A few moments ago, I changed the flapper tank ball on the toilet. That would be an unpromising beginning for a blog entry, except for the unwarranted satisfaction I took from the job. Not that the repair needed a plumber, but I grew up thinking that I wasn’t the least bit handy. The fact that I am now in any way competent at home repairs I attribute largely to over a decade of using free and open source software.
So far as I remember, nobody ever told me I was clumsy in so many works as I was growing up. But, with one thing and another, I certainly received that impression. For one thing, I am left-handed, and, while like many lefties, I am necessarily more ambidextrous than the rest of the population, to the average eye, I looked clumsy. More importantly, I usually had to reverse any demonstrations I was given, an effort that few young children can successfully make, no matter how bright they happen to be. Consequently, I was a long time learning to tie my shoes or swim – which only justified everybody thinking me clumsy – including me.
Probably, I wasn’t helped, either by the fact that I tried to compensate for my clumsiness by being energetic and aggressive when I played sports. These traits gave me a rough and ready ability, but I wasn’t initially chosen for the school soccer team in Grade Six, or as one of the Saturday morning players tapped for going into the premier division a few years later. I only learned the skills a soccer player needs to control the ball or work with a team a few years later.
Besides, I was bookish and liked academic subjects in school. Naturally I wasn’t supposed to have any physical skills as well. That would have been against all the laws of stereotyping.
Consequently, between one thing or another, I grew up thinking myself uncoordinated – a self image that, unsurprisingly, often made me just that. Whenever I tried anything new, I expected to do it poorly, so often I did.
Once, when I called myself a slow learner, a teacher replied, “Yeah, but I bet than when you do learn, you don’t forget it.” But that was not much compensation.
It was only when I became a university instructor and later a technical writer that I realized another source of my clumsiness: Most people are terrible teachers, even when they teach for a living. Few have the patience to work with beginners. Even fewer can remember the days when they were beginners. Inevitably, they leave out important steps when they try to instruct, or fail to mention what to do in unusual circumstances. Probably, the main reason why I taught English and wrote manuals successfully is that I tried to give students and users the instructions that I would need myself.
But the real revelation came as I started using GNU/Linux as my main operating system. Like everybody else, using Windows had taught me how to be helpless. The default resources discouraged me from exploring Windows, and the information I needed was mostly lacking.
GNU/Linux, though, is different. It is designed for users to poke about and configure. If you run into trouble, help is only an Internet search away.
Without making any conscious decision, or being aware of what was happening, slowly I started to learn how to troubleshoot. I learned that very little I could do would harm my installation, much less cause the motherboard to belch flames, as I half-feared. All I had to do was observe, take a few precautions, and work systematically, and I could do far more than I had ever imagined when I was a Windows user.
Gradually, I transferred this same mind-set to other parts of my life. To my surprise, I found that it was usually just as applicable to home repairs as those on the computer.
I won’t say that I have any particular talent for handiwork. But, somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking of myself as clumsy. I no longer approach every new physical task with the expectation of failure, and, far more often than not, I succeed at it. Even on those occasions when a real expert is needed, I often understand what the problem is . A surprising amount of the time, I just lack the tools or the parts to do the job myself.
This personal change is one of the biggest reasons that I am committed to free software. Using Windows only reinforced my belief in my own incompetence at fixing or improving things. By contrast, free software proved to my that I was capable of far more than I had ever imagined.