Friday, November 30, 2012

Meta-Skills and How to Gain Them

By Glenn Campbell in Istanbul

When you visit a new city, you gain a lot of practical information about it. You learn the main streets, how to navigate the public transit system and what the most interesting areas are. Many of these raw facts may have been available to you on the internet before you left home, but only by going there do you learn how all they all fit together.

If you visit a lot of new cities, you begin to gain a different set of skills. You learn the patterns that most cities follow and the things you can expect from all of them. You also learn general rules for how to approach a new city, so you find the most important parts fast and avoid making costly mistakes. After having visited ten European cities, the eleventh is easy, because you already know how European cities work and have developed a set of cognitive tools for dealing with them.

These higher level rules could be called "meta-skills". A meta-skill is a kernel of pragmatic knowledge that applies to a wide variety of circumstances including ones you have never directly experienced before. Because meta-skills are portable across many environments, they are extremely valuable, much more so than any specific knowledge of a single place or problem.

Life is the process of accumulating meta-skills. Or at least it ought to be. As you gain specific experience in the real world you should be distilling it into universal rules that will help you in a wide variety of endeavors. With a rich toolbox of meta-skills, your passage through life becomes easier. You get more done in areas you know are important and spend less time on meaningless distractions. When new problems arise, even those you have never experienced before, you have a set of tools to deal with them

Meta-skills can help you to understand and deal with other people, even those you have never met before in cultures you have no experience with. One of the great benefits of foreign travel is learning not how people are different but how they are the same. In every culture there are uptight ones and relaxed ones, people you can trust and people you can't. They are all motivated by basically the same things, and you deal with them more effectively by learning how those motivations work everywhere on Earth.

But the most important meta-skills concern yourself. After testing yourself in a variety of circumstances and failing in many of them, you begin to understand your own weaknesses and how you can become your own worst enemy. When disaster befalls you in adulthood, in most cases you can trace it to a foolish mistake you made. Somebody robbed you, but you gave them an easy target. Someone broke your heart, but your own expectations of them were deluded. Understanding how things that happen to you arise from your own actions is a fundamental meta-skill but a remarkably difficult one to learn. All children believe in magic, where the rules of cause and effect are suspended. Maturity is learning to deduce the real underlying mechanisms behind the things that happen to you.

The most valuable meta-skills involve managing your own ego, so it does not distort your vision or lead you to self-sabotage. Ego arises from our personal emotional investments. When we become engaged in a certain path and spend a lot of our resources supporting it, we have made an ego investment. As our investment builds up, seeing things any other way damages our self-esteem and can be extremely painful. If we happen upon a new path better than the one we have already invested in, we are tempted to close our eyes to it, even actively suppress it, because the cost to our past investments is so great. We would rather shoot the messenger than accept the message. Of course, the message will usually come back to haunt us in a different form, but by the time it returns we may have already done great damage to ourselves. Instead of spending two years in a failed marriage we may spend seven years in it because our huge emotional investment in it has disrupted our ability to see what is obvious to everyone else.

The ego management meta-skill lies in correcting for our own inevitable distortions and self-deceptions. After making a number of stupid, disastrous, ego-based decisions, we may learn to recognize our own investment bias, subtract it from our perception and see our own actions as an outsider would. "That's a stupid idea," is something we should learn to tell ourselves without waiting for the world to tell us in a more painful way.

Learning how our own ego works can contribute to the further meta-skill of predicting it in others. Every individual around the world is driven by ego. Each has made his own emotional investments and is very sensitive about any challenges to them. Part of our meta-experience is learning how difficult it is to change these patterns in others. When you meet someone, they have already traveled substantially along their investment path, and it is not usually within your power to change them. Instead, your role is usually to navigate around their sensitivities so as to not trigger a defensive reaction. If you want to get along with humans, from Dakar to Detroit, you learn to tiptoe around their questionable investments and navigate instead to the things you have in common.

Meta-skills are not always easy to put into words. Much of this knowledge is non-verbal and non-shareable. Finding yourself in a new situation, it may remind you of old experiences, so you dredge up that data for relevant lessons. Having had a lot of past experiences gives you a lot of tools to work with. This tends to give a natural advantage to older people, who have had more time to assemble their toolbox, but age isn't the only factor. We know there are plenty of stupid old people and few young ones who learn quickly. As important as raw experience may be, you also have to use it well.

So how do you obtain these tools? What are the meta-skills of learning meta-skills?

First, you need a lot of real-world experiences, because these are the raw materials for all meta-skills. Books, websurfing and formal education can give you a useful body of background knowledge, but that's not the same as firsthand experience. Reading a hundred books about France is no substitute for actually going to France. When you do go, you'll probably find that most of those books were bullshit. They may have been factually accurate but not relevant to life on the ground. Only when you start to personally interact with the world do you have a chance to test your theories and make mistakes, and mistakes are the starting point of all meta-knowledge.

If you are young, you don't have a lot of experiences to draw on, so your logical action is: Go out and get them! Travel is a good source of experiences if you can afford it. If you can't, then try exploring a variety of jobs, people and places within the universe that is accessible to you. When you are young, it is important to have a lot of experiences in a lot of different environments and not get hung up on any one of them. It is fine to experiment with just about anything except fatal risks, addictive drugs and long-term commitments.

People's growth slows when they let themselves get trapped in a single environment and lifestyle. If you spend your whole life in Paris and never leave, you may develop an encyclopedic knowledge of its streets and attractions, but that is not meta-knowledge. It's not helping you with other places and circumstances beyond Paris. To develop meta-skills, at least geographical ones, you need to experiences other cities, and as soon as you do you'll start assembling rules with more universal utility. The funny thing about exploring beyond your home environment is that when you come back you'll start seeing it in a whole new light. If you gain experience in a few other cities and then come back to Paris, you will probably begin to see things there that you never would have noticed otherwise.

But raw experiences aren't everything. You also have to take the time to process those experiences and integrate them into a higher schema. It isn't enough to have things happen to you; you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what has happened to you. If you make a big mistake, as all of us do, you have to turn it over and over in your mind, analyzing it for potential future lessons. We don't learn a lot from our successes but our failures are a gold mine, provided we don't run away from them but distill them for their truth.

To assemble meta-skills, you have to allow yourself a substantial amount of unprogrammed thinking time. Sitting in your room staring at a wall is good. Watching TV or reading a book is not, at least in terms of helping you process past experiences. Learning doesn't come from the experience itself; it comes from analyzing the experience afterwards and distilling lessons from it. This takes time and uninterrupted brainpower. Great revelations about your own past and future can come to you on the train to work, but not if you have an iPod plugged into your ears.

A healthy ratio of processing time to experience time can be huge! It is okay to spend ten hours thinking about a ten second experience if that experience is one you never expected. From the unexpected often comes the most useful meta-knowledge. That's the kind of experience you should go out of your way for! There is little to be gained from going back to somewhere you went before or repeating the same activities you are already familiar with. The greatest learning comes from novel experiences that push you out of your comfort zone. You don't have to push yourself into danger, just out of the path you would normally take. If you have to travel ten times to a distant city, why not take ten different routes? Instead of vacationing in the same place as last year, why not a different place, one that stretches your limits?

Comfort is no friend of growth. You learn a lot more from a painful experience than from one where everything goes as planned, so you shouldn't enter into a new endeavor with the sole aim of "succeeding" at it. The education lies in making the attempt and seeing what happens. Sometimes success can even get in the way of growth, because it can lock you into whatever path you were following at the time it occurred.

If you intend to build meta-skills, you need to judiciously avoid permanent solutions and long-term commitments. If you are already locked into a fixed path, then personal growth can be almost impossible because you can't change course in response to what you learn. It is better to construct your life from a series of short-term, ad-hoc solutions whenever possible. Engaging in any almost any meaningful activity requires some sort of commitment of your future time and attention, but to assimilate whatever you learn along the way you must retain the freedom to change. This is part of what separates people who never learn life's lessons from those who learn them quickly and easily.

Meta-skills involve processing life's lessons on an ever-higher plane. Instead of just learning how one city works, you try to understand how all of them work. Take your experiences with a few people and expand them into universal observations about human behavior. Instead of just asking, "Why did this happen to me?" ask "Why does this happen at all?" and figure out ways to avoid this kind of disaster in the future.

Meta-skills at the highest level are called "wisdom". You gain it by stepping out into the real world, making mistakes and learning from them. There is no wisdom without experience, but the truly wise distill the greatest possible value from every experience, good or bad. The wise also engineer their future experiences to gain even more wisdom.

If you want facts, go to the internet. Wisdom isn't about that. Wisdom is a finely tuned method of processing the world based on past experience. You gain it through real-world engagement and a fair amount of detached meditation. You can live on a mountaintop if you want, but you must also to visit the village and haggle in the marketplace, because those are the places your wisdom comes from.