How meta skills improve your knowledge, and why universities ignore them

| October 27, 2020

There’s nothing wrong with skills or knowledge about specific realms, of course. It’s just that these pursuits have narrow applications in life. Unfortunately, most people (and most universities) believe the antidote to this narrowness is to gather even more specific skills.

Skills aren’t collectable cards, though, and nobody has time to learn about a huge variety of topics they aren’t interested in. Instead, focusing on meta skills lets you bypass the pointless memorisation and actually develop yourself as a dynamic and fulfilled individual.

Specific vs Meta

It’s easy to understand specific skills; they’re the things you learn when you want to do something specific. Enjoy tinkering with cars? Building with wood? Painting with oils? There are specific skills associated with those tasks, and diving into them can make you a better mechanic, carpenter, or painter.

Meta skills sit above specific skills as a sort of universal umbrella. They aren’t tied to any singular pursuit, but they still enhance our abilities across all areas of life.

Some example meta skills:

  • Ability to learn, create, make, or build
  • Imagination
  • Critical analysis
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Principles of communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Productivity

Meta Skills in Daily Life

What would be the downside of not having a certain specific skill? What about a meta skill, are there downsides to not having one of those?

Let’s start with the specific skill of geography. Pretend you have no idea that the UK was once part of the Roman Empire. How does that impact your life? If you’re in the UK some people might think you should try reading a book once in a while. If you live in a remote village halfway around the world, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a downside.

Now let’s consider the meta skill of self-awareness. What would happen if it was completely missing from your life?

For starters, you might blame other people for your failures and refuse to take responsibility for your own life. This would ruin friendships, prevent you from improving as an individual, and, in the long term, alienate you from the world. You would also miss out on countless opportunities to use meta skills to build more knowledge.

Specific skills are useful in certain situations for certain people but nearly useless elsewhere. Meta skills are useful in all situations, for all people, and for all of time. It’s clear that in most cases you aren’t really missing out if you lack a specific skill, but if you’re missing a meta skill, you’re operating with a severe deficit.

Universities Ignore Meta Skills

Modern education systems focus exclusively on teaching specific skills. We spend much of the first 20 years of our lives dedicated to memorising facts and developing areas of knowledge we’ll rarely use again.

If meta skills are more useful in more situations, and if meta skills actually help us learn other skills, wouldn’t we be better off if universities focused on teaching universal skills instead?

Child learning geography

I’d rather risk my son having gaps in his general knowledge of geography than be swimming in debt by age 25 because he lacked financial management skills. I’d also rather he not live in terrible health because he had no idea that living on chocolate bars, crisps and frozen pizza was a bad idea.

The default expectation is that meta and life skills are acquired independently of a formal education system. You learn knowledge in specific fields such as geography or history, then you somehow “move up” and gain meta skills after that.

The ability to discover a meta skill after learning a specific skill is itself a meta skill, and it’s certainly not being taught by any university. They’ve got the method backwards. What’s the point in gaining a specific skill you’re not interested in? Wouldn’t it be a better use of time if we started with meta skills and leveraged them to learn skills we’re actually interested in?

I think you know the answer is a very loud, very emphatic yes.

How Can Meta Skills Help Build Knowledge?

Successful individuals often put their achievements down to what they learned studying at the “school of life”. The term is usually wheeled out in response to questions about the individual not having a university degree: “How can you be so successful even though you didn’t go to school?!”

Maybe it’s not actually the knowledge and skills we acquire through formal education that contribute most to excelling at life. Maybe the school of life is where the important skills are learned.

And by school of life, of course, we mean learning by doing. Putting ideas into practice. Trying and failing and trying again.

Think about it like an elite sports star. The most successful footballers in history are those able to adapt and reinvent themselves as their specific skills and abilities change over time. They have self-awareness, self-discipline, and the ability to learn and adapt. They might train specifically for speed or endurance, but it’s their meta skills that keep them at the top of their game.

Knowing how to learn is more valuable than learning something you won’t use. You can always pick up specific skills along the way. And you will, too, if you’re properly rooted in valuable, universally applicable skills.

How can meta skills help build knowledge, then? By giving you the tools you need to do the things you need to do, when you need to do them, and the ability to do them well.

Meta Skills are Becoming More Important

There’s another reason why focusing on meta skills is important: specific skills are losing their value.

It may have been useful a century ago to spend your entire life running a single machine in a factory. You learn every bolt and cog on that device, and you are paid well for having that knowledge.

As technology spreads around the world, though, the value of focusing on narrow skills is decreasing. The impact of automation will be felt in the employment market by the mid-2020s. And, according to one report, by 2035 nearly half of the jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and retail trade will have high automation potential.

What’s valuable in a world where technology can take over highly specific tasks? Humans with strong meta skills. People who are good communicators, who know how to manage and lead and learn. We can’t teach meta skills to machines, after all.

The Future of Personal Ability

I think the formal education system has things the wrong way around. It shouldn’t be left to the lottery of family input and innate ability to develop meta skills. Learning specialist skills should be about specific needs, personal interest, and inclination, not part of a mandated curriculum.

Hopefully, formal education will one day recognise this and give every young person a chance to develop strong meta skills. Some specialist knowledge can be imparted along the way, too, but there’s no need to focus on it for force skills down students’ throats.

Right now, every young person and adult can take aim at meta skills on their own. Start by knowing that specific skills are only needed if you’re interested in pursuing the benefits those skills provide. If you genuinely have no interest in something, why force yourself to pick up that skill? There may be side benefits from having that knowledge, but your time is better spent working on meta skills that will enhance your entire life.

This article was published by Universal Owl and is reproduced with the author’s permission.