The importance of meta-skills

​Toxic relationships. Dissatisfaction with work. Unhappiness. A lack of energy and poor health. These are all meta-problems.

But what’s a meta-skill? I define it as: A skill which significantly enhances the performance of any activity it is combined with.

Imagine a scientist. Someone who works on developing synthetic materials in a privately funded lab. They have a degree and could be classified as above average at what they do. Now, imagine that same scientist is an exceptional speaker. They can give talks and hold audiences in a rapture as they discuss their work and research.

Or perhaps that scientist is a fantastic writer. They can make complicated, high level concepts accessible to the layman’s mind, without condescension or affectation. They can communicate their ideas and thinking process with clarity and power.

Maybe the scientist can navigate social situations with ease. He can quickly build relationships, figure out what people need and want, and help them attain it. Or make a connection that allows them to move towards the fulfilment of their ambitions.

In each of those three situations, how much does the scientist’s additional skill—being able to speak, write or connect people—contribute to his value? Do you think he could command a better compensation package for himself? Stepping outside the realm of personal gain, would he be a more valuable asset for his team? Would he be able to do more in the service of science as a whole? You bet.

Writing, speaking and being a connector are not the only meta-skills.

Research is another. Being able to produce evidence for and against a hypothesis is a fundamental meta-skill. So is the ability to think critically. To explore a position, while remaining cognisant of the strengths, weaknesses and biases in the material, and in your mind, is valuable. So is intellectual courage. You would think that courage is a trait, an inherited ability. It is not. Intellectual courage is, simply, the willingness to admit you’re wrong, change your mind, and consider ideas that conflict with your own. Behaviour monitoring and modification is yet another crucial meta-skill. It is the foundation of all self-improvement. If you can’t accurately monitor your own behaviour, how do you know what to change? If you can’t detect patterns in your own life, how do you know what’s causing you problems? The list could go on.

I’m not saying normal skills aren’t valuable. Of course they are. Of course you need niche-specific knowledge and abilities. But those specific skills, when combined with meta-skills, make you magnitudes more valuable than someone who possesses only niche-specific skills. 

Knowing that, would it not be a good idea to focus on developing meta-skills just as much as the development of your discipline-specific skills?