What is a metaskill?
"Meta": (from Greek meta meaning ‘with, across, or after’) a prefix used in English to mean higher, or beyond. E.g. metaphysics; metalanguage. (Oxford Dictionary)
Really, you could define “metaskill” a few different ways. I like to think of metaskills as habits built on principles you can apply to different situations.
The simplest way to recognize a metaskill is that applying its principles in a new situation makes you effective sooner than if you followed the standard method of learning the new thing. For example, say you want to start a business. So, if you’ve got the metaskill of “quality”, you can apply your eye for quality to everything about your company–what you make, whom you hire, your suppliers, what you measure, etc. In this situation, a person without an eye for quality will take longer to learn how to design these elements to that same standard. They may get there eventually, but it will take longer.
Here’s a more academic definition:
Metaskill: A cognitive strategy that an individual applies to the processing of new information in a novel situation (a scenario not previously experienced). These skills include chunking or organizing new information, recalling relevant schemas, adding the new information to the old schemas, and creating new schemas.1
16 habits that may be metaskills:
- Tailored communication (speaking, writing, & listening)
- Critical thinking/design thinking
- Pattern recognition
- Questioning Assumptions
A few words on each
- Prioritization–it is the most helpful and guiding skill I’ve applied broadly. In my experience, identifying the most important thing–about any situation–allows you to peacefully arrange all other elements in support of it. In essence, everything kind of falls into place. In clear pursuit of a single main purpose, instead of discouraging side-interests, prioritization actually encourages you to deliberately invest in other aspects that you’d at first feel stressed about balancing. If you’re like me, you might find your hobbies do play a role in what matters most, after all.
- Love–for me, it’s the most sustainable driver of action. It’s the clearest reflection of Jesus to other people and the only intention I can imagine that could be applied ad libitum without harm. But love as a metaskill is different than as an emotion, which is how we traditionally think of it. Just like the actor’s audience, the target of love has to acknowledge it into existence. For this to occur, recognize that they don’t see/feel/hear your intent to love, they only see/feel/hear various behaviors (words, actions, etc). Thus–you can learn love as a skill, meaning the behaviors required to get someone to conclude you love them. Once you learn how to do the right behaviors, you’ve got love as a metaskill (Careful: the “right” behavior depends on the recipient and situation).
- Selling–How effectively can you identify what’s valuable to someone and provide it so they behave a certain way? This is the core principle of pretty much all communication (maybe not for some art or asking questions). Use this metaskill to get dates, win arguments, or give a presentation. If you’re in the business world (you are), look up “lean innovation”, which is based on this principle of clarifying and delivering true value.
- Tailored communication–complementing the “selling” metaskill are tailored writing, speaking, and listening. Those basic methods of communication become metaskills themselves when you’re able to tailor your message for different audiences effectively in situations that call for different words, tone, etc. Think of selling as the skill of knowing what message to send, while tailored comm is the ability to know how to best get that message across.
- Acting–where selling meets live, in-person communication. If Drucker was right that “communication is what the listener does”, acting similarly only exists if the audience laughs when you want them to.
- Critical/design thinking–just being able to mentally rotate perspectives while considering a thought. Design thinking, a hot topic in innovation for several years now, is a specific kind of problem solving which ignores false parameters you’d otherwise fall into following.
- Researching–really made apparent by Google, researching well means knowing what information would be most helpful for decision-making. Don’t Google the full question you want answered. Only type the keywords which would most likely appear in the most helpful search results.
- Inquiry–this is one I’ve noticed first-hand since starting to practice it. Good questions lead to valuable learning (a question is “good” when it’s answer provides helpful info). A bonus is that skillful inquiry is noticed by others. Consider this a metaskill in that you can apply it anywhere from the office to the line at Starbucks.
- Measuring–knowing what metric would provide the right info for decision-making. In life, this might look like the ability to meaningfully measure your own growth and success, by your definition.
- Learning–There’s a reason “Learning How to Learn” was the most popular Coursera course from 2016. It’s a perfect example of a metaskill in action: Coursera’s customers are seeking to learn, and so as they enroll in specific classes, they concurrently study learning methods to replicate as they pursue actual topics of interest.
- Pattern recognition–related to critical thinking and comparison, this is a cerebral metaskill that saves time when problem solving. Recognizing a pattern in events or behaviors of others focuses you on the area which, if optimized, has significant impact. I’m not sure how this can be taught, but I am sure that it can be applied in many situations.
- Simile/metaphor–the ability to think of and communicate relevant comparisons using simile and metaphor is really helpful for certain people. Unlike hypotheticals, accurate comparisons of well-understood examples provide frameworks you can apply to teaching, problem-solving, predicting outcomes, etc.
- Storytelling–probably the one I’m naturally worst at, using story makes many forms of communication more effective. It’s simply human nature to pay attention as plots unfold and characters overcome hardships similar to ours.
- Questioning assumptions–Long before Tim Ferriss recognized the common thread among todays top performers (“don’t believe everything you think”), Rene Descartes developed his “Cartesian doubt“, one of the most impactful contributions in philosophy. Consider–what assumptions shape your life, yet remain untested?
- Teaching/coaching–kids, students, athletes, mentees, employees, customers, and so on. Learn how to bring out of people the knowledge that’s already inside.
- Quality–begin anything with quality and your initial choices can save you time and headaches down the road. Likewise, learn how to recognize the lack of quality in things like sources of guidance, process design, etc. Over time, you’ll be able to teach others this skill so they can enjoy the same benefits.
Why not categorize them?
Some metaskills are related and might be categorized. However, I listed these 16 as individual skills, uncategorized to recognize that learning them well probably calls for learning them differently or at different times. For example, while acting could fall under the category of “communication” along with love and storytelling, to learn it you would sign up for acting lessons, not “communication” lessons. You would attend a “storytelling” seminar to learn storytelling, but you wouldn’t learn storytelling the same way from a “communication” seminar. So for me it’s helpful to break them down to the same level as the learning method would.
All are learnable, few are innate
I think only a handful have an element of “born with it”–maybe learning, pattern recognition, and love. These skills can be exhibited from early childhood, but the rest really take time to develop, in my experience.
Why metaskills matter
Whatever we think is important, we can create more of it by leveraging these principles. Consider the 20 yr old with a reasonable amount of free time during the week. She could invest some of her free time in learning the art of storytelling. The current usefulness to her may be zero, but ask anyone who’s even an amateur entertainer of any type how valuable storytelling is. It’s been said that all communication is persuasion; how great it would be, then, to have learned how to form a story by the time she’s having to persuade an audience/customer/interviewer for the first time? Looking farther into the future, what if she practiced–not even formal “learning”–how to measure? Whether it’s how to measure progress or what to measure at all, imagine how her life at 50 may have benefitted from learning what and how to measure in her 20s. Thinking this way, there’s a durability aspect to these skills. Their applicability survives through the most drastic life changes over time.
QOTW: “I want to be more like you.”
?FNW: What’s our relationship measuring? My drive activities doc: “Good/ok/bad”