How to become mechanically competent

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We live in an increasingly mechanized world. We have surrounded ourselves with all sorts of electronic gadgets and we can’t imagine a life without them. Cell phone, TV, computer, DVD, microwave, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, and much more. Even razors and toothbrushes have now gone electronic.

Technology simplifies our lives. It makes us more efficient and productive but it also adds complexities to our lives. We all have experienced frustration when we were unable to connect a DVD to a TV or clear a paper jam in the printer. Every now and then, we all get frustrated with various devices. And quite often we blame ourselves for being mechanically incompetent.

The devices we use today are far more complex and powerful than similar devices we used just a few years ago. Few years ago, a cell phone (or mobile phone) was simply a telephone we could carry around with ourselves. Today a cell phone is a phone, address book, organizer, email client, web browser, digital camera, gaming device, alarm clock, and even an mp3 player. Somehow the engineers were able to fit all this in a device smaller than a bar of soap.

One day the printer of a manager suddenly jammed while he was printing important handouts for a meeting. The LCD screen on the printer indicated that there was a printer jam. The manager struggled with the printer for 15 minutes before giving up in frustration and calling for help. A young man steps in response to his May Day call. He quickly reads the LCD screen, opens a slot, slides out the toner, pulls out a mangled paper, slides back the toner and closes the slot. All of a sudden, the printer goes back on line and starts printing the sent documents as if nothing ever happened. All this happens while the manager tries to explain the problem and defend himself (that he did not break the printer). After this quick fix, the manager finds himself embarrassed over his apparent mechanical incompetence. This scene repeats itself everyday in millions of offices around the world. Evidently the young man who fixed the problem is more mechanically competent that the manager.

Why are some people mechanically competent while others are not? Are we born this way? Is this trait programmed in our genes? The answer to both questions is no. No one is born mechanically competent. There are no genes for mechanical competence. There are no mechanical devices in nature and our mechanized world is changing too fast for evolution to catch up. The truth is that we are all born mechanically incompetent. All mechanical skills have to be acquired through learning.

How can we acquire mechanical skills? There are only three ways:

learning by trial and error,
learning by observation and
learning from a book, manual, or an instructor

It is a known fact that kids learn to use new gadgets faster than us adults. They learn by trial and error. They learn by playing with the device and remember which keystrokes did what. While learning by trial and error, they classify knowledge into categories to make it simpler for them to remember. They do all this without knowing that this is what they are doing. In fact, this is how kids learn everything. As we grow older we are less willing to learn by trial and error. We are afraid to fail or to break the device. We are afraid of being blamed. Most people who call help desk at their office either lie about how the computer crashed or blame the computer. They are afraid that they would be blamed for breaking the computer.

Some people have the exceptional ability to learn very complex tasks by observation. For most of us, only smaller tasks can be learned by observation. We often also need to practice what we observed to learn the task. It is common nature to nod your head when someone shows you something and then forget what he has just shown you. This is a sure shot method to make sure that the person never assists you again. Next time someone shows you how to do something, ask him to slow down, ask him to explain why he is taking the steps he is taking and take notes. Be sure to thank him for his time.

Learning a mechanical skill from a book or manual is the most difficult yet most thorough way of acquiring that skill. Learning to do something from the documentation or fixing something using help files is even more frustrating. Learning from an instructor could be a very rewarding or discouraging experience. It all depends on how good your instructor is in explaining and simplifying things. If your instructor is simply giving you a set of instructions to execute without simplifying the problem, you should change your instructor.

An age-old method to solve problems is to ask an expert or someone who has been through the same problem. Thanks to weblogs, this has become an even easier task. How do I find a good weblog? Use google to search.

If you want to learn to use something, use trial and error. Get help from a book or manual every now and then. If you need to fix something yourself, observe the problem, check out weblogs, ask for advice, and above all try something to fix the problem. Even if you fail to solve the problem this time, you would have learnt something useful for the future. If you need to master something, get a good book and take a class with a good instructor.

Get rid of your fear of breaking computers or other devices. You are more likely to break that device with a physical accident than from faulty manipulation.

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