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Paddling Skill #2: Find Your Water Tribe

So that addresses the incoming flood, but what about the oceans of data beyond your in-box? Somewhere out there is the specific help, advice, and knowledge that's crucial to your life. The question is how to find it without getting carried out to sea.

Fortunately, modern communication technology greatly facilitates something called the wisdom of crowds. Simply put, when many diverse people answer a question (say, guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar), the mathematical average of all the responses is more likely to be accurate than any single response.

We're able to access this knowledge better than any other group of humans in history. When my son, Adam, was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome more than 20 years ago, no one around me knew what to say. I agonized, grieved, and feared without much social support.

This was before Google.

You see, the algorithm that makes Google work is also what makes it a good indicator of crowd wisdom. Just now, I googled "prenatal diagnosis Down syndrome" for the very first time. The third article on the screen said, "Advice for women whose baby will be born with Down syndrome often comes from a perspective of misinformation and discouragement rather than celebration."

Celebration!

How different my life would've been if Google had existed on the day Adam was diagnosed. A wise, diverse, knowledgeable crowd would've been there—right there!—to counsel and support me better than my friends possibly could.

Today's information flood can be very kind. If you need to know which of the 12,000 recipes for healthful but tasty chicken are actually nutritious and delicious, consult the crowds. If you're looking for the best place to meet people who share your love of nude pot-throwing, start typing. Same goes for when you have to figure out what's happening in your industry, your neighborhood, your cable TV system. You'll gather not just the facts you need but the support and advice you never knew was out there.

Paddling Skill #3: Make Computers Your BFFs or FOFs

At this point, I should mention I have the computer skills of a hamster. So in 2006, I asked a computer scientist client to teach me to build a Web site. During the following months, my brain felt like a raisin on fire as I tried to fathom HTML, JavaScript, encryption software, and so on. It was like learning Swahili...in Turkish.

Maddeningly, my kids mastered this technology effortlessly. Children love Water World. Their brains are almost 100 percent "fluid intelligence," absorbing new skills fast. Adults rely on the "crystallized intelligence" stored in memory, which has been perfectly useful in the past—hey, why reinvent the wheel every day? Ha ha! Except now the wheels have come off. They're at the bottom of Davy Jones's locker. Here's the hard truth: Suck it up and deal. Learn to use computers.

I dish this out because I can take it. I spent nightmare months achieving minimal computer competency, losing all muscle tone except in my mouse-clicking finger, developing acne and insomnia. At one point I became so deeply geeky that I completely broke my eyeglasses, and the only way to use them was to packing-tape the lenses to my face. Which, God help me, I did.

It was so worth it.

If your head exploded at the idea of stapling yourself to a chair for months on end, you may never have a BFF in your computer. Okay, make computers your FOFs—friends of friends. Find computer lovers (your son, your sister, your minister) and exploit them ruthlessly. Get their help sending e-mail, setting up a blog, finding information, watching "stupid pet tricks playing dead." In fact, do that last one right now. Seriously. I'll wait.

See? It really is worth making friends with computers, or at the very least making friends with their friends. You'll find this is your basic paddling technique. Now you just have to learn how to steer your kayak.

Next: Paddling skill #4: Site your purpose

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