Why I don’t do step-by-step instructions

Sometimes I refuse to give help, especially when people ask for “step-by-step instructions” (only topped by further requests for videos showing exactly what to do). Why? Because I’m not in the business of hand-holding. I’m not your father, Luke.

Three reasons:

  1. It doesn’t teach you anything.
  2. It’s dangerous not to think for yourself.
  3. You didn’t give me anything, why should I give you even more than I’ve already given you?

Asking for a step-by-step guide for something is like saying “do my work for me, I don’t want to have to think about it”. Unfortunately, this rarely works, or if it works then only for one very specific situation, and others won’t benefit from it.

Consider a child and its father going down the street. The child suddenly says “Daddy, I want to go to the supermarket!” Which is across the street. Now this child has never crossed a street, and its dad must decide how to grant this wish. One solution is to take his child by the hand, head over to the traffic lights, wait until they turn green, cross the street, and head back to the supermarket on the other side. The child doesn’t have to do anything but tag along. It can happily do completely unrelated things in the meantime, e.g. goof off, read a comic book or simply stare at the pavement all the time. It doesn’t have to think.

The problem with this solution is that the child doesn’t learn anything in the process. The next time it will be in a similar situation it might be able to repeat these steps, but it will not be able to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. What if there are no traffic lights but only a zebra crossing? Why do I have to walk all over there to those lights anyway, can’t I just cross the street right here?

The better solution is for the father to patiently explain why each step is done. What is its significance? What are the dangers? That way the child will learn to be able to apply those steps in different situations. Yes, this is exhausting. And it brings me back to my opening statement: “I’m not your father.” I have no obligation to spend that much time on your education.

To the “it’s dangerous” part: Too often I’ve seen people simply copy & paste stuff they’ve read one a guide somewhere without even thinking about what they’re doing. This sometimes works, but often enough it doesn’t. Yes, you may have to replace “PASSWORD” in the example with your actual password. Yes, simply pasting “rm -rf /” without knowing what it does is incredibly stupid. If you don’t think about what you’re doing then you’re in for very nasty surprises, the most harmless being that it just doesn’t work.

The last point is “You didn’t give me anything, why should I give you even more than I’ve already given you?” I’ve spent countless hours writing software and the documentation for it. I’ve spent probably just as many hours giving support via emails or forum posts. And all you do is take without spending any effort yourself. I don’t want money, but I also want a basic appreciation for the worth of my time. Show me some effort (e.g. by describing properly what you’ve done so far, what your problems where in the process and what your specific problem is) and I will almost always spend the effort on a proper explanation myself.

Now I’m pretty sure several people will feel offended and think me a pompous, self-righteous ass. I don’t care. This is my time to spend, and I chose to spend it with people who show they don’t need to be spoon-fed.

15 thoughts on “Why I don’t do step-by-step instructions

  1. Spiller

    So what are you going to do about it? Simply ignore them? Send hate mail? Try to redirect them to someone/somewhere else? I have heard others getting feed up with this kind of requests, but not what they where going to do about it.

    1. mosu Post author

      I’ll redirect them to this blog post (another reason why I wrote it in the first place), and that’ll be my answer to their request/question. I have no problem with being asked for step-by-step guides as long as the ones asking accept me not helping them, therefore hateful/accusing/unfriendly replies are out of the question.

      If they decide to re-phrase their questions into something that’s not a simple “hold my hands” request then I’ll answer those questions properly. That way they still have the opportunity to get help from me. It’s not like I set people on some imaginary black list.

      1. Spiller

        Hate mail was a joke ;)
        And yet not exactly. You said it yourself, people might be offended by this. When I read this entry, it felt to me that you where frustrated and accusing people of misusing your willingness to help. In all honesty, I wouldn’t threat it as ‘friendly’ if I got this as a reply.
        If you want to use it as a reply, I suggest you to rewrite it so that you focus on what they should do, instead of what they are doing wrong. Instead of saying people are rude of expecting that you must help them, ask them understand the situation you are in. In other words, if you ask nicely there is a higher chance of people respecting that wish and you wouldn’t end up risking offending or hurting someone.
        I would also suggest you to write some guidelines on what people should do when requesting help together with your contact information. If people know what you expect of them before initial contact there is a higher chance of them trying to live up to those expectations.

        Anyway, thanks for mkvtoolnix, I’m not really working within the field of video but it is still a nifty tool to have in my toolbox.

  2. J7N

    Hey, a Matroska user since about v1.7 (‘Watcher of the Skies’). Completely agree with what you said, and with Spiller’s ammendment. I’ve been trying to hold hands in the digital realm, and for me it gets frustrating at times, because my hands are never long enough, and eyes don’t see far enough to the other computer.

    Except, what if the task of father always gets redirected to someone else, because nobody considers himself one? And in the end the person feels blamed, because they haven’t procured them a father.

  3. Arnuld Ignacio

    Yes, there are people who will criticize you if your tutorial didn’t work the same way for them. And yes there are also people stupid enough not to think about the reasons behind a specific move. But you can always go out your way to educate them and tell them the reason why you do things that way.

    1. mosu Post author

      Of course I can, the question is: do I want to? And the answer is a clear “no”. It’s simply way, way too much time. Let’s take an example: “please give me a step-by-step guide how to set the aspect ratio so that it plays well on my plasma TV”. Where do I start? I could start with display aspect ratio vs. pixel aspect ratio, would have to explain why the value written on the back of the DVD can often not simply be used as the input value, how to calculate the aspect ratio correctly in cases where black borders have been cropped, interaction with cropping parameters in general (also depending on whether or not his particular plasma TV actually evaluates them) etc.

      This is such a tremendous amount of work… often enough even without any feedback/”thank you”. It all boils down to to how much of yourself, of your time you’re willing to give to other people for no benefit at all to yourself. I’m already spending countless hours coding, writing documentation and giving support to several people, therefore this is where I draw the line and “altruistic fun” (= coding) turns into hard, boring, frustrating work (= replying to such basic questions as my example above).

  4. marcelo

    You spent all this time in giving reasons, surely would be shorter to write step by step your acknowledgment.Anyway great app dude

  5. Johno

    I’m a father of 6 kids. Its a 24 hour a day labour of love.
    Do I get any thanks from anyone? No!
    Do I give up and throw a tanty like the kids do? No!
    Will I ever stop being a father and giving advice and help to my kids and their friends and their friends’ friends? Absolutlely not!

    I was always taught that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I guess I am from a different age.

    Anyway, thankyou for your app mate. I appreciate the effort you have put into writing it.

    1. mosu Post author

      I guess the big difference is that you consciously decided to have those six kids (which I have the highest respect for!). Just because I’ve written a program and published it on the internet doesn’t mean that I’m willing to adopt all of its citizens as my children. So when I decide which questions/requests to answer and which not to answer I ‘m simply saying “no more children for me, I already have enough of them”. Ok, not the best comparison, but still.

      1. Johno

        Nah, it’s a fair comparison. And trust me when I say that I crack the shits too. But it doesn’t actually get you anywhere, I can vouch for that.

        You have written a top bit of soft. I am proud of you mate. Educate!

  6. slyverdo

    Hello Mosu: Sorry to hear about all the extra work. I am trying to reach you for a project and would like you to be involved. I know you said your busy but if you can contact me with a e-mail we can correspond on that would be great. I think you may find it worth listening to at least.

    Thank You, Slyverdo

  7. Sean

    Well, regardless, thanks for all the help you have given. I may not understand how or why your explanations work a lot of time, but following the push in the right direction is good enough.

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