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5 meta-skills to supercharge every aspect of your life

Being a specialist used to be the way forward, but the future belongs to people who can adapt to any given scenario on a dime.

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  • Meta-skills are talents that inform every domain of life and govern your ability to improve other skills.
  • There are many meta-skills out there, but feeling, seeing, dreaming, making, and learning are likely the most important when trying to remain competitive in the modern world.
  • Automation is going to reduce the demand for specialists; mastering these skills will make you a stronger individual in the automated future.


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.

1. Feeling

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.

2. Seeing

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.

3. Dreaming

Meta-skills

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

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.

4. Making

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.

5. Learning

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.


Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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