In its origin, the Greek word ‘meta’, used mainly as a prefix, translates into two common meanings: a change (as in metamorphosis), or beyond/above (as we are using it in this article). If you hear it being thrown around by itself, often relating to a creative work or something in popular culture, it takes its meaning from the latter, and is used to say that something is self-referential. That Escher sketch of the two hands drawing each other? Very meta.
When we talk about meta-skills, then, we’re talking about personal skills that are at a level above your technical skills. The skills that help you manage your other ones. There are various competing lists of what these meta-skills are – check out Marty Neumeier’s 10-question test to find out where you sit on his preferred list of five, for example – but the general idea is that having them at all is extremely beneficial for your learning, skill development, and overall self-awareness. When we think about the jobs market of the near future, we immediately realise that we are all going to have to learn new things quickly, often, and to a high level, if we have any chance of keeping up.
There are contending ideas about whether you can actually learn or teach these meta-skills in any structured way, or whether they are inherent attributes, or whether they can only be developed by hard-won experience. Part of my own research over the next few years will look into just this. But for the moment, what we can say for certain is that being more aware of and confident about the skills you have – and those you want to work towards having – certainly won’t do your career any damage.
The varying lists that abound of what precisely counts as a meta-skill can be confusing. Let’s take a look at just a few of them, to give you an idea. Maybe you can think of some more?
Looking at the bigger picture
This is what Neumeier, above, would describe as the ‘seeing’ skill. It means being able to assess a situation from all angles – your own, your customer’s, your employer’s, your colleague’s. I prefer to think of it as a sort of extended empathy. We often think of empathy as being in tune with someone who is struggling, but it’s not just struggles or individuals that need this connection! If you can get into the habit of trying to think about how another person or group feels about a situation, or might feel if a particular action is taken – and more importantly, why – then you are part of the way to learning how to see the bigger picture. There will be implications other than people, depending on your industry, of course, so you could also try to assess domino effects and build your knowledge of those tiny little rules and quirks that make some actions counterintuitively wrong. It’s a tough skill to develop, and means becoming aware of your biases and your own place in the system, and somewhat disregarding them.
How do you cope with change? How quickly? How happily? Unless you’re in an industry I’ve never heard of, you’ve probably had to do a fair bit of it already. Manufacturing, for example, has changed through the digitalisation of processes, meaning what you do when you turn up to work is becoming more and more computerised – an entirely different skillset to that of factory workers of old. It’s hard to alter your gut reaction to change; some people love it and some people hate it, and you might be internally grumpy about it forever. But you can get used to it, by practising on small things with low stakes. Ask a friend to teach you a new way to do something, or walk a different way home from work, or wear something you’ve never dared to before. The quicker you start adjusting to new ways of thinking, the more adaptable you’re becoming.
When considering your adaptability, it’s worth deciding if what you love about your job is the process, or the end result. Either one will open up a wide range of alternatives and progressions for you.
There we go with the Greek words again. Being an autodidact means that you can learn by yourself; you are a ‘self-teacher’. This is an important skill to have for life in general, because there comes a time when you shouldn’t need to rely on other people to give you information that is widely available, and it’s equally important in the workplace. If you can read a situation and understand what needs to be learned, find a way to learn it, and then conjure up the determination to actually do that learning, without anyone else requesting that you do it, and without feeling like you have to ask someone’s permission, you’ve got this one in the bag. Don’t leave it to someone else to figure out – that won’t help you in the long run. It’s also important to realise when you’re learning, and that you are learning, which isn’t always immediately obvious. Not every learning process comes with a calendar invite to a training session.
Naturally, these meta-skills can blur into one another quite easily, over the course of just being a human. It can also be quite hard to prove to employers that you have these skills; but definitely not impossible. Can you think of a way you might show in a CV that you have any of the above traits? In any case, it should give you some food for thought as you ponder how you fit into the world of work.
Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.