Most people assume that learning is about research, but for many of us, it's about poking things with a stick to see what happens. If you want to learn to make better use of your tech, it's about digging in and moving stuff around until it works. Anybody can do this, geek and luddite alike.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've been the go-to iOS 8 troubleshooting guy for most of my friends. People ask me questions, I answer off the top of my head, and they think I'm some kind of genius magician. But the only reason I know this stuff is because I've poked every corner of the operating system to fix my own annoyances and troubleshoot my own problems. There's nothing inherently special about this. It just requires some patience and a bit of curiosity.
I like to refer to this as the fiddle factor. When you tinker with something, you'll learn about it and solve your own problems. The more often you do it, the more you learn and the better you get at it. This isn't just for techies, it's for everyone—you don't need any special skills to be good with computers and phones.
Step One: Identify Your Problem
Nothing is perfect and chances are you can fix just about anything with some tinkering. You just have to know what you're trying to fix. With something like iOS, it's about figuring out what's annoying you and seeing if Apple provides a way to correct it. This is pretty much the same with every operating system or software. Of course, this is easier said than done—many of us go through our days annoyed at the way something works without thinking about how it might be possible to fix it.
For example, a friend of mine complained about iOS 8's predictive keyboard, saying that he never used it and it was getting in his way. At no point did he think about looking to see if he could just turn it off or try a different keyboard.
This first step is the most obvious, but it's also the easiest to pass over. Be mindful of how you're using your devices. When something is bothering you, take note of it. You might be surprised at how easy it is to fix.
Step Two: Take Everything Apart to Find the Fix
The best way to fix a problem is peek under the hood and see what's inside. That might mean poking around in the settings (easy), playing around with the command line (more difficult), or literally taking something apart (which may require some skills, or another person). Your natural reaction is probably to search Google for a solution, but if you want to tune your brain for this, hold off on that for now.
With software, you have a few common places you can look to fix problems. Let's run through them real quick:
There's a good chance that just digging around in the basic settings will get you a fix for your problem. The more you dig around in there, the more settings you'll get familiar with, and the easier it'll be to fix problems in the future. Just make sure you only fiddle with one setting at a time, otherwise you won't know what's working and what isn't.
When you just find an answer on Google, you fix the issue and go about your day. When you find it yourself, you learn a lot more about the system in general. Plus, you might find cool hidden settings you wouldn't think to look for. For example, the other day I was changing the difficulty in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and found the amazing setting to disable quicktime events.
Of course, software is just one possible problem in the world, but the basic principles here extend into the real world. If your car's having problems, pop open the hood and look around. It might surprise you how many thingsyou can fix yourself. The same goes for just about everything else. With electronics or appliances, it's about knowing just enough about electricity to not kill yourself. Home improvement is the same way. If you don't know where to start, tinker with it a bit. Just be careful. You can really mess things up as an amateur, so document what you're doing and back out if you're in over your head.
Step Three: Do Some Research Online
Once you've done a good amount of fiddling with no results, it might be time to turn to online resources. Don't worry, there's no shame in looking for solutions elsewhere (including here on Lifehacker, of course).
The most obvious step here is to search Google for your problem and see if others have found a solution, but Google doesn't search everywhere. If search engines aren't coming up with results, it's time to dig deeper. Here are a few places to look when Google fails.
Once you've got your research in hand, give those fixes a try again. Don't be afraid to hit up those forums and Reddit posts again for help throughout the process.
Step Four: Share Your Experiences
Sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to share it with others. This isn't just helpful for you, it's also helpful for everyone else. After all, it's a pretty small chance that you're the only person with a particular problem.
If you used any of the above sites like Reddit, Twitter, or Stack Exchange, be sure to share your solutions with the rest of the community. Likewise, DIY sites like Instructables and Make are great places to share your experiences. Of course, you can always email us as well. If you find that you're particularly adept at one kind of problem-solving, it's also worth starting a blog—you never know who might stumble on it. (Heck, that's how a few of us here at Lifehacker got our jobs.)
Step Five: Know Your Limits
Sometimes, you just reach a wall where nothing is working and no amount of fiddling will change that. In that case, it's good to know when it's time to quit. There's a cost-risk delta you reach when you try to fix everything yourself as an amateur, so be careful no to go overboard and really mess things up.
There's no shame in acknowledging when you're in over your head. Whether you're sitting on the floor with tools everywhere and you head in your hands, or you're stuck staring at a computer that refuses to boot, throwing in the towel for expert help is always an option. After all, failure is one of the best ways to get better at something.
The point is this: just about every problem has a solution. There's a good chance that solution is obvious, but you need to know where and when to look for it. The more you fiddle, the more tuned you become to both identifying and solving problems. If you don't know how something works, you'll never know how to fix it. If you don't try to fix it, you'll probably never know how it works. So fiddle away, and astound your friends with your amazing troubleshooting skills.