The Art of Poking Around

People are really afraid of fucking things up. In some situations, you can cause serious damage by poking around. But that’s a heuristic and not a rule. Even worse, it’s a heuristic developed to deal with high risk/low reward situations that you encounter infrequently.

Speaking more broadly, I think the safest way to accumulate “handyman knowledge” – skills to repair cars, or do home improvements, or fix computers – is through experience. And the first step to gaining experience is to acknowledge and set aside your fears, and accept that poking around is ok, and even fun.

Now, I currently know essentially nothing about home improvement or car repair, classic areas where people are afraid of Fucking Things Up. But I do know quite a bit about computers.

Short of (A) deleting something or (B) wiping the hard drive with a magnet (actually quite difficult to do), there’s very little that can seriously screw up a computer.

But remember, people are really afraid of touching anything, because they’re worried they’ll break something. If you’ve ever done ‘tech support’ for family, I’m sure you’ve seen the results of this mentality. The browser will slowly accumulate dozens of search bars because the user isn’t willing to right-click in order to remove them. The taskbar will grow to contain dozens of icons. This, even though right-click is the default “show hidden options” command in 90% of Windows programs, and right click will usually allow you to disable something that’s a nuisance.

As long as you can remember your last 2-3 commands, it’s usually quite easy to reverse them. And in a worst-case scenario, what do you do? You get someone who really understands the system, which was what you were going to do anyway.

This isn’t just an attitude for computers. You can fix a lot of things just by ‘poking around’ and trying things out.

If you still want to be cautious, google your basic problem before making any changes. If you’re exploring home improvement or car repair as a total novice, this may be the best policy, because there are times when “undo” is not an option in real life, or there’s a hidden danger you might not be aware of. You don’t want to mess up when jump-starting a car.

About a month ago, my kitchen sink started to leak. It’s a very simple construction: there’s a spot in the sink for a drain, underneath there’s a pipe. The pipe is connected to the drain, and there’s a metal plate screwed on that forces the drain against the sink, and seals everything with a rubber gasket.

Now, my initial response, and the response I usually employ when confronted with a handyman problem, was to ignore it. I put a towel underneath to prevent water from getting everywhere… and then operated as usual. I suspected that the gasket was rotting and I’d have to get a new one… but I could ignore that for now, right?

Well, I totally forgot about the problem and the damp towel started to mold. Long story short, it was nasty and smelled terrible.

So now I was in the same situation as when I first encountered the problem, but I had to try to replace the gasket. Well, the first thing was to try to get it off. To do that I had to unscrew the plate that held the gasket against the sink. I started to unscrew it but couldn’t tell if it was getting any looser. Out of curiosity, I turned on the water at this point. The leak was even worse! Either the gasket had degraded substantially over a month — or maybe it was loose to begin with. Turning the plate the other direction solved everything. It had just gotten knocked a little loose and this is what caused the leak.

This isn’t something I’m proud of. I let a trivial problem, which took me all of 5 minutes to investigate and fix, fester for a month, ruining a towel in the process. Why? Because I was afraid that poking around would cause more problems, or be more difficult than I anticipated.

So: poke around. Experiment. Explore the world, inhabit the problem, and be fearless.

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  1. steveinfl

     /  November 19, 2011

    “ first response was to ignore it..”
    I love it. That’s usually my first response as well.

    I’m a big believer in trying something and if I mess it up I’ll call a pro. I’ve had a few plumbing mishaps this way when I cracked a pipe but rarely do I make handyman things much worse and occasionally I can fix them myself. One thing i learned is that if I stare at something long enough I can generally figure out how to take it apart or put it back together. And with google if I can’t figure it out chances are someone has posted it anyway. Good luck with the new blog. I’ll checkout out periodically as well as my regular ere and Mmm browsing.

  2. barb

     /  November 19, 2011

    I totally agree with you on this.
    When did we become so afraid to touch /do anything?
    When did things become so specialized that we believe we need a plumber to fix the kitchen sink?
    Why do we believe this ? Who told us this?
    Good for you for thinking outside the box. And really, if we need to spend so much time thinking outside the box.get rid of the box!


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