How to think like a Mac geek

Most of us know at least one person who’s not merely a Mac user, but a dyed-in-the-wool Mac geek. You know the type: someone who has a large collection of Macs and is quick to tell you the history of each one; who keeps up with all the latest Apple news and rumors; and who seems to know the answer to any Mac question, no matter how obscure or technical. Though you may be tempted to ridicule a Mac geek’s obsessiveness, you’ll probably resist that temptation because you want to stay on the geek’s good side—since he or she will be the first person you go to for help when something goes wrong with your own Mac!

I bought my first Mac, a used Mac SE, in 1991—but that doesn’t mean I eased into geekdom over a period of decades. The first thing I did after bringing my SE home was to take it apart and install more RAM. The second thing I did (and this is only a slight exaggeration) was to start customizing the Finder, using ResEdit (if you have to ask, you don’t need to know)—in other words, a bit of modest hacking. Within a couple of months, a large local Mac user group appointed me Disk Librarian. My job was to research, download, and catalog all of the best freeware and shareware products, compile new collections of cool tools every month, and duplicate them on floppy disks to raise money for the club. I threw myself into that job and quickly acquired the reputation of being a know-it-all (in a good way).

My point is that earning a geek badge doesn't require years of Mac use; it’s all in how you approach it. What made me a Mac geek from the start, and not just a guy with a Mac, was that I dove right in and started exploring, tinkering, and learning.

Maybe you’d never want to be a Mac geek yourself, but if you’ve ever envied the ease with which a Mac geek speeds through complicated tasks or confidently zeroes in on the cause of a tricky problem, you might find it useful to cultivate the skill of thinking like a Mac geek. Doing so won’t give you magical troubleshooting powers, but Mac geeks don’t have magical powers either. Everything we do, you can do, too.

Be curious

When I encounter a new app, I start by exploring. What does this button do? What difference does changing that preference make? What would happen if I held down the Option key while clicking a menu? I learn practically everything I explain in my Macworld how-to articles by engaging in that sort of experimentation. I try something, see what works and what doesn’t, change something, and try again. My experiments are full of questions that begin with “What if…?” and “Why…?” I keep poking around until I get the result I need, and then I write down what I did.

When you poke around in OS X, you may turn up new features—or you may find secret messages and Easter eggs.

Don’t be content not to know how that expensive machine on your desk works. Is there a folder you haven’t looked in yet? Look! Is there an app you’ve never tried? Open it! You’ll have questions; you’ll encounter things that puzzle you. That’s good. Questions are what drive Mac geeks to learn. If you can’t find the answer by experimenting, search the Web or ask a geek friend. Repeat indefinitely. As time goes on, more of the answers will make sense.

Be systematic

I wrote a book on Mac troubleshooting, but I still encounter puzzling Mac behavior all the time. When I can’t figure out why something is happening the way it is, I don’t guess randomly; I take a methodical approach.

For example: Ever since I turned on my new iMac, my cable modem has been resetting itself every 2 hours. That’s a new and weird thing. Is it a coincidence, or is it the fault of the iMac? Test by turning off the iMac for a while. The problem goes away. Turn the iMac back on, more resets. Aha! So it’s the iMac, not the modem. What if I turn off Wi-Fi on the iMac and use only ethernet? Still happening, but less often, so let’s start looking at every app that accesses the network. By systematically narrowing down the source of the problem, I eventually find out that some outdated piece of software that I had migrated from an old machine has been spewing garbage onto my network and freaking out my cable modem.

Like doctors and scientists, Mac geeks tend to diagnose difficult problems by running tests to rule out groups of possibilities, gradually discarding wrong answers until they get to the right one.

Be lazy

Mac geeks have a peculiar kind of laziness. They hate to waste keystrokes and mouse movements, so they tend to be fond of keyboard shortcuts, macros, scripts, and other tactics for automating tasks or eliminating superfluous steps. I have sometimes spent entire days trying to automate what would otherwise be a 2-minute manual procedure, just because I couldn’t stand the idea of having to endure those 2 minutes of tedium several times every day. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Automating repetitive sequences of steps may take some time up-front, but the benefits add up in the long term. This macro in Keyboard Maestro opens several HTML documents and a spreadsheet that I frequently need to edit simultaneously. 

Always assume that there may be an easier way to do anything on your Mac. Then systematically explore ways to make it happen. You won’t always succeed, but sometimes you will, and you’ll learn a great deal about your Mac in the process.

Be confident

As Richard Bach said in his novel Illusions: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” If you tell yourself that your Mac is too complicated or that you’ll never get it, you’ll be right—you’ve made a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, assume that you’re smart enough to figure out anything Apple can throw at you, and certainly smarter than any guy who would refer to himself as a “geek.” You probably are! You’ll get it if you believe you can. All geeks believe they are, or can be, masters of their computers.

And don’t forget to hug your Mac.

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