Times are strange and precarious. Mandatory shutdowns have removed the only income source from many small businesses. Everyone keeps saying the answer is “technology”, but what if you’re among the people who find technology extra challenging? Sadly I don't have a magic wand that can make technology easy for you overnight, but I hope that this article can help you start thinking about it differently and open up more possibilities for learning and growth.
Many of my friends and clients are highly creative, capable, and smart people. But when talking to some of them, I get an impression that technology overwhelms them—especially if we’re talking about running an online business which involves maintaining a website, payment processors, social media, video conferencing, etc.
I don’t buy into the right-brain-left-brain myth, and I know there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to learn new tech things if you at least tried for a bit.
If you absolutely don’t want to learn about technology, and are willing to pay other people to do it for you, that’s wonderful. But if this isn’t likely because you need to save money right now, then keep reading this, because I have some tips for you.
Familiarity is key
I got my first second-hand computer when I was 10 years old. I wasn’t doing intelligent things back then—I only played computer games and occasionally drew images in MS Paint. It took me years to even realize I could do something useful on my computer.
When I finally started learning useful digital skills, I did it really fast. The reason I was able to learn so fast was because the computer wasn’t a threatening, alien thing. It was a tool I was used to. I wasn’t afraid I was going to break something.
Even when things did eventually break (like when my hard drive stopped working, and I lost all the data on it, including my high school graduation paper), nothing seriously bad had happened. No one got hurt, I still managed to turn in that paper on time, and no one shamed me for not backing up my data.
People are often afraid of learning things because they’re worried what might happen if they don’t do everything right. It’s like a fear of failure, but with the added stress of computers and software being expensive things.
People can empathize and understand, but computers are unforgiving. A living person can explain what you did wrong and tell you how to make it better. A computer barely reacts, and it does it through a cryptic warning message and an annoying plingy sound. How will you know if you’re even going in the right direction?
Being familiar with technology means accepting that technology is here to be experimented with.
Teachers in school may have threatened you not to do anything outside of the curriculum so you don’t break something (especially back in the day when we had 5 or more students sitting at one computer), and this is precisely the opposite of what we want to be doing. We should encourage kids to find new uses for a computer beyond what’s being taught—that’s the only way a person can become technologically literate.
A student that only does what they’re told is a consumer. A student that explores the possibilities is a potential scientist, hacker, or entrepreneur.
If you’re afraid of technology, try to accept these ideas:
- Technology is made for me. It’s made to make my life easier, not harder.
- Technology can make things happen faster. It can save me time and effort, and make me more efficient.
- Most of the technology out there is made with the average user in mind. The creators of devices and software are trying their best to meet me half-way.
- If I have a problem with technology, someone else surely had it before. There are help and resources available to overcome any challenge.
Even people who have experience with tech are facing many of the issues you are. Just because we used some other device or software before, it doesn’t mean we can magically use any new gadget. Learning something new is always a challenge.
The difference between someone like me who thrives using technology, and someone who only uses the basic tools when they have no other choice is that I’m confident in my ability to figure things out because I always do. I may swear and curse and bang my keyboard into the desk if things aren’t going well, but I don’t give up. I know there must be an answer, and I will find it.
Sometimes the answer is “the thing you want to do is not possible using this tool”, and that’s also valuable information. It tells you that you are not the source of the problem.
I’m not saying becoming a tech whiz is easy, but it’s a lot easier than it seems from where you’re standing right now. You’ve already learned the most difficult things for a human to learn. This is just gravy!
Once you learn how to learn using technology, there’s no limit to what subjects you can learn through it.
Knowledge is out there, free for the taking
About 14 years ago I was hanging out at the students’ lounge at the university, and a colleague walked in and asked if anyone knows how much the customs tax for certain imported goods was. Of course, no one knew this from the top of their head. I sat at the computer and typed "customs office" (carina) in the search bar, and got to the official customs website where this information was publicly available.
My colleague laughed and said "It would never occur to me to do that."
That’s the problem with most people. They don’t bother to look up information before asking someone else if they know what it is. LMGTFY (Let Me Google That For You) is a tongue-in-cheek way of addressing this, but I want to go beyond “just f-ing Google it!”
In this day and age there is information on almost everything you ever wanted to know available online for free. (Even the rare and precious books can be found pirated online.) The problem is that it’s hard to find things when you don’t know what you’re looking for. Luckily, there are helpful guides to address this issue, in the form of basic level how-tos on sites like eHow and YouTube.
I know this because I keep using the same free online resources to learn new things all the time. You may think I have it easy because I’m knowledgeable about technology, but there are so many fields I know nothing about, and I have no idea where the best place to start is.
Here are the steps I take when I want to learn something from zero:
- I type a general term into search and read the first few results (usually Wikipedia is #1). This gives me the basic glossary of terms so I can research further.
- I type a question into a search bar and read articles, forum threads, and watch videos that ask and answer this question. Someone must have asked this question before!
- If applicable, I type a "how to..." question and find written or video tutorials that explain the exact steps of the process. I watch and repeat the process step-by-step.
- I save the information that may be useful in the future when I face the same issue again, either on my computer or in Evernote. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve had to look up the same thing because I just forgot.
You see, there is no special secret. Anyone can do this. You can do this.
That’s how I first learned HTML. It’s how I learned to use Photoshop. It’s how I learned PHP, digital painting, WordPress, video editing, wire-wrapping, using chopsticks, tying a tie, and walking in heels.
I had the exact same resources you have access to. That, and wild curiosity.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Back when I was a junior web designer, I was probably very annoying. I made sure to always look things up on Google first, but if I couldn’t find the answer and I gave it an honest shot at trying to solve the problem on my own, I went ahead and asked people who knew more than me.
Back then there were no dedicated Q&A communities, but there were forums where like-minded people were hanging out, and asking and answering questions was an important part of this. I am so grateful to have had so many smart and generous people who were patient with a wide-eyed kid as she was struggling to figure out why my script didn’t work.
You may feel like the only people you’re able to ask for help are your friends, but that’s not the case. There are people who actually enjoy helping folks they’ve never met and have enough free time to do it. If you were not able to find an answer online, try asking the question yourself.
You can post a Facebook status on your wall, or in a specific group where people who share similar interests as you hang out. You can use the Q&A forums like Quora, StackExchange, Yahoo Answers, as well as general forums like Reddit.
You are not stupid for asking a question.
Rest assured that if you’re wondering something, there are thousands of people asking themselves the same. They will be thrilled to stumble into your topic when they type their question into search.
We learn by asking questions and finding an answer. Sometimes you can find the answers yourself, but sometimes you might need a quick tip from someone who has already been there, or for someone to look over the thing you’re working on and point out an error you’ve missed. Please, please, please don’t feel too ashamed to ask for help. No one learned everything with zero help from others—that’s impossible.
Know when it’s time to stop learning
You didn’t expect me to say this, did you? Why would you ever stop learning about technology? Let me tell you why.
When you have learned all that you need to know at this very moment to make the next step, you’re ready to stop—for a while at least.
Building an online business brings up a lot of emotional stuff for us, and we tend to hide behind learning. We tell ourselves how we couldn’t possibly know enough, and that we need more and more. And instead of writing that blog post, or sending that newsletter, or finishing that ebook, or launching that webinar, we learn and learn and learn until we feel like we know “enough”.
And it never feels like enough. I’ve written about this before, so if you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of learning more than you find yourself using that knowledge, go read it:
- You already know enough – Tips to stop forgetting the important stuff
- How to overcome information addiction
Don’t be surprised if you end up loving technology
Sometimes you may realize you don’t want to give up learning, because this new thing is actually what you love to do. Many people learned web design because they needed to maintain their own blog or business website, and then decided to become professional web designers. (Hmm actually, isn’t this how all of us started?)
Folks who started recording a video show or a podcast for themselves turned into video or podcast producers for other people.
If this happens, I congratulate you—you now have a new skill you can use in your business and develop it further, maybe even sell to others.
Even if you don’t learn to love technology, at least you’ll be less afraid of it. And I think it’s high time for people to stop being afraid of technology, because it’s not going away.
More and more of our services will become 100% digital in the next decade, and now in 2020 technology is keeping the frail social fabric together in a time of crisis. Look at this as an opportunity for personal and professional growth.
I know there are other things you’d rather be doing, but this may now be a priority. I wish you and your loved ones the best of luck.
Bonus list of websites where you can learn for free or cheap
I collected this in an article I wrote in Croatian for my fellow business owners who need to figure out how to digitize their business now. A structured way of learning can be easier for many folks than looking up information from dozens of different sources and piecing together a bigger picture on your own.
- Skillshare is currently offering Premium Content for 2 months to new members for free. (Unfortunately not for existing members.) Premium price is $12 USD per month.
- CreativeLive offers livestreamed courses for free, and access to recorded courses is paid (fixed rate or monthly subscription).
- edX has courses from many world universities that are free to take part in, and are only charging for certificates.
- Coursera also offers free courses from universities, and charges for certificates.
- FutureLearn offers free access to the courses for 14 days from enrollment, and continuous access to all courses is available in the Unlimited paid package ($270 USD per year).
- Class Central is an archive of free online courses from various sites.
- OpenLearn is another site that offers free online courses.
- Alison and another…
- IttyBiz Karma Store is a collection of entrepreneurship and marketing courses offered at the "pay what you want" price. All profits are invested in small businesses in developing countries through Kiva.
I hope this helps!