I Know Less than You Think I Do

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.

Questions? Answers!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…

Many current and common computer programming languages are very similar to one another in many respects. Without getting in to religious debates (which programmers love to do), programming languages like Java, JavaScript, Perl, PHP, C++, and others all share many common concepts and often similar syntax that’s all derived from a common ancestor: the C programming language.

They’re similar, but not identical.

Because I regularly find myself playing around with PHP, Perl, Javascript, and on rare occasions even C or C++, things can get very confusing very quickly. “What’s the exact syntax for X?” and “What order do the parameters to Y go in?” are common questions that I find myself re-confirming frequently. I kind of/sort of know the answer, but I really don’t because it might vary depending on exactly what I’m doing at the time.

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.

Footnotes & references

1: I paused as I wrote that to examine my desktop and all three are present; meaning I’m using all three – Mac, PC, and Linux – simultaneously.

2: And even when I do go graphical, I prefer to use xPlorer2 – a dual-pane file explorer.

11 comments on “I Know Less than You Think I Do”

  1. Excellent article, Leo. The ability to think things through is quickly becoming a lost art. Many people have lost the ability to analyze and figure out a solution. The first step is to realize that there is a solution. Just keep looking. If I don’t know the answer, I am sure someone else knows. More than a few times the answer came from you and I’ve used your site to find solutions to problems. Thanks, and keep up the good work.
    I see this in supporting computer users, especially older folks, who may feel overwhelmed by the many facets of computer use. I just remind them that they know about a lot of things that I don’t, I just happen to know a little more about computers than they do. And if they never quit learning and exploring they will gain skills in using the computer.

  2. I can relate to this article. I don’t know that much either, and rely a lot on instinct, guessing, trial and error, and of course Google.

  3. Every thing that I know about computers has been self taught, learned from Leo, magazines , and trial & error. Simply put, computers are not that hard to deal with if you can apply logic ( assuming of course that you can find the starting point of a problem ). Software is a completely different ball of wax, but you can be successful in trouble shooting if you keep your mind clear, and think before you act.

  4. Your article reminded me of something Albert Einstein once said: Don’t fill your head with what is written somewhere. Just remember where it’s written. Also, early in my first military career a sergeant told me that things keep changing, so rather than memorize things, just remember where to find the information. These two pieces of advice have been with me ever since.

    The second thing is to use what you already know as a building block to learn something new.

    Thirdly, learn how to research. Often manuals and help files prove to be invaluable. Also, frequently there are forums where users can ask a question and get useful help from other users. The major problem I have with search engines is they have to be too exact or provide way too many “matches” to be useful. Of course, it always helps to subscribe to newsletters, such as AskLeo. The only problem there is remembering which article had the information I need.

    I, too, am frequently asked how I knew how to do something. Truth is, I didn’t. It just seemed logical, or was a lucky guess based on experience with something similar. If faced with the same problem again, I usually have to experiment until I find out how I did it the last time – or two, or three.

    No day is a waste if you either learn something new, or teach someone else something.

  5. This wisdom goes back to quotes from Copernicus , Aristotle and many other wise men.

    Simple truths like this are critical to teach to others in order to help inspire new generàtions of houghtful critical AND creative thinkers.

  6. I can certainly relate to what Leo says. At work we use custom software and part of my job is to support my coworkers when they have questions or error messages they can’t resolve. To make things more challenging, I don’t use all parts of the software in my job.

    People think I know everything. The reality is, like Leo says, I don’t know everything. I know how it’s supposed to work, so I have a baseline to compare it to. And so some of my suggestions are just guesses. But they are educated guesses.

  7. Apropos “Knowledge” … I’m an older guy too and a saying I remember from many years ago fits this situation……….
    Knowledge is of 2 kinds….
    1. You know something yourself – or.
    2. You know where to look for the answer.

  8. Great article Leo.
    When I read the title I thought it described me to a tee.
    So often people that I help say how do you know so much and I like you know where to find the answers and don’t always know them until I find them using Google.
    Logic also plays a large part.
    I am self taught on computers and I think it’s a lot of fun most of the time.
    Thanks again for a Great article.

  9. The moment u think u know everything, that would be the day ur telling urself to stop growing. Life is a continous learning. Keep it up Leo, u dont know how many people ur helping and ur the best! U explain things very well which an average user can understand and relate. Kudos!

  10. What to do when you get overwhelmed ? In other words too much is
    going wrong at one time. How do I break it into bite sized chunks that
    can be handled one at a time. My Adobe flash quit working, Yahoo is
    running internet explorer ver. 11, I had trouble with Yahoo mail and
    I am trying to learn Adobe Photoshop elements 10 & visual basic studio 10. It seems that everything I learned in the past has become
    outdated. I am running Windows 7 pro 64bit and using Yahoo.com
    with IE 11 for my browser. What do I do about Adobe Software?
    Everything can get very confusing ver fast

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