Zen and the Art of ‘How To’ Lists

A blog post from 2010, written the day I relaunched my old personal website.

While I was building my new website, I developed a fascination with ‘How To’ lists.

A couple of things struck me: (1) the ‘How To’ is a deeply underrated learning technology and (2) the way the internet has picked up on ‘How To’s may not be doing justice to them.

To explain, I need to tell you about magic and about an email magazine which I used to edit.

The email was called ‘Pick Me Up’. The traces of it have almost disappeared from the web now, but it ran for 100 issues between 2004 and 2006. It came out on a Friday afternoon and our aim was to inspire you to do something more interesting than check your inbox on a Friday afternoon

Our motto was: “Think what you would do if only you had the money, then work out how you can do it anyway.” (You might say this was the first formulation of the Big Society, but please don’t blame us.)

A Pick Me Up story had to be about making something happen. You told the story in a way that meant someone else could use and adapt what you had learned. Many of the classic Pick Me Up stories were “How To” guides – how to organise your own festival, how to become a pickpocket, how to write a love letter.

Now, as I was putting my site together, I suddenly felt the need to balance out the enormous reading list with something more practical – in the same way that the talking and writing side of my work is balanced by going out and making things happen.

So I started to dig out some of my old Pick Me Up articles – and some of the other great “How To” lists I’ve come across, from Ran Prieur’s How to Drop Out, to Bill Drummond’s How to have a Number One hit (the easy way), to my friend Matt’s How to start a meetup.

Pretty soon, I had a new How To page for the site, full of DIY advice for living well and making things happen.

Why stop there, I thought? Wouldn’t it be great to see if I can collect some of the other classic Pick Me Up stories – and maybe I could invite other people to suggest their own ‘How To’ lists?

I like the idea of encouraging people to document and share the simplest things they’ve learned from life and work in the simplest format possible – “X steps for how to…” – and presenting it not as a formula to be applied meticulously, but as something like dance notation or a chord progression for improvising from.

At this point, I remembered – there are loads of websites that already do this. (Just the other week, I’d used eHow to learn how to fix a sash window.) What was the point in my puny little list, set alongside these user-generated encyclopedias of how?

I knew there had to be a point, though – and after a while it came to me.

You see, the ‘How To’ list is a deceptively simple thing. The subtlety is all in the bits that can’t be written down. (In this sense, it’s the opposite of a poem: to get a better understanding of a poem, you look at the words harder, whereas with a ‘How To’ you look at the gaps.)

This is the story of the Sorceror’s Apprentice: if you try to do a spell by following the book alone, it will go wrong. A ‘How To’ (or a recipe, or a musical score) is not a computer program, a full and flawless record of a process which can be mechanically applied. To make it work, you probably need to bring your own experience and judgement to the task.

And spells are not a bad metaphor for a good ‘How To’. An old word for a book of spells is a “grimoire”, which means grammar.

Once out of formal education, you rarely meet a situation in which there is a single right answer. As you work in a particular craft, though, you begin to assemble a grammar of the kinds of reality with which you work. (This is as true for a novelist as for a boat builder.)

Whatever shorthand you use to record or talk about this cannot capture all the wordless knowledge involved in your practice. With care, though, it should be possible to record enough to be useful to others, if they use it with care.

The thing about this kind of knowledge is, its provenance matters. The difference between the vastness of eHow and my humble How To page is the difference between looking at an enormous jumble of tools and looking at the contents of a particular craftsman’s toolkit. I’m not claiming to be a great craftsman, but what I’m doing with that page is beginning to open source what I have learned so far about the craft of making things happen.

I can think of lots of other people whose grimoires I’d like to see – so I’m hoping this post might inspire them to write and share some of their own How To lists, or the ones they have found helpful. (Maybe post them on your own blog and leave a comment here?)

I’m also hosting a session on this theme at tomorrow morning’s School of Everything: Unplugged, so if you’re in London and free on a Wednesday morning, come and have a go at writing your own How To lists with us.