How to do new things

The best way to learn something is to start doing it. Don't wait for full knowledge to come to you. Often it won't. Just pretend you know what you're doing, and hit the walls. That helps define the shape of the problem. Make it small enough that you can start solving it right now, without waiting. Each part of the problem is smaller than the whole thing. And tell yourself you can do it, because you can.

A story

Back in 1994, I wanted desperately to learn how to create and update a website. I was reading all the docs I could get my hands on, and at the time there wasn't very much.

I read and read, but somehow it just didn't come together. I understood the intent of each HTML tag. But how to actually get that into a place where the browser, at the time Mosaic, could get to it? I kept looking for the answer, but I wasn't finding it.

Until one day I found a service at Ohio State University that you could send mail to containing HTML and it would put it on the web and send you back the URL via email. I tried sending a simple message -- Hello World -- to the Ohio mailbox. It sent back a URL and when I went to the page, it just contained the text. I think I got it, I said to myself. I tried another experiment. I went to the HotWired website, did a view-source, copied the text to the clipboard and sent it to the Ohio mailbox. It sent back a URL and when I went there I saw a facsimile of the Wired site, with broken images. I understood. I didn't know what was happening back in Ohio, but I understood this much: I was sending it text and it was putting it "on the web," whatever that meant.

What are the questions?

Now I know what question to ask. How did the Ohio mailbot get my text on the web? From there, the whole thing just came to me, and I understood that the web is so simple it can be hard to understand. There really is nothing but files and folders and a piece of software running on port 80. Sometimes the problem is you don't know what questions to ask. Solving part of the problem could uncover them.

The basic method is ths. Figure out what's on the way there, do a few of them -- puzzle over it, try out an idea, if that doesn't work, try another. Feel your way around in the dark, try to find the shape of the thing you're looking for.

I've called this method Divide and Conquer at times. Same idea.

Last built: Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 11:23 AM

By Dave Winer, Monday, April 7, 2014 at 4:57 PM. Ask not what the Internet can do for you.