It used to be the case that learning a particular trade or skill meant you could land a reliable career. These days, however, constant learning is both expected and required to stay afloat. Rather than developing competency in, say, analysis or communication, modern life demands that we become more agile and able to shift on a dime towards the particular skills that challenges require.
That is why cultivating meta-skills is so important. Meta-skills are broad capabilities that help you to develop other skills and can be applied across a wide variety of domains. As more jobs become automated, possessing these skills will be more important than ever.
Author Marty Neumeier makes the case for investing in five particular meta-skills in his book, Meta-skills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age: Feeling, Seeing, Dreaming, Making, and Learning.
Just because the future of work lies in automation doesn’t mean that the human element will be taken out of the equation. Social intelligence is going to be an even more important skill than before — with technology outperforming our more analytical talents, individuals with more empathy and other uniquely human gifts are going to bring the most value to the table.
Feeling doesn’t just refer to interpersonal skills; it also covers qualities like intuition, or the ability to arrive at a conclusion without relying on conscious reasoning. The human mind wasn’t designed to do rigorous calculations. It was, however, designed to use heuristics to quickly arrive at likely solutions that serve us well enough most of the time. Learning to lean on this skill more will help you work with others and save time and effort when developing solutions.
Computers are fantastic are addressing individual problems, but they don’t do so well at addressing the big picture. This meta-skill captures humanity’s ability to strategize, to understand how the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, and to escape biases.
It’s certainly easier to simplify things done to dichotomies, but the real world is complicated and multi-dimensional. Becoming better at seeing things isn’t quite so easy and can challenge your beliefs, but doing so provides a more accurate representation of the world. In turn, seeing better provides better information to act on when navigating the modern world.
Innovation, creativity, generative talent — these skills will always be in high demand. Once rigorous, linear work is outsourced to machines, the less precise and more fanciful talents of the human mind will become the primary characteristic that employers look for.
The antithesis of this meta-skill is the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s true that being original and trying to innovate carries risk. Your innovation might fail, or it might make things worse, but nothing is going to be improved without taking that risk on. Settling for tried-and-true solutions also means settling for mediocrity.
Neumeier characterizes this meta-skill as primarily being related to design and design thinking. “Design thinking is a generative approach to solving problems,” he says. “In other words, you create answers, you don’t find answers.”
Making overlaps with dreaming to a certain extent, but its key distinction lies in the prototyping and testing of generated solutions. Rather than seeking safety and assurance in pre-existing answers, talented makers are unafraid of the messy process of producing an original solution. It’s this ability to navigate uncertain scenarios and tolerate ambiguity that makes this such a valuable and powerful meta-skill.
Neumeier describes this as the “opposable thumb” of meta-skills. Learning how to learn enables you to improve every skill in your life. Gone are the days when a 4-year degree was all you needed to excel in the world. Nowadays, constant learning is a fact of life. This doesn’t have to be laborious — not only does learning lead to greater value, but learning itself can be an intrinsically rewarding activity.
Becoming better at this skill doesn’t mean that you have to learn a subject like mathematics, for example, if you hate it. Rather, talented learners find the subjects that bring them joy and dive into them. Doing this regularly will make you more curious and hungry to learn about other topics that you may not have cared for originally.
These five meta-skills inform nearly every talent and capacity that we exercise in our daily lives. Moreover, they aren’t going to be automated anytime soon. As rapidly as technology is advancing, it’s still a far cry from the curious abilities that millions of years of evolution have gifted us with. Taking advantage of these natural and uniquely human skills is the best way to stay relevant in the changing world.