Life is harder than it has to be. Particularly the high-tech stuff.

Let’s take Microsoft Word as an example. Has the “Help” function ever helped you?

I didn’t think so.

The inability to write clear instructions isn’t just an issue for Microsoft. It’s the industry standard. Just try getting a little help from Open Office, the free alternative to Word.

Entire new industries have sprung up to provide answers to tech questions, including a best-selling “Word for Dummies” book, one volume in a vast library of books for dummies. But here’s the thing: you’re not stupid, your computer is.

Of course, software isn’t the only area of life where instructions aren’t just badly written, but actually operate as a hindrance to understanding.

For example: Walk into a hardware store and tell the salesman you would like to purchase some nails. “Well,” he will say. “What kind do you want? Casing, box, finishing, masonry, hang?”

You may answer, as I recently did, “The kind used to hold two pieces of wood together.”

My salesman rolled his eyes so hard he could actually see the tiny damp patch of grey tissue that constitutes his brain.

There are other names for these folks (we’ll get to some in a minute), but for the moment let’s call them geeks. Geeks suffer from too much specialized knowledge, which results in two symptoms: 1) they can no longer speak in plain English and 2) they think they’re smarter than you. The second is exacerbated by a paradox: The less they know about everything else in the world, the smarter they’re convinced they are. What results isn’t so much a tyranny of experts, but rather a pain-in-the-buttness of them.

Life doesn’t have to be this hard. But it will continue to be until everyone reads my upcoming book, The Couhig Conundrum.

Recall now The Peter Principle, which popularized a simple notion that provides valuable insight into many of the issues that bedevil management. Peter wrote that everyone rises to the level of their own incompetence.

Like the Peter Principle, the Couhig Conundrum can be explained in one simple sentence: Know-nothings, not experts, should always provide instructions.

Specifically, software companies should hire people who don’t know anything about their software to write the user manual. As he learns the software, the novice will never simply drop a step or assume you know something you don’t.
Simple, right? Common sense, right?

Like the Peter Principle, the Couhig Conundrum has relevance across industries, and frankly, across life.
Who teaches math? People who are really good at math. People who have an instinctive ability for math. People who don’t understand your struggles.

Recent research indicates we’ve long relied far too much on the wrong approach for teaching a new language, with a single-minded emphasis on native speakers. It turns out that having someone like you — someone who learned French as a second language, for example – is very often better, at least until you have your legs under you. That’s because they dealt with the same issues you’re now experiencing. Nevertheless, the world continues to hold non-native speakers in lower regard.

Or physical education. Who teaches P.E.?

Jocks. The kind of people who always enjoyed physical activity because they are really good at it. The primary purpose of P.E. is to instill a lifelong love of physical activity. This is to be accomplished in a number of ways, including the generation of pleasant sensations, especially the mild euphoria associated with the generation of endorphins.

Kids naturally love active play. It takes physical education classes to learn to hate it. Too often our kids come to associate physical activity with feelings of inadequacy, if not despair.

Now that I’ve mentioned this, you’ll begin seeing multitudinous examples of what we must soon, according to the trademark laws of the United States, call the “Couhig Conundrum.” I’m hoping to make a lot of money off of this, like the “Peter Principle.”

If you have more examples, please drop me a line at mcouhig@gmail.com.

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