fix things yourself later. They’re especially great because you can point
to something on your screen and say “what’s that gizmo called?”
If you’re near a community college or other institute that offers them:
beginners classes will not only help, but could put you in contact with others
that are learning along with you. In fact, those contacts after the class could
be more important than the class itself!
Q&A services and forums like Ask Leo!
are a great place to start on line. I try to be, but not all are friendly to
newbies, so definitely spend a little time looking at the on-line archives that
you find to see if the tone of the answers is appropriate for your level of
knowledge and confidence.
Not all forums and services will work for everyone. I’ve had people complain
because Ask Leo! is too technical,
and I’ve had people complain later that same day that Ask Leo! isn’t technical enough. Make sure
you spend some time really reading the ongoing conversations. That’ll not only
tell you if the conversation is appropriate for your needs, but you’ll probably
learn a lot just by following along.
When you do ask a question, try not to make too many assumptions about what
you think the answer is. For example just this morning I was asked something
along the lines of “what do I need to change in Internet Explorer to fix the
Start Menu?”. Well, the two items are unrelated: IE doesn’t control the start
menu, Windows does. I realize that it’s often difficult to tell where one
program begins and another ends; that’s why symptoms and data
are much more important than guesses as to what might be broken.
Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get an answer your first try. Speaking
just for myself, I get way more questions every day than I can
actually answer either here in print or in email. I know that the same is true
in many of the various other support services as well. The bad news is that you
may need to be patient or try again. The good news, if you want to call it
that, is that you are most definitely not alone. A lot of people are
I’ll include a couple of the “ask a question” sites like mine that I
personally trust and I know do very well with beginner and basic questions. If
you know of a resource yourself that might also be appropriate or friendly
towards folks just starting out, add a link to it in the comments to this
article – everyone can benefit. There are thousands of possibilities out on the
internet, and word of mouth is perhaps the best referral source of all.