My brother used to sell computers and software. Customers would regularly phone with questions that were already explained in the manual. RTFM (read the f***ing manual!) was a standard reaction among the technical help personnel.
But there is something in us that does not want to read the manual. We do not want to get bogged down in details. If we read the manual we might convince ourselves that something is too difficult. If we do not have some hands-on experience, the manual is often meaningless. We know from experience that we will not remember what we read in the manual anyway. So we just start without the manual and either figure things out, or ask for help when we are stuck.
There are many situations in life where following your inclinations, without the manual of instructions, is the best approach. I can think of at least five.
- Business. I worked for two large corporations in the 1970's and 80's. They were both established leaders in their field. Millions of dollars were spent in meetings, studies, Return on Investment(ROI) analysis and more studies, usually resulting in the decision not to go forward. Neither company exists today.
I have now had my own company since 1987. The "gut-feel" decisions are the ones that really worked for me. I made my way forward and adjusted as I went. Dealing with the mistakes we made was what strengthened our company in the long run.
- Language learning. I speak nine languages fluently and am working on three more. In a recent post on his blog called, "How to learn any language in one hour", Tim Ferriss tells us to "deconstruct" languages. In other words, analyze and compare their grammar in order to decide which one to learn. Nonsense. I choose a language based on my interests and passion.
A friend who speaks the language, the sound of the language, the culture, a desire to visit the country, a professional need; these factors will keep me at it, not the instruction manual. When I study languages, I avoid the grammar. I just listen and read and accumulate words. I let my brain get used to the language. I usually progress more quickly than most people in traditional classrooms, and I enjoy it more. How many people deny themselves the joy of learning another language because they think it will be too much like school.
- Child rearing. Parents all want to do the right thing for their children. Play Mozart to them in the womb, read to them when they are little, drive them to activities, build up their self-esteem, and follow the latest parenting theories. But is there really a danger that you can love your children, lead a normal family life, and somehow still damage your children? Doubtful. Certainly Judith Harris in her acclaimed book "The Nurture Assumption" makes the case that parenting is not as big a factor in the child's development as we think.
Parents should relax, and enjoy their children. There is no need for a parenting course, just follow your instincts. If a person's instinct is to abuse a child, an instruction manual will not help.
- Music. My wife has been playing the piano for three years. She has no teacher. She knows no theory. She plays pieces she likes, which she chooses. She jumps from classical to popular music. She plays when she likes and if she likes. A course of instruction, music theory and a teacher would immediately turn her off. She loves her piano and has improved a great deal, gradually progressing to more and more difficult pieces. How many people hesitate to play music because they do not have the time or money to hire a teacher, and do not think they can do it on their own?
- Self-improvement. There is an abundance of advice on how to better manage our time, lose weight, influence people and get ahead in the company. Much of the advice is good, and in fact has been around in one form or another for a long time. Often the advice rings a bell because it conforms to what we know, or have already experienced. The problem is that we cannot apply all the good advice. Maybe we would be happier by doing what we know is right, where we can, and then not tormenting ourselves over things that are just not going to improve.
Written by Steve Kaufmann of LingQ, a site with a unique methodology for learning nine languages. Steve also maintains a blog on language learning.