The How To Myth

A couple of my friends have recently come out with fantastic books- Mitch Joel wrote “Six Pixels of Separation”  and Chris Brogan and and Julien Smith have come out with the New York Times best selling Trust Agents.  Both books discuss how people are connecting for business over the web and how these new relationships work, but there’s been some critique that the books aren’t “How To’s” of  internet success.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of the How To.

How To permeates every aspect of our lives.  As a parent, we have a major role in teaching our children everything from appropriate social behavior to self-care – how to eat politely, how to tie your shoe, how to brush your teeth, how to get good grades- it goes on and on.   From the kid’s side, our parents and our teachers are constantly giving us the recipes to follow to learn stuff we’ll hopefully need later on in life.

After being indoctrinated in the How To all of our lives, we seem to want others to provide us with the fool-proof formula to win at whatever decide we want to do.  How many books, for example, promise us 5 easy steps to instant fame and fortune?  8 steps to flatter abs?  & habits of highly effective people?  Somehow, if we can just get the recipe right, everything will be perfect, and we’ll look better, smell better, and have the easy life of a Hollywood star, with all the fame and fortune we can imagine.

I don’t know about you, but I have found the following things to be true:

  • To get what you really want, and the satisfaction that comes from attaining a goal, hard work is necessary.  It’s never handed to you.
  • The Rules, the How To, the Recipe for success may seem simple, but the devil is always in the details.  Take the 10 Commandments.  Think how many pages of interpretation and commentary have been written about this simple list of things to do and not to do, at least two thousand years ago.  Clearly, it wasn’t that simple.
  • I love to cook, and I love to knit.  In both of these areas, success can depend heavily on following a recipe or pattern.  Even in directions that allege to be “foolproof”, I can assure you, I can find a fool (usually me) who will make some sort of mistake executing this simple set of directions.  Let’s not even discuss the infamous Beer Cheese soup or the sweater that was about 2 inches too short, shall we?
  • The Genius is always in the customization anyway.  Take a given recipe- adding a touch of your favorite herb, or adding nuts, chocolate chips and raisins into those brownies- and you take the generic “just like the picture” meal from replication of someone else’s idea to your version of the same idea, with unique elements that make it all your own.
  • Customizations of the prototype to fit your own life, the hacks we all make to get the generic product to fit our needs-this is what takes things from being just “stuff” to being a part of our own creative process and learning.  You don’t learn much about painting by doing a Paint by Numbers- you may learn basic technique, but it’s the application of those techniques to your own project where genius lies.

We all want How to’s because they are comfortable, and we hope that if we see behind the veil, we’ll automatically harness someone else’s creativity and hard work, harness their insight, and somehow, leverage that to make ourselves equally as successful.  Yet we don’t need more imitations, copies and echos of the original, as much as we all yearn for that one, unique, purely special moment, great idea, or original insight of our own.

I’m currently working on a project that is a How To- but the critical element is to try to let everyone know that in using this book -1) it’s only a guideline, a coaching tool- your own milegage may vary  2)We’ll give you templates that work for us, but you have to customize it towards what you think will be best for you and 3) Never be afraid to try something new, to fail, to try again, and fail better the next time.

We only learn from making mistakes.    Some mistakes you only ever need to make once. Let me help you avoid a big one- never put dish detergent in the dishwasher, thinking it’s an ok substitute unless you want to flood your house.

Some mistakes you make more than once.  I still insist, for example, I do not need to “swatch for guage” ie. make a small sample before knitting a huge project, hoping that the knitting gods will protect me.  I am frequently wrong on this account.

But the biggest lesson is this:  even the best how-to’s only provide guidance and suggestions based on one person’s experience and what they have researched about the experience of others, trying to shine a light on frequently encountered difficulties.  This is what Parenting books are all about.  But only you know yourself and your own unique situation, and applying these ideas to your life will require mass customization to obtain the results you want.  Lockstep copying won’t get you the best results, only customization of the recipe will.

I still get suck ed into the promise of the How To, but at least my expectations now are that it is nothing more than advice.  I will learn and master things only through trial and error, making better guesses and spurring different ideas based on what the book or expert offers, but I can’t expect that these books and lectures will fix my life- that’s my job, and mine alone.

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