In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the ability or inability to program the VCR became shorthand for being tech-savvy or a Luddite. As Mark Manson pointed out, programming a VCR isn’t actually that hard, but it is a very specific type of problem we all should be aware of. VCR problems are those special circumstances where if we’re the one with the knowledge, we think, “This is so easy, how can’t they do this?” And, if we’re the one without the knowledge we think, “Egad, they must be a magician – surely, society has moved on without me.”
First, here’s how to learn to program a VCR – there are two options:
A. Press every button at least once and see what happens, OR
B. Read the manual, get moderately confused, and then press every button at least once and see what happens.
In other words, to learn to program a VCR one has to play with the stupid device long enough to figure it out. Instructions and supervision are optional. We’ve all seen a child with an iPad navigating it intuitively. Solving VCR problems are similar in that they just demand dedicated curiosity.
The hardest truth about VCR problems is that they tend to emerge into the world with related problems. For the non-curious person who goes from the house phone to the cell phone with a familiar keypad to just make calls, the transition is easy. It’s much harder for the same person to start texting, video chatting, and speaking emoji on a smartphone, tablet, watch, electric car, and voice assistant all at once. Being curious enough to play with one new device is the gateway curiosity required to gain insight into how other pop-gadgetry works. The fear of being too far behind to catch up is also real. Innate curiosity is the only solution. Ask any modern grandparent on Facebook. Pick your battles, but don’t give up the fight.
Back to the original problem – when we find ourselves faced with a “is it magic” VCR problem, we have to consider if we’re going to put the time in to figure it out or not. The truth for consumer devices is that if somebody else can do it, so can we. When we find ourselves being looked at like a magician, we should recognize that our only way to help is to encourage genuinely curious play. If we play the part of magician, well, welcome to the business of family tech support.
To help others, Manson points out a “loop” most people follow when learning something new. The loop is inspiration, motivation, and finally, action. People who are content with being amazed and saying, “I could never do that,” never hit the moment of inspiration. People who actually solve VCR problems experience the same loop, but in the opposite direction – action, motivation, and finally, inspiration. They start pressing buttons, recognize what happens as progress, and end with, “oh, now I can do this, or this, or this, etc.”
Professionally, people will often hire us to solve their VCR problems. Outside of family tech support, there are whole industries built on “pay us to do this thing you could probably do yourself for you.” Tech has altered and will continue to alter the entire landscape at a faster and faster rate for these types of problems. Here is the key insight: Our most sustainable value propositions will not come from finding people who don’t care to figure things out, but from helping foster the curiosity of those that need and want help by fostering their curiosity. The “refuse to adopt” crowd is a shrinking market. The “help me figure out why this matters to me” crowd is growing. Fast.
Today’s VCRs aren’t just smartphones. They’re teller-less banks, automated restaurants, and social media-based cryptocurrencies. Professionals today need to be one part navigators and another part curiosity enablers. Our businesses should be built on the expectation that our clients are going to be getting increasingly smarter, not consistently disinterested. This distinction is critical if we want to continue making value in the future.
Remember Manson’s loop. Action, motivation, inspiration. We have to keep doing if we want to stay ahead and not slip behind. Our clients will certainly be doing and trying new things either with or without us, and that presents us with the challenge of staying one step ahead of them.
Foster curiosity. Learning to use the VCR isn’t just a fun magic trick, it’s the ticket to staying relevant.