What you can learn from your tech defeats

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When I was a small child my mother dropped me onto a hard, stone floor. Miraculously, I was uninjured.  As soon as I stopped crying, it seemed, I was as good as new. It would take years before the long-term repercussions of this fall became apparent: the tumble had caused hyper localized, irreparable damage to the portion of the brain allocated for writing or comprehending CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).

At least, that’s what I’ve been forced to infer. I am pretty geeky, and I have spent oodles of time mastering all sorts of useful, useless and marginally useful tech skills, including HTML, basic Linux and even a bit of PHP. But CSS eludes me, even after an apparent breakthrough last spring in which I finally (briefly) had an aha! moment in which it all became clear to me. Until it didn’t, again. Like I said: brain damage.

For a long time, I found this massively frustrating, especially since my coping mechanism involves relying on my husband for all but the most trivial CSS tweaks. I hate having to ask him, for the 500th time, what the difference is between an element and a selector. I go through the online CSS manuals yet again, reading a dozen equally impenetrable explanations, before I yield to the inevitability of asking Rob for help. Then I seethe when he once again tries to explain it in a way that actually sticks.

If there is a silk purse inside this sow’s ear, it’s the discovery of a bit of empathy for all those who toil in the salt mines of digital frustration. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?) As a geek, I generally live by the credo, “Big woman, small computer.” In other words, with enough determination and time, plus a decent internet connection, I should be able to puzzle my way through just about anything. I’m mystified by the idea that people would give up on a tech dilemma rather than spend 10 hours trying to master it.

Until I spend an hour delving into CSS. Then, I get it: that horrible, confidence-sapping experience of tackling a problem that your brain utterly fails to comprehend. You make some headway, only to feel the knowledge seeping out of your braincells faster than you can make further progress towards a solution. Help files, reference books or kind friends patiently explain the topic to you, reassuring you that it’s easy, or at least, well within your grasp….which only leaves you all-the-more frustrated when you somehow fail to live up to their modest expectations.

As the (sometimes) kind friend, I can only blush at the number of times I’ve reassured bullied colleagues or family members that really, this tech skill is within their grasp. I’ve meant to be supportive and encouraging, but I suspect that for every person I’ve helped move forward, there’s another who’s been too embarrassed to admit that actually, no, it’s not really that easy or that clear.

CSS, thank you for reminding me of the painful humiliation of tech defeat. Maybe one day I’ll summit your perplexing Everest. Until then, thank goodness for helpful friends.

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