Meta skills are universal skills that can help you in all areas of life. They don’t become obsolete, even if you decide to try out a new career. How can meta skills help improve your knowledge, then? Simple: they open the door to learning, while domain-specific skills close them.
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
Principles of communication
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?
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.
John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.
He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.
What do you think of when you hear the word “vulnerability”? Someone who’s weak and can’t look after themselves? Many people think being vulnerable is something to avoid. But in fact, vulnerability is strength, not weakness. Let me explain.
Why Vulnerability is Strength instead of Weakness
Lots of people think that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is about rejecting this idea and finding strength in being honest about how you feel. If you’re struggling in life, it’s a much better demonstration of your strength of character to ask for help than it is to pretend you can manage on your own.
When I was finishing my Ph.D., I was extremely stressed. I never had enough time, I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, and I felt exhausted and miserable. I didn’t want to burden my friends with these problems, as many of them were in grad school at the time. I ought to be able to handle it myself without asking for help, right?
Eventually, though, I realised I couldn’t continue on my own. I asked two close friends to help me out, and they did so in spectacular fashion. They took care of some of my work, brought me food, and most importantly, they supported me and cheered me up.
Not only was this extremely helpful for me, but it also strengthened those friendships. My friends weren’t annoyed that I asked for favours, and they didn’t think I was selfish. They were glad to help, just as I was glad to return the kindness later on.
By being vulnerable and admitting I needed help, I acquired both practical support and stronger friendships.
More than Just Honesty
It’s tempting to equate vulnerability with honesty. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing, though. Vulnerability is more about the reasons why we share something, not just sharing every feeling we have. A vulnerable thought is an honest thought, but just because you share that thought doesn’t mean you’re demonstrating vulnerability.
Imagine that John and Stewart are best friends, and they both have a big job interview today. John panics and comes across as a bumbling fool, while Stewart keeps his cool and ends up landing the job.
John feels it’s unfair that Stewart did so well simply because he was calm. He might say something like “Your successes make me feel like a failure. I feel worthless because of you.”
Voicing a feeling like this certainly seems like vulnerability. (It’s honest, at least.) In reality, John is simply dumping his problems onto someone else instead of taking responsibility for his own emotions.
To transform this into a “vulnerability is strength” moment, John might admit that he has this feeling, tactfully voice his envy to Stewart using Nonviolent Communication, then understand that he has the ability to change if he wants to. Stewart might even give him some tips on how to keep calm in his next interview.
Emotional Vomit vs. Vulnerability
One common issue when people first start trying to embrace the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is that they over-correct and land in emotional vomit territory.
Emotional vomit is where you share all your feelings all of the time, to the point where every situation becomes about you. Everyone knows “that guy” who pours out their intimate secrets to someone they just met on the bus. Such behaviour is frustrating for those around you and can push people away instead of bringing them closer.
If you find yourself in emotional vomit territory, don’t worry: you’re not failing at vulnerability. It’s common to enter a kind of adjustment period where you over- or under-share as you attempt to find the right balance. It’s all part of the journey.
All you need to do is take steps to rein in this tendency to make everything about you. Don’t force yourself to share in the name of vulnerability; just make sure you aren’t hiding behind a façade of false bravery and let the sharing come naturally.
Being Vulnerable without Being Inappropriate
The key to being vulnerable without emotional vomiting is to know what’s appropriate. The feelings you might talk about with your best friend are different from what you would talk about with a teacher. Make sure that you’re sharing your feelings in a way that suits the relationship you have with that person.
Consider these questions when deciding what you should share with whom:
Am I close enough to this person that they want to hear about my feelings?
Do we have a reciprocal relationship where we both share?
Is now the right time for me to unload? Is the other person in the right mental space, or are they absorbed in their problems?
Is this the right setting and the right place to have an in-depth talk about our feelings?
If you pick the right time, place, and person to talk about your feelings with, you’ll find there is great strength in vocalising your struggles. I didn’t walk up to a random friend at a party and tell them about my stress issues during my Ph.D. program. I waited, I chose a quiet location, and I talked with people I trusted.
Living a Vulnerable Life
Vulnerability comes in a variety of forms, not just sharing a hardship or internal struggle you’re experiencing. Other aspects of vulnerability include:
Admitting when you don’t know something
Taking responsibility for the decisions you make
Speaking up when someone hurts you
Telling people around you that you care about them
Putting yourself out there, and taking risks even if you face rejection
The key to cultivating the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is to take note of these behaviours and gently steer in a more productive direction. One conversation at a time, one moment when we stop emotional vomit before it occurs. Those are the steps to getting stronger through vulnerability in your own life.
Most of us know something in our lives we should be speaking about but aren’t. Whether it’s fear of failure, a feeling of being lost, resentment of others, or feeling inadequate, chances are there’s something you’re keeping to yourself.
Challenge yourself to be vulnerable about one thing you’ve been keeping hidden. Choose the right time, place, and friend in your life, then see how the people around you support and help you.
Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.
She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.
For most of my adult life I lived in a city I hated. I created a range of psychological excuses as to why I had to stay there, the most prominent of which was, “I don’t have enough money to move.”
One day I spent a few hours catching up with an old friend. I told her my situation, and her immediate response was to shout at me: “What on Earth are you doing there?!” A friendly lecture ensued, in which she informed me that I was wasting away and there was no real reason I had to stay.
She was right. I realized later that I was stuck in a victim mindset. Things outside of my control “forced” me to stay in that town, whether it was money or relationships or minor health issues.
In reality, all of these things were totally within my realm of influence. I was simply afraid to take responsibility for my own life. It was much easier to say the rest of the world was the cause of my problems and I was the hapless victim.
The Victimhood Trap
There are certain social advantages to thinking of yourself as a victim. You can get addicted to getting sympathy from other people, for example. They won’t be so hard on you if you screw something up. After all, what kind of teacher would fail a student whose dog ate every piece of homework the entire semester? (Not a very competent one.)
This victim mindset doesn’t get you anything useful or lasting, though. It makes you dependent on other people for even the small victories in life. Over time this erodes your ability to accomplish things on your own, so you double down on the excuses just to get by.
Instead of taking responsibility or trying to improve your life, you take the easy way out. You dive deeper into your own psychology of excuses and rely on emotional manipulation to make it in the world. This is similar to passive-aggressive behavior, and both are harmful to ourselves and others.
A particular risk of the victim mindset is falling into the drama triangle. If you’re stuck in the drama triangle, you likely see yourself as either a victim, a rescuer or a persecutor. Perhaps you even move between these roles interchangeably. This pattern is as damaging as it is drama-filled. Check out the following video to see what I mean:
Excuses and Responsibility
A psychology dominated by excuse-making is one way the victim mindset can manifest in our lives. Another is the avoiding of responsibility. Both are linked to a way of thinking that says that life happens to us, we have no control over it, and the only way we can stay safe is to adopt a self-protective, defensive attitude.
Here are some examples of how the victim mindset might manifest in your life:
I need to lose some weight. Too bad I can’t because of terrible genetics.
There’s this business I would love to start, but I just don’t have the money.
I keep getting sick because nobody washes their hands anymore.
You might see some of these and think, “Hey, can’t those be real reasons, too?” And yes, they certainly can. There’s a point where valid reasons turn into excuses, though, and this point is what defines the victim mindset.
You may actually have the genetic makeup that makes it harder to lose weight. That’s not a reason why you can’t shed a few pounds, though; it just means you have to try something different or maybe work harder at it than other people. Just because there’s an original cause of something doesn’t mean that cause extends indefinitely or to every area of life. And just because something might be harder for you than for others, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The original reason I stayed in that city I hated was because I genuinely had no money. I had recently finished college and was just getting established in the job market — starting from scratch, as it were. I certainly couldn’t have moved then, but I really didn’t want to, either.
Fast forward nine years. Moving would have required that I examine my reasons for living there in the first place. I might have learned I had made a mistake, and I might have realized I was making excuses, which would make me feel sad. I didn’t want to feel sad, so instead, I made up another excuse.
The easy way out was to cling to my original reason instead of looking at the situation and deciding to take action. I needed to ditch the excuses, get rid of the external blame, and finally take responsibility for my life and my happiness.
Destroying the Psychology of Excuses
Remember that the victim mindset is just that: a mindset. It’s not a single moment of victimhood; it’s a state of mind that affects most of your decisions.
Making a single excuse doesn’t mean you’ve fallen into this mindset, but relying on those excuses as you move into the future does.
It can be difficult to recognize a victim mindset in yourself. We all fall into it from time to time. The key to breaking free isn’t necessarily just recognizing it, though; it’s about preventing it and dissolving it through responsible action.
If you suspect you’re clinging to excuses out of a victim mindset, ask yourself this question:
Is it possible for me to change this situation?
Don’t ask if you’re capable of doing it, as that might trigger the victim mindset to generate an excuse. Instead, ask if it’s logically possible for you to change your situation. Only in a few rare circumstances will you be able to answer in the negative.
Is it logically possible for you to lose weight? Of course it is. It may not be easy or fun, but it’s possible. How about starting up that business? Yes, you can raise the money; just find a way. How about me moving from that city? Despite all of the excuses I made over the years, yes, it was always possible to leave.
Now take this and apply it to your own life. Are you refusing to take action because you think you’re a perennial victim? Are you backing away from a life well-lived because the world is out to get you? No matter what, I’m sure there’s a way out. And that way is entirely within your power.
Don’t confuse what’s easy with what’s possible. If you really want to do something you can make it happen. Obstacles will appear and failures will stand in the way, but they don’t control you, you’re not the victim. No, you’re the active, responsible, heroic person you’ve always imagined yourself to be.
John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.
His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.