One of the most important skills online is knowing how to learn.
No matter who you are, when you work online there’s always way too much you don’t know. This problem never goes away, even for web professionals: you know more stuff, but you need to know way more stuff even than that.
So one of the most important skills online is knowing how to learn. This is a big topic, but today I just want to share a bit about a very concrete skill: Knowing when a problem is probably already solved somewhere online, and successfully Googling the answer to that problem.
Find Solutions Before you Invent Your Own
On a lot of problems, when you get stuck, you have a few options:
- Learn everything about the topic to figure out why you’re stuck.
- Find a workaround (or a “hack”) that will let you move forward without solving your problem.
- Give up and try a different approach.
Sometimes those really are your choices—but very, very often, someone has already faced this problem, solved it, and published the solution.
These are all unattractive options: they each take a lot of time, and none is guaranteed to work. Sometimes those really are your choices—but very, very often, someone has already faced this problem, solved it, and published the solution.
Listen for a voice in your head that says, “Wait, there has to be a way to do this.” In that case, you need to drop everything and:
- Google until you find the place online where someone reports solving the problem, and use that solution.
This sounds obvious, but the point is to do it as early as possible—before you read a bunch of manuals and try fifty failed custom solutions—and, especially, not to give up on a solution that really does exist until you find it.
A Quick Example
Writing the above section, I realized that I didn’t know how to split a numbered HTML list into two pieces, and have the second list pick up where the first left off. In other words, how could I get the “Google until you find…” list item to start with “4.” instead of “1.” as I did above?
I got up for a snack, and considered my options:
- Read the HTML specification on lists in-depth, and see if anything applied to my problem.
- Try to find a way to use only one list. Maybe go into my site’s CSS and create some special styling rule for paragraphs within lists?
- Maybe not use an HTML list and just try to style it “like a list” myself.
Then I thought, “Okay, there has to be a way to do this.” So I
- Googled this:
That led me to a CSS property called “start” that I’d never known existed:
This is just a too-obvious problem to be unsolved.
That solution works, and if it didn’t, I know there’d be something else out there that did. It’s just a too-obvious problem to be unsolved.
Omniscience in Three Easy Steps
What helped me get to the right solution for my problem was three specific skills:
1. Sense When Problems are Already Solved
I’ve learned to listen to the voice in my head that just expects things to be solved if they’re sufficiently obvious. This voice asks questions like:
- Is this question related to a widely used piece of software, or something else in wide use?
- Is this a question that dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people will have had before?
- Does this question likely have a concrete, specific answer?
In my case, I wanted to start an HTML list at “4.” instead of “1.” This question relates to HTML, one of the web’s key technologies; it’s something that many people will definitely have wanted to do since the web’s creation; and it almost certainly does have a single best technical answer.
2. Google Specifically
You have to tell Google exactly what you’re looking for, or you won’t get the results you need.
It’s very important that I knew how to write a sufficiently specific and technical search query to get my question answered. You have to tell Google exactly what you’re looking for, or you won’t get the results you need.
Try to use language that will be very specific to whatever results pages can actually help you; relevant technical terms that relate to the problem can be helpful for this. Do not settle for vague descriptions of your problem, and be aware that many words (like “list”) have multiple meanings until you specify them further.
Good Google Queries
start li at
html ol li start not at 1
html ordered list change starting index
ol change starting index
define ol start value
Bad Google Queries
help writing lists
do lists always start at 1
start at 4 not 1
This is very much a learned skill, so you can even try practicing with a question whose answer you already know. Put in different questions, and see which ones make the most helpful pages shoot right to the top.
3. Don’t Give Up
Invest time in learning how to do it the right way.
Even if my original question didn’t yield anything. I knew Google could help me, and I wasn’t going to give up until I got my answer.
If I didn’t find the solution right away, I was prepared to spend twenty minutes Googling the problem five different ways. That still saves time over doing it yourself, and I just knew that this is a solved problem, so I wasn’t worried about coming up empty-handed.
This ties into a broader tendency that’s good to have online: Invest time in learning how to do it the right way. Do not panic and throw something together that “works for now.” You’ll be much better off in the long run.
No Rabbit Holes
In sum: don’t chase problems down rabbit holes. If you want to do almost anything online that’s common-sense, even if it’s one step removed from what appears to be possible by default, then someone has already succeeded in doing it, and has built or published the solution for you too.
Have faith in that, and learn how to be specific and tenacious in your Googling, and you’ll feel a lot more hooked-in to the internet—with all its unthinkably vast information and resources.
Things I Love that I’ve Found This Way
As a last note, here are a few services I’ve found this way that have really changed the way I work online:
- TinyPNG, outstanding one-click image compression for PNG images
- SplitPDF, one of a suite of tools that lets you split, edit, and recombine PDF files without premium software
- Color Explorer, which helps quickly create all kinds of attractive color palettes
- Goodbye Captcha, which totally cured our mailing lists of signup spam
So what are you stuck on, and is it a problem that more aggressive Googling could solve?