Skills we don’t know we don’t know…

The first time I ran across this behavior in a field study I was deeply surprised: How could a literate person who goes web browsing and searching on a daily basis NOT know how to do a Find on the page?

It was as if someone could read and knew the alphabet, but didn’t understand that you could use the alphabetic sequence to locate a word in the dictionary. It just seems like a giant lacuna in their skill set, something that I just couldn’t imagine. How could you use a computer on a daily basis, reading and writing, and NOT be able to instantly do Control-F (or CMD-F, for Macheads; or more slowly, Edit>Find ) to locate a word or phrase on the page?

Even more staggering was learning how pervasive this gap is — my best guess is that somewhat less than 20% of the adult, internet-using population know about Control-F, the FIND command, in the browser.

I’ve asked this question many times, “do you know how to quickly locate a single word on a web page?” And an incredible number of people say “no… what are you talking about?” I then describe a common situation — you’ve searched for something and landed on a longish web page that you know has the thing you’re looking for, but you can’t manage to spot it.

That always brings a grunt of recognition. Everyone has had this happen to them. They go to the race results page for the 10K they ran last week, and can’t manage to find their name on the list of 1029 runners. Scrolling slowly through the (very long) page is painful, but they know their name is on the list.

So when I ask “what do you do in this situation?” many people say, “I just look very carefully…” not realizing that a single Control-F would take them to their name in a split-second.

I’ve asked this question many, many times. I’ve asked a room full of librarians — 80% would know. I’ve asked friends who are physicists, counselors, professors at universities you’d recognize… and even among this elite, technologically savvy group, the hit rate is roughly 50%. And when I ask just-plain-folks who use the internet, the rate drops below 20%, and in the public at large, it’s around 10% of internet users who know this.

But the thing I find most amazing is that people who don’t know about Control-F don’t know they don’t know. They run across the problem often, but it somehow never occurred to them that there would be a quick, simple, easy fix.

Many of the people I tell about this are annoyed: “How was I supposed to learn this?” They quickly realize that this is a tiny skill that will save them a huge amount of time in the future. But it’s unclear what the “right” way they should have picked it up.

Truth is, I don’t know. When do you learn all of those fundamental skills? I don’t know.

The rise of “life-hacking” is one response. If you haven’t heard about it, “life-hacking” is a new theme of informal learning about the skills needed to operate your life. Generally, it’s about how to use tools, re-organize your work, analyze your work-life balance, get a better calendaring system… all that kind of stuff. But the life-hackers are on to something: they’re out to capture the informal knowledge that’s not really taught anywhere else. The little tricks (and sometimes big tricks) that can make your life smoother, faster, simpler, and maybe more effective.

And perhaps this Control-F find command is one of those small memes that otherwise gets lost in the day-to-day fray.

The bigger questions is this: How many other things like this are there? How many more skills do you have that would be incredibly handy for me to have as well? And… how can I find out about them?

I’m reminded of the young woman at a local junior college who didn’t know about the Save command in MS Word. She would write her papers in Word, then print out the paper as her way of saving the text. Of course, if she wanted to edit the text, she’d have to type it all back in again.

One of the little life heuristics I read about many years ago was this: “When something is a hassle, try to figure out a way to make it easier on you.”

You’d think that having to re-type an entire paper would classify as a major hassle. Yet she never thought to spend time looking for a way to avoid the problem.

Sounds dumb, right? But think about all the people who never learned Control-F. They never noticed the hassle either. Say this slowly: they never noticed the hassle

WHY this happens has a great deal to do with framing (that is, the way you think about a problem in the world). A problem can be seen as a problem ONLY when you can also see some way to deal with it. If you don’t have any way to alter the situation, then you don’t see a problem, you see that this is the way the world IS.

This is the point of teaching — to learn to see the world in other ways, to see different parsings of reality, and to understand the kinds of things that can be done. Usually, the best way to do that is to watch a master at work, observe what he does and pick up the tricks of practice over the shoulder.

Lest we think that our intellect and skills are so highly refined and honed, remember the Control-F story… we are all blind to problems, and the skills you need to overcome the problems. This is especially true when you can’t see the hassles in the world, and don’t have any way to figure out what skills you need that you don’t even know you need. If only we had a Control-F for skills that we lack, but don’t know we’re missing.

And if you didn’t know about Control-F / CMD-F, let me know. I’d like to talk with you for a bit and understand how you managed to miss this particular skill….

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