I recently answered a question from a reader and they responded to the answer by saying, “So easy when you know how.” Now, I don’t know if they were making an honest observation or a snarky comment (I suspect the former), but I started thinking about what I’ll call my deep dark secret.
I didn’t know how. In fact, it’s very often that I don’t.
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But I know how to get a clue
What I knew is where to look.
I knew how things normally work and I extrapolated from there.
What I did was then confirm my assumptions by taking a look and I discovered the answer.
I didn’t know the answer. I found it.
What you know is important, but…
A certain amount of knowledge matters, but it’s often not what you know that makes the difference.
What matters more – often much more – is your willingness and ability to take what you already know and build on it to discover solutions. No, it doesn’t work in all cases, but it really does work much more often than you think.
I “know” a lot less than people think I do. Quite often, I am just making it up as I go along. I’m really good at doing that … and all that means is that I’m very good at finding answers.
And you could be too.
Watching me in action
I had a visitor here recently and I was showing her how to do a few things on her new Windows 8 laptop.
At times, it seemed like I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’m always a little self conscious about that when someone’s looking over my shoulder. Yet, I almost always ended up with the information that she needed.
And it’s very true. I often don’t know what I’m doing specifically. It’s really no surprise when you think about it. I regularly switch between not only Windows XP, 7, and 8 (and occasionally Vista), but also between Windows, Mac, and Linux1. There are just too many specific details to hold in my little brain.
It gets even worse because much of what I was showing (and indeed, many of the questions that I get every day) don’t apply to how I personally use my computers. These are things that I just don’t do on any regular basis. For example, I rarely run Windows File Explorer – I’m a command-line guy at heart and prefer to use it in lieu of the graphical Explorer interface.2 But that doesn’t prevent me from demonstrating or answering questions about it.
It applies to programming too…
They’re similar, but not identical.
So, instead, I know how to quickly find the answer.
Google is my friend.
Skills can trump knowledge
Instead of an exhaustive knowledge about the thousands of little details, what I have is the skill to discover – and perhaps re-discover – what I need on the fly.
Instead of knowing, I know how to find out.
With the enormous amount of information quite literally at our fingertips these days, knowing how to find what you’re looking for can be an incredibly valuable skill.
It could be as simple as becoming better at using search engines like Google or the search options on various websites. Seriously, I search my own site constantly. Many of my emailed answers are nothing more than me or one of my assistants acting as a slow search engine, interpreting submitted questions and returning a link to an existing article that has the answer. Imagine how much information you could find and use quickly with the proper search skills! And it doesn’t have to be about computers – I’ve used search techniques to help me do something as low-tech as pulling fence posts.
Being able to recognize patterns and extrapolate from them is almost as important. Earlier, I said that I “knew … how things normally work and I extrapolated from there.” There was nothing that pointed me explicitly to the answer. Instead, I looked at how things normally work in similar cases that I made and tested an assumption that things would work similarly in the case with which I was faced. No, it doesn’t always work (and I agree it’s frustrating when it doesn’t), but quite often it does and it can quickly lead to solutions that would otherwise remain out of reach.
Knowledge is power, and yet…
Knowledge is powerful, it’s true.
But having the ability and the skills to find what you need when and as you need it is more powerful still.
Investing in those skills can pay off immensely.