This is Your Brain

Computers are more complex than ever and the industry is still changing, almost daily. The #1 mistake studio owners make is attempting to use a computer to manage their business without a computer helper. Every business, regardless of size, should have a computer expert available to them when needed.

Originally published in Mac Today magazine in 1998, I wrote this article with one goal: to help make using computers less frustrating. I can sum up this entire article in four words: "Don't go it alone."

This is true for every business owner, regardless of your current skill level with a computer. Unless you work in the computer industry, you'll need a computer expert that can come to your office, sit at your computer, point to the screen, and provide hands on training and troubleshooting.

I know it's human nature to remain as we are. Have you ever had a back ache, or really needed to see a dentist, but instead you put it off and suffered for weeks before finally going to the doctor? After the pain is gone, it's such a relief you wonder why you waited so long in the first place...

Using a computer is the same way. You can continue without ever getting beyond your current level or you can find someone to help you understand these marvelous machines.

Understanding how your computer was designed to be used means making an investment in yourself. An investment in learning. It means finding a guide, and challenging yourself to achieving a new level.

It means resisting the urge to work by yourself.

It means asking for help.

It means resisting pride that says, "I've been using computers for X number of years and I don't need anyone to help me..."

I wrote this article for every computer user, regardless of how much or little experience you may have. I know it's possible for you to understand your computer even better, and these are the steps that will take you there.

This is Your Brain

The human mind learns by asking and answering questions

Back to School

First and foremost, as an adult computer user, you need to understand you're facing a learning challenge unlike any other you may encounter as an adult. Unless you've had a career change, gone back to school, or tried to learn a new language, you're probably not accustomed to being the student.

When it comes to learning, kids have a definite advantage: school is a major part of their lives. They're exposed to learning new things on a daily basis. They're taught by professionals, including yourself.

Why do you suppose kids seem to know so much about computers? Ever notice how they're really not intimated by them? That's because they've been taught to use them in school.

They've received repeated, professional, hands on instruction. When they have a question, they raise their hand and the teacher comes to their screen, points and answers.

The human mind learns by asking and answering questions.

Adults who are not in school are not accustomed to learning. Adults can plug in their computers and use them for years without ever taking a single class or opening a manual. Most adults have no one to turn to when they have questions, or they're too embarrassed to ask for help.

Adults are afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers. Have you ever heard yourself say, "This is a stupid question..."? There's no such thing. We learn by asking questions and getting answers. The only "stupid" question is the one you don't ask.

Adults put a tremendous amount of unnecessary pressure on themselves. Their ability to learn is inhibited by fear, anxiety, embarrassment and PRIDE. By not finding a teacher and being able to ask questions, they've disabled the learning process. Adults sabotage their success.

By becoming prideful, defensive or embarrassed, they've switched from rational thinking to emotional thinking.

By attempting to perform tasks they do not have enough experience to complete, they invite failure and frustration. Nothing could be more detrimental than trying to learn a new task just before a deadline. Or trying to print a report without understanding the steps required along the way.

These are the ways adults can hinder their ability to understand a computer, or learn a foreign language. It's time to move on. It's time to give yourself the tools, but more importantly, the permission to learn, make mistakes, and ask questions.


This is Your Brain

Let's look at the learning process from an entirely rational point of view. Imagine your brain as a matrix of 100 billion neurons. Each of these neurons is connected to ten thousand other neurons. Within this matrix are stored memories, smells, emotions, thoughts, etc.

If you smell a rose, the sensors in your nose send signals to your brain, and the neural network (yes, that's it's real name, not some Star Trek lingo) begins to search for similar smells, and eventually it finds a match and it tells you, "That's a rose."

Since there are so many neurons (100 billion) and each one is connected to ten thousand other neurons, when you stimulate one, the others around it are stimulated too. So you may smell a rose, but be reminded of something entirely different, like your wedding, or a favorite song, or your high school sweetheart.

This is your neural network at work, something scientists have only begun to ponder. (Interestingly enough, it's the evolution of the microprocessor which has given scientists insight into how the brain might function, and computers are used to create models of neural networks to test their theories.)

Have you ever tried to think of a person's name, or a song, but can't quite remember? It's on "the tip of your tongue," so you "rack your brain" and suddenly you remember. Or it's 3 a.m. and the person's name just pops into your head. This is hundreds of thousands of neurons searching and interacting until they find the answer.

Or do you know someone who has had a stroke, or part of their brain has been damaged? Recovery is possible because neurons are capable rearranging their communication pathways. You can have a few hundred thousand neurons working simultaneously in your brain, trying to solve a problem.

This is how your brain works, day in, day out. And neurons that are repeatedly activated create distinct pathways and networks throughout the brain. As a matter of fact, the more stimulus a series of neurons receives, the larger the pathways and network grows. We call this "knowledge" or "skill." When the stimulus stops, the network becomes smaller.

Let me say the most important part again:

The more stimulus a series of neurons receives, the larger the pathways and network grows. We call this "knowledge" or "skill."

This is the way we learn. For some people, the neural network regarding computers isn't developed at all. Or even worse, it's not filled with knowledge, but fear and doubt. Do you find yourself frustrated using your computer? Do you wonder if your data will be there tomorrow? Does using a computer make you feel like its test day, and you didn't study?

These are all signs of a neural network in need of some TLC. We call this "computer phobia." Fortunately, this undesirable neural association can be changed.

Just because your neural network contains little helpful information about computers, this doesn't mean you can't learn. It just means you have not yet acquired the information, and the neural connections to that information have not yet been formed.

Here's the great news. You can learn to use a computer by feeding your brain information, repeatedly, and allowing your neural network to develop. But in order to do this, you must be taught. In order to be taught you must have a teacher and you'll be in the unfortunate position of having to use your brain on a conscious level.


The Four Unsteps of Learning

First it's Unknown or Unnatural

Then it's Uncomfortable

Slowly, it's Understood

Finally it's Unconscious


It's infinitely more taxing to work on the conscious level; it's unnatural and awkward. Adults get embarrassed because they 'feel dumb.' The subconscious is bliss by comparison, but only after repeated exposure does the subconscious begin to take over.

Think about that. Once the neural network is firmly established, it begins to run subconsciously. You can use your computer without thinking about it.

Who You Gonna Call?

Using this new found knowledge about how the brain works, how do you get started? The same way you learned to read, ride a bike, or drive a car. You received instruction from someone that already knew how to read, ride or drive.

You received repeated, ongoing instruction. You raised your hand and asked questions. You got hands on time behind the wheel. You purposely and consistently developed the skill until you were able to use it unconsciously.

So first and foremost you need to find a computer mentor. Be it a friend, computer expert, consultant for hire, sixteen year old kid, someone, anyone who knows their stuff and can sit down in front of the computer with you.

Where can you find someone to teach you? Start with the people you know. Ask your co-workers. Ask your students. You don't need to shout it from the rooftops or make an announcement before class, but maybe you should. Publicly asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Think about that. Don't your best students ask the best questions? And which students are you a little worried about? The ones that keep quiet and never ask questions.

Ask for help.

Be honest and unashamed.

Lead your students by example.



Please don't try to learn over the phone. Using a computer is a visual task.


Once you have a teacher, start with the basics. Invite this person to your office or home and spend an uninterrupted hour in front of the computer, once or twice a week. Keep the lessons to an hour, no more. And no interruptions, right?

Remember, it's repeated, hands on exposure that results in effective learning.

Be sure to limit interruptions so you aren't starting, then stopping your network building process.

Don't try to cram everything into marathon sessions, that's not how your brain learns. An hour is ideal, anything more and your brain overloads and revolts.

And don't get stuck with someone that's really smart, but talks too fast, hogs the keyboard, and intimidates you with technobabble. You want a teacher, not an intimidator. It may take a bit of trial and error to find the computer expert that's right for you but find someone you're comfortable working with. This is new territory; find the right guide.

Often times this is not the most knowledgeable person, but the most patient person. Someone who can listen to your questions and explain things clearly with descriptions and analogies that make sense to you.


From Marty's Joke of the Day

A fellow computer programmer for a consulting group had designed some new software for one of our largest accounts. He asked me to help with training.

When I sat down with one woman and told her I would be showing her how to use the new software, she sighed with relief. "I'm so glad you're teaching me instead of him."

Surprised, I said that my colleague was far more experienced than I was. "Yes," she said, "but I feel much more comfortable with you. I get nervous around really smart people."


A good teacher will be creative enough to explain troublesome concepts in more than one way. That is an excellent way to assimilate information and form multiple neural pathways.

When you start to get tired, when your thinking gets a little fuzzy -- take a break.

Remember, first you must acquire the information through repeated exposure, then the neural connections must form. You may have to experiment and ponder and question, but this is how those pathways are formed. Don't expect to get anything right the first time. Let your brain absorb and learn without pressure.

Another sign of a good instructor is how much time you get at the keyboard.

The trainer that spends the entire lesson talking too fast and not giving you hands-on time at the keyboard is not doing you any favors. The way to learn is to do it yourself. That means sitting at the keyboard with the instructor at your side, giving hints when necessary, or remaining silent while you go through the necessary (and sometimes painful) mental gyrations that lead to building your own neural network. Shortcut this process, and you're not learning.

As you progress, a good instructor will also show you how to use the manuals and web sites related to the software you are using so you can begin to find answers for yourself. What really matters is not knowing the answer off the top of your head, but where to find it.

Most importantly, find someone you can call and ask questions of without embarrassment when you're truly stumped. This is vital to the learning process. Frustration is bad!

From time to time, you'll come across something you just don't know, something you haven't experienced before. Check your reference materials. Let your brain search its existing information for a while, but don't let embarrassment, frustration, fear, or anxiety creep in. Once they do, learning stops or becomes extremely difficult.

Instead, call your computer guru before despair sets in. You'll learn something new. You'll find yourself more relaxed when you know you can raise your hand and ask a question. This is how our children are taught: they're put into a safe environment where questions are encouraged and answers are instantaneous.

In time, your brain will begin to learn how to troubleshoot computer problems. You'll find you need to call less and less as you spend more time with the computer and your brain expands its matrix of computer knowledge.


How We Learn

Instruction, Discovery Question, Examine, Recall

Hands On, Do it Yourself

Practice, Repetition


Three Warnings...

#1 Stress slows your progress

If you're nervous, stressed out or frustrated, consider that static on your neural network. You can't listen to a song on the radio if the static is too loud, and you can't effectively learn if you're stressed out.


#2 Becoming defensive or embarrassed halts your progress

There's something dramatic that happens when you feel embarrassed or defensive -- you stop learning. Your brain shifts into a different mode.

Allowing emotion or ego into any learning process shifts it from network building to emotional reaction. It's an entirely different process that's now occurring in your brain.

"I'm a computer idiot..."

"Don't insult my intelligence. I've been using a computer for X years, I think I know what I'm doing..."

You may not say it out loud, but if you're thinking it, you've just shifted out of learning and problem solving mode into an entirely different process in the brain: self defense. This greatly hinders your ability to receive new information. Your brain is no longer learning, instead it's just gone into a loop, and it's defending your ego.

You must shift out of this reactive thought process before being able to accept new information and add it to your neural network, or learn.


#3 Don't go it alone!

Would you attempt to learn to play the guitar without hiring an instructor, reading a book or watching a video?

What if you were traveling to Japan and wanted to speak the language? Would you attempt to do this without a teacher or taking lessons? No way!

Today computers are sold like television sets, but they're far more complex. They require regular maintenance. You need a computer guru just like you need a good mechanic or dentist.

So don't sit in front of your computer by yourself. Find a mentor. Find the right person for you. Be patient with yourself. Ask lots of questions.

Go for It!

Now that you understand the learning process, the pressure is off. Let it happen. This learning journey will only take a few months. A year from now, you'll have an entirely new understanding of your computer, if you have a guide to help you along the way.

Invest the time.

Ask for help.

Don't go it alone.