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How Meta Skills Can Make You More Self-Aware and Adaptable

How Meta Skills Can Make You More Self-Aware and Adaptable

Nothing in the world, and nothing in our lives, is static; if we stay the same, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, young people and their ability to adapt to change is almost entirely ignored by parents and teachers alike, which puts the next generation of adults at a huge disadvantage once they enter the working world.

In my various careers and business ventures, I’ve always had to learn the necessary skills from scratch. They were developed by happy coincidence, rather than educators having consciously worked to develop them. That’s a pretty risky way to build such foundational skills, one that won’t work in the age of fast-changing technology.

This is where meta skills and adaptability quotients come into play. By learning universally applicable skills as early in life as possible, we can more easily adapt to new situations and succeed at challenges. For this reason alone, young people and their ability to adapt to change should be one of the most-watched areas of life, not one of the most ignored.

Why Adaptability is the Most Important Skill

Adaptability is crucial to the ability of an entity to survive and thrive through changing conditions. That’s been the case since the dawn of life on Earth – survival of the fittest, after all. A scientific methodology for measuring how adaptable we are as individuals is, however, a more recent development.

Adaptability quotient (AQ) is most simply defined as “the ability to realize optimal outcomes based on recent or future change”. It was first discussed by Amin Toufani and his research team at Adaptability.org. It has since been studied and understood by countless people and organisations as a key feature not just in nature, but in human social interactions, business, personal growth, and more.

Source: The Metaskills You Need To Thrive In The 21st Century by Gustavo Razzetti

Without adaptability, a person will fail to thrive, and eventually become unsuited for the environment around them. It doesn’t matter what other talents or skills that person has, if they can’t adjust to meet changing conditions in their world, they will fail.

It’s easy to argue that adaptability is the most important skill one can cultivate, especially for young people. We live in a world filled with changing societies, evolving social norms, and technological advancements that practically reinvent how we interact with each other every decade or so. One can’t succeed in that world if they study outdated skills and neglect skills with broader applications.

Using Meta Skills to be More Adaptive

We can define a skill as meta if it possesses a means by which we can learn other skills more quickly, on a higher level, and across different areas of life.

In the context of sport, a meta skill could be well-developed hand-to-eye coordination. Anyone who possesses this will find it easier to master specific skills across sports, from a golf stroke to the ability to drop a basketball into a hoop or keep a football under control. Having a good tennis serve wouldn’t be considered meta, however, because it doesn’t make learning other skills more quickly, and it doesn’t apply to other sports.

In a professional context, meta skills work in the same way. Possessing meta skills means we can better learn and execute specific skills – often referred to as ‘functional skills’, like knowing a programming language or quickly understanding a new piece of software.

Meta skills are even found in our personal lives. Self-awareness, creativity, and resilience are all meta skills, for example. An individual with strong self-awareness will learn better and continue to improve throughout their life. Similarly, resilience will underpin motivation to succeed, and creativity boosts the ability to innovate and solve problems, which means difficulties will be better overcome.

Boiled down, meta skills give us the ability to learn new things well and efficiently, and then effectively put them to use. One’s adaptability quotient is thus immediately boosted through the attainment of meta skills.

Meta Skills and a High Adaptability Quotient are More Important Than Ever 

Meta skill-facilitated adaptability – whether scientifically quantified and measured by AQ, or more loosely, empirically defined – has always been a professional and personal advantage. Professional conditions have never remained absolutely stable, and professionals able to add value most broadly have always excelled.

The acceleration of technological change and its impact on sectors and individual professional roles over the last 20 years means adaptability and the ability to learn new functional skills regularly and quickly has become more important than ever. Young people and their ability to adapt to change has never been tested more than it is today.

If I think of my own professional background in sales and marketing, that acceleration is obvious. And I like to think that I have developed the meta skills that will allow me to keep up through continuous learning as the pace of change picks up. Everything points to the fact it will.

Meta skills and adaptability are now so important that leaving their development to chance could be considered reckless. And there’s plenty of data to back that up. The World Economic forum calculates that the typical functional skill, or ‘business competency’, now has an average shelf life of just 4.2 years. In the 1980s, business competencies were relevant for an average of 30 years.

By the time today’s primary school children enter the workforce, a staggering 65% of today’s job titles will no longer exist. Unless we keep learning new functional skills, we’ll quickly become professionally obsolete. And the challenge to keep reinventing themselves with new skills that faces the generations that follow will only increase alongside the pace of technological progress.

In other words, if you’re a young person, adaptability is the most important skill you could learn. Sadly, this ability to adapt to change is not only ignored by educators, it’s often specifically taught against as practically ancient functional skills are favored in classrooms. 

Young People and their Ability to Adapt to Change

Adaptability is increasingly recognised as a competitive advantage. The message is clear for both those of us already in the workforce and those who will join it in the near future: don’t leave the development of the meta skills that improve our adaptability quotient to chance. We’ll need them to become professionally successful.

One of our chief missions at Universal Owl is to provide resources to help young people understand the value of meta skills and learn them independently. Outdated learning models and centuries-old teaching methods will not help us thrive in the future. To grow and learn, we must rely on what is universal and proven in the real world.

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.


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How Can Meta Skills Improve Your Knowledge, and Why Do Universities Ignore Them?

How Can Meta Skills Improve Your Knowledge, and Why Do Universities Ignore Them?

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
  • 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.

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.


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How Much Does It Cost to Educate a Person in the UK or the USA?

How Much Does It Cost to Educate a Person in the UK or the USA?

How much does it cost to educate a person from the first day of class to the moment they get their undergraduate degree? The numbers can vary widely, but if you’re in the UK or US, you could easily buy a new house for the same amount.

If you were buying a house, you would do research and consider the value of your investment before spending a penny. Few of us put in the same amount of effort when examining education. I think part of the reason is that school can feel like it’s free because it’s often subsidised.

There’s no such thing as a free education, though. In assessing the value of this huge investment, it’s important to know where the amounts come from and whether or not they’re justified in remaining so high.

Cost of Education in the UK and US

We’ll start by dividing education into two stages: grade school while we’re young, followed by our time at university.

The average cost of educating a child in the UK in 2018/19 was around £73,000. If we include other expenses covered by parents (books, uniforms, transportation), we can conservatively set the total cost of getting an education at £100,000.

In the USA, the estimated yearly cost of school ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 depending on the state of residence. Add in the same expenses as above and multiply across 12 years of schooling and we arrive at a total between $100,000 and $260,000.

The Cost of Going to University

A 2018 report released by HSBC found that most undergraduate degrees at public universities in the US cost $26,290 a year, with private university fees rising to $60,000. Over four years that adds up to a low-end total of $105,160.

In addition to actual fees paid for a university education, there’s also a measurement known as opportunity cost. This number represents income that could have been earned if a person started a career instead of going to university. If you attend university in the US your estimated opportunity cost is $40,000 per year.

Combining these figures we can estimate the total cost of attending university in the US is between $185,000 and $400,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.

In the UK annual tuition fees are capped at £9,250. If we use the same methodology as above and set the opportunity cost between £25,000 and £30,000 per annum, our ‘true cost’ of getting a 3-year bachelor degree in the UK is between £85,000 and £120,000.

Now let’s add everything up.

In the US it costs approximately $472,500 (£371,250) to educate a single person from grade school through college. In the UK it costs £202,500 ($257,352).

What about Free School?

Unless we’re paying for it out of pocket (or out of our parents’ pockets), most of us are used to thinking of school as “free.” The cost is covered through taxes.

Spreading out the burden of cost doesn’t make it disappear, however. In economically developed OECD nations, the average national budget reserved for education is 4%. As of 2020, the figure sits at 4.2% in the UK, but it rose as high as 5.7% in 2010. Those percentages may sound small, but at their peak they represented as much as £104 billion.

Even countries with reputations for affordable education bear similar cost burdens. Public universities in Germany are funded by the state, with students usually limited to covering a €250 semester enrolment fee. If we add in the opportunity cost and multiply the figures to cover getting a 4-year bachelor degree, the final cost sits between €98,000 and €224,000.

We all shoulder these fees, whether we realise it or not. It would be a mistake to ignore the costs or write them off as negligible when they clearly represent a major investment in many levels of society.

Getting What We Pay For

What do all of us get for this investment? It’s difficult to say, exactly. Most people are eager to point out that getting an education is an important part of becoming a useful member of society. Do the costs really need to be this high to achieve that, though? And does the educational system actually deliver on its promise of creating successful young adults?

After looking into the costs of educating a person and comparing it to the actual value of going to school, I came to the conclusion that no, we aren’t getting a fair return on our collective investment.

We previously showed that universities charge high tuition because they can, not because those fees are necessary to provide an education. Similar sentiments are also true with pre-university schooling. There’s a lot of bloat and inefficiency associated with education.

There are clear alternatives to spending this much on a system that’s failing its students. Universal Owl is working to build one such alternative that aims to teach useful meta-skills young people can use to improve all areas of their lives.

Many other organisations, from not-for-profit foundations to private business, are also offering alternatives to the university education system. Given the obvious issues with cost mentioned above, it can only be a matter of time before more models that challenge the status quo appear.

The most important lesson we can learn right now is that free schooling is anything but free. Like anything with a price tag attached to it, intelligent young people should question the value being provided, and take a good look at any alternatives there may be.

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.


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Why Sales Jobs are Better Preparation for the Real World than University

Why Sales Jobs are Better Preparation for the Real World than University

I got my first job in sales when I was ten years old.

Each day I would trudge through my neighbourhood streets, ringing doorbells and pitching subscriptions for multi-packs of crisps. I only earned 20p for each sale, which is probably why I threw in the towel after four afternoons.

I don’t look back on this experience as a failure or a waste of time. This position would kick off a lifelong interest in sales, and the lessons I learned from it stayed with me well into adulthood and influenced every area of my life — not just my career.

False Promises

Like most kids, I grew up hearing how a university degree would change my life. It would open up career opportunities, help me connect with peers, and give me the experiences I needed to succeed in the world.

As you might have guessed, none of those promises came to fruition. I spent more time unlearning what they taught me instead of applying what I had learned.

Take creative writing. You might think that studying this in school would have practical applications in sales, as both are about building a cohesive narrative and telling an interesting story. This wasn’t the case at all.

Writing courses at university focus on the structure and form of writing, completely ignoring the reader. In the real world and in sales, writing is all about the reader. I was shocked to hear that my post-school writing wasn’t cutting it, and that I had to re-learn how to write for an audience, not for a professor.

I ended up drawing from other experiences in my life to improve my communications and sales skills. As it turns out, random conversations with strangers about crisps taught me more about sales than all my years at university. School did the opposite of preparing me for the real world. 

Learning by Doing

The informal and entry level jobs I had as a kid showed me that if I wanted something, I had to go and get it myself.

Sometimes that meant doing something outside of my comfort zone, like knocking on a stranger’s door and striking up a conversation. Not only did this help me be more comfortable with talking to people, it also taught me to present and persuade.

Rejection is also part of the sales process. Working these jobs showed me that I couldn’t let a missed sale put me off. I had to go back and try again with the next person, putting into practise whatever lessons the botched sale could teach me.

By contrast, university taught me that failure is a bad thing. It doesn’t matter what you learn in class, only that you do your homework and pass the tests. Nobody cares if the things you “learn” help you in real life.

This was a critical lesson I had to learn outside of university: in order to succeed at something, you have to do it, not listen to lectures about it.

We’re All In Sales

Even if you aren’t interested in a sales position, learning good sales skills will directly impact your day-to-day life.

When deciding with friends or family what to watch on Netflix, you pitch your preference in the hope of convincing others to agree. Essentially, you’re selling your idea to your mates, and if they buy it, you get to watch whatever you want.

If an accountant thinks their ability to do their job well would be improved by adopting a new software solution, they will have to convince others within their organisation that this is a good decision. This is sales, too.

And believe it or not, getting what you want from your parents can also be a form of sales.

How Sales Skills Can Help You in Life

Most people look at entry level sales and retail jobs as being pointless. My experience has been just the opposite: they’ve prepared me more for success in the real world than any class I took at university.

Spending time in those roles teaches you to be resilient, to communicate and connect with a wide variety of people, and to present things in an attractive light supported by convincing arguments.

Those aren’t just skills that can help you sell crisps, they’re skills that help you become a better communicator in all areas of life.

You can learn these skills right now. If you have a retail or sales job, or if you find yourself talking to a lot of strangers, think about how you present the ideas you’re “selling.”

Consider the listener’s perspective — are you giving them the information they need? The emotional hooks that interest them? Put yourself in their shoes and share with their perspective in mind. And don’t be afraid to have a “missed sale.” That’s all part of the process.

This is real learning, and you’re picking up valuable skills. Don’t let anyone tell you an entry level job is pointless. Sales skills translate into many areas of life. The best way to build them is to get out in the world and start practising.

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.


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Financial Wisdom for Young People: How I Built Wealth By Investing in My Mind

Financial Wisdom for Young People: How I Built Wealth By Investing in My Mind

Are you the kind of person who spends hours researching the lowest price for a 500 pack of AA batteries? What about savings? Do you diligently sock away a percentage of your income each month without question?

This outlook might sound like the very definition of financial responsibility, but it won’t bring about financial security. Why? Because the problem isn’t about money. It’s about your mindset. 

More Money, More Spending

When I was 26 years old I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Purely by chance, I ended up taking a job as a real estate broker just before a massive housing boom swept the country. I was suddenly making more money than I had ever made before.

I didn’t rush out and buy cars, designer clothes, expensive champagne, or anything like that, but I still managed to burn through my salary as soon as it came in.

Most of my spending was on little things. I used taxis like public transport, travelled a lot, picked up the tab at the bar and in restaurants, etc. Food and entertainment weren’t really expensive, but because I spent without thinking, money never sat in my account for very long.

This attitude towards finances is careless and irresponsible. It doesn’t build anything for the future; not investments, not savings, nothing. It’s like turning on the tap and letting the water run straight down the drain.

Scarcity Begins

It didn’t take long for my money tap to run dry, and when it did, I was really, truly broke.

I was also annoyed with myself for having frittered away the considerable sums I’d been earning for close to three years. Like most people who find themselves in this situation, I vowed I would never go broke again.

I went back to London and crashed in my brother’s spare room. The only job I could get was a lower profile job in sales. London was far more expensive than Sofia, so I cut my expenses to the bare minimum. No unnecessary purchases, no travelling, no social outings. Paying for the Underground was painful enough.

This was the beginning of my scarcity mindset towards money. I was so worried about not having any cash I tried to save everything I could. That seemed like a smart plan, but it didn’t really put me in a better financial position in the long term, it just slowed my progress towards going broke.

Natalie Bacon has a wonderful summary of some of the thoughts someone trapped in a scarcity mindset might think. They include:

  • I don’t have enough money to do anything I want.
  • I have to work more hours to make more money.
  • I either have to do what I love or start making money.

Holding a scarcity mindset doesn’t mean you earn more money; it just stops you from losing what you have quite so fast. It’s better than a spend, spend, spend mindset, but not by much.

Finding Abundance

A few years later, I sold a business I was a shareholder in. The ensuing financial windfall helped shake me out of scarcity mode. It was just enough to let me survive off of part-time contract work for a few months without dipping into savings.

The benefits here were twofold. First, I wasn’t working 10-hour days for the first time in years. This gave me a chance to relax and collect myself. Second, I suddenly found myself with plenty of free time.

And what did I do with these extra hours? I invested in my future.

I spent a little money and a little time on online courses that taught me skills I was interested in learning. I wasn’t hoarding cash out of a fear of going broke, and I wasn’t blindly spending on transient everyday expenses, either. I used my money to invest in something that would pay back even more time and money – myself.

Just like that I had switched to an abundance mindset. I could finally see that money was a tool to help better myself, not something to be held onto out of desperation.

My focus now is on taking responsibility for my own life both personally and professionally. I exchanged the symptoms of a scarcity mindset for the attitudes of an abundance mindset:

  • I don’t have to work harder to create more money.
  • I can love my work and create a lot of money.
  • Giving money feels good (I love paying for a new course I’m excited about).
  • Debt means nothing about me.
  • Money is fun.

Investing in Yourself

How can you escape the scarcity mindset and move to abundance?

One method I found useful was to try something out, see if I liked it or learned something valuable, then decide if I would continue. That’s it. No pressure to succeed, no guilt for spending money, and no fear of failure. Money spent exploring my own curiosity one book, article, or online course at a time was money well-spent on my future.

Take a lesson from my wasted years and start today. Think of your mind as an asset, one that’s worth building up for long term rewards. Focus on developing your skills and, even more importantly, your mindset. Invest in yourself and don’t get sucked into the cycle of thinking about how much you “need” to earn, save, or invest every day.

You’ll almost certainly earn a lot more in the long term if you can break free from, or never fall into, the scarcity way of thinking and living. 

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.


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