Skills are specific things we know how to do, like how to make origami, how to weave, how to paint, and so on. They are generally things you learn by doing, rather than by reading about in abstract. Sure, you can gain knowledge about them by reading general theory, but you have to actually get your hands dirty to get any level of mastery at all. The more skills you have, the more intelligent you become: the subconscious mind is always searching for patterns and analogies, and the more skills you have, the more sources there are for the subconscious mind to find these things. Thus, proficiency in one skill lends itself to solving unexpected problems, sometimes even without our being explicitly aware of it.

Metaskills are abstract skills which have to do with other skills. For example, an autodidact is a person who has the metaskill of being able to self-teach him or herself new skills without an outside teacher. A teacher is a person who has the metatalent to teach skills to others; here I speak of someone who is a teacher of a wide variety of things, not necessarily a teacher who focuses on one single topic. Teaching one single topic, like calculus, is a skill, but the ability to learn an arbitrary skill and then teach it to others, that is a meta-skill. Generalization is a metaskill where you look at a wide variety of skills and figure out the common underlying patterns. Specialization is one where you can take a skill and focus it more precisely, to get a new skill which is a special case of the broader original skill.

Skills Training and Metaskills Training

Skills training involves performing a skill over and over. As you perform a skill, your subconscious mind constantly tries to figure out how it can help you. At first, it doesn’t know how to help you at all, and you have to consciously think about every littlest detail. In time, the subconscious takes over more and more of the workload, allowing you to perform the skill with less and less conscious attention. This is sometimes referred to as muscle memory; you can do the skill without even thinking about it. To get to this point, you have to perform the skill quite a bit. Each time, it comes a little easier. Once your subconscious has completely taken over the performance of the skill, it shifts toward finding ways to optimize and improve the skill, and that’s how you evolve from a mere expert into a master.

Training a metaskill is the same. Just because a skill is meta, doesn’t make it any different from any other skill. The difference is that we don’t usually consciously train our meta-skills because most people don’t even recognize them as skills. Besides that, training a meta-talent is more difficult than training a skill, because you can’t as easily fall into a pattern of repetition. Whereas you can do basketball training by throwing a basketball through a hoop a whole lot of times, you can’t, for example, teach yourself calculus a whole lot of times. In order to train the meta ability of being an autodidact, you must consciously seek out new things to teach yourself. If mastering chess requires playing ten thousand games, then mastering autodidacticism requires teaching yourself ten thousand different skills.

The benefit of mastering a skill is that you get to use that one skill. It makes a contribution to your overall intelligence by giving you that much more referential material from which to draw patterns and analogies. By learning Japanese, I’ve gained the ability to talk to Japanese people in their native tongue. The benefit of mastering a metaskill is that you can get new regular skills more easily, or make better use of the regular skills you already have. When you train a skill, you are making a long term investment; when you train a meta-skill, you are making a “long long term” investment. You’re making an investment into your ability to make or profit from other long term investments.

The Reflexive Nature of Metaskills

The great thing about a meta-skill is that it’s reflexive. It’s something you apply to skills; but it is a skill, therefore, you can apply it to itself. For example, consider a master teacher who can skilfully teach every skill she possesses: in particular, she can teach how to teach. A master autodidact can, in principle, teach himself any skill: in particular, he can teach himself any metaskill. (In a very real sense, master autodidacts are like gods. They can do basically anything. I consider myself something of an intermediate level autodidact.)

Here’s another example of a metaskill. Skills analysis is the ability to take any skills you know, and break them down, analyzing them and figuring out exactly how they work. For different skills, it requires a different mastery of skills analysis to break them down. For example, just about anyone can analyze the “skill” of flipping coins. But it would take a very good skills analyst to analyze the skill of playing the harp. Skills analysis is itself just another skill, so in theory, a good enough skills analyst could break it down and analyze it.

The novel “Cheaper By The Dozen” tells the tale of the family of Frank Gilbreth, a self-described “Efficiency Expert”. He devoted his life to finding ways to make various tasks more efficient. He even invented a general system of “therbligs”, small undecomposable units of work, for analyzing general tasks. In fact, he was pioneering the “time and motion study” metaskill, which takes skills and finds ways to make them more efficient. What if someone was so good at time and motion study that they could apply it to itself, and find ways to make time and motion study itself more efficient? Then they could apply it to itself more efficiently, and make it even more efficient, and so on. How efficient could it get?

The Continuum Between Skills and Metaskills

I’ve actually been speaking of just “skills” and “meta skills” to simplify the discussion. There’s actually an entire continuous spectrum between the two. Take computer programming, for example. Programming computer games in Java is a specific skill. Programming arbitrary java applets is a slightly more meta skill, which includes the ability to program games, if you’re so inclined. Being able to program websites in arbitrary languages, learning the languages as you need ‘em, is a more meta skill. Going even more meta, you have the skill of programming any program, not just websites, in any language, learning the languages as you go.

One way to train a metaskill is to figure out the spectrum below it, and start low on the spectrum and work your way up. For example, if you want to learn to be a master teacher, you might start by simply learning how to teach your favorite subject, say, singing. Once you’re good at teaching people how to sing, you might generalize it to teaching people performance art in general. And from there, it’s not as big a jump to teaching people any arbitrary skill that you yourself possess. The master of a meta-ability probably got that way by applying the technique “by accident”, without actually being consciously aware of what was going on.


How Children Understand Language
Autodidact: Be A Self-Teacher
Spaced Repetition Systems
How to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

(Skills and Metaskills was originally published January 3, 2009)