In many ways, school sets us up for failure.
The school system came to life during the Industrial Revolution to take care of the children of industry workers. It was cleverly designed to slowly transform free children into good workers.
This is not a conspiracy but a fact.
Since the late 1800s, the school system has remained largely unchanged.
It teaches us that everything is either right or wrong, a false dichotomy leaving us tribally invested in ideas.
It teaches us to obey authority and to not think for ourselves because either the teacher or the books know better.
It teaches us to do work that we have not chosen, during a time we haven’t chosen either.
Despite this, I’m going to make an argument that school is not useless. It’s not for the reason you may think.
I’m not here to act like your parent and tell you that school will get you a good job and a good life.
And even if you are not currently in school this will help you reframe your perspective so that what you are doing may fill a specified purpose.
Autonomy, Meaning & School
Autonomy, or the sense of freely making your own decisions, is one of the key factors in human well-being. But the overarching concept that underpins human flourishing is meaning.
Meaning is derived from a congruency of;
Purpose; a higher-order goal that we are aiming at.
Values; principles we stand upon when deciding what we should do so that we move one inch closer toward our aim.
Contol; a sense of autonomy in what direction our life takes (a sense that we are in control of where we go).
Self-worth; something derived from our alignment between actions and the three previously mentioned things.
For most of us, school misses all these points.
School is something we “have” to do, at least when we’re young. We usually learn about a bunch of stuff we are not interested in. And, we are forced to take tests on the information which then determines our future to some degree.
For many of us, we feel that what we are learning is useless. We do not choose what we learn, and what we learn has nothing to do with what we value.
To generate meaning from anything, all four points need to be active.
We can do this by using the concept of meta-skills.
Meta-skills & The Art of Meaning
Skills are temporary; meta-skills are permanent
There are an infinite amount of skills you could learn.
So, which ones should you focus on?
Meta-skills are skills that permeate a plethora of activities. They are skills that help us in all aspects of life.
Because of this, they can be improved by doing almost anything as long as you first become aware of them.
There are a few of these meta-skills that I think all humans, because of the fact that we are human, should focus on.
Instead of viewing maths as a subject, I would have no use for in life, I viewed it as a way of improving my,
The three skills would surely help me at any point in my future.
All of a sudden what I did during math lessons felt in my control. My actions aligned with a higher-order goal of increasing skills I knew would serve me for a long time.
This gave maths a purpose.
I also quickly realized this idea could be applied to all subjects. After that insight, I came to the conclusion that it could be applied to anything we do.
School, work, hobbies, hanging with, friends, travelling, etc.
If you view whatever you are doing through the lens of increasing your meta-skills you can derive a sense of meaning regardless of what you are doing.
Isn’t this the goal in life?
Feeling a sense of control over what you are doing, and why you are doing it?
Aligning what you are doing with what you value so that you generate a sense of self-worth while moving toward your purpose.
You don’t always get to choose what you are doing, but you always get to choose the purpose of why you are doing it.
Ask yourself, what character trait can I use this activity to improve that will help me for a very long time?
Assigning a purpose to what you are doing focuses your subconscious attention on what you should do. It allows you to do whatever moves you toward your defined goal.
If it’s to become more disciplined, you’ll become more disciplined.
If it’s to become a better speaker, you’ll become a better speaker.
If it’s to become more wise, you’ll become more wise.
Assigning a purpose is like giving a complicated algorithm (you) an objective function (purpose). All you then have to do is to act spontaneously in the moment.
A lot of suffering comes from the questioning of why you are doing what you are doing.
Defining a purpose helps us accept that what we are doing is what we are doing. It removes doubt and allows us to be fully immersed in the experience at hand.
Understanding the concept of meta-skills creates a simple way of aligning what you are doing with a common goal. And, as I have said before, humans need to at least feel as if they are improving to feel good.
Before I leave you to enjoy the rest of your day I’d like to go over some meta-skills I believe would benefit all humans, (and thus you).
Meta-skills; Aligning action with purpose
Meta-skill 1: Becoming good at becoming good at something
One thing that makes humans unique is our ability to learn new things and to become better at what we already know.
For many animals, it takes multiple generations before they succeed in solving an old problem. For us, it might not even take a day.
Our mental horsepower is what separates us in the animal kingdom. We constantly learn new things, in school, at work, or at home.
To become better at something entails putting ourselves inside of a given hierarchy and then slowly moving ourselves up it.
Think of whatever you are doing like a game or sport, something like jiu-jitsu.
The better we understand the rules of the game and the moves we can make the easier it is to practice. By doing this we can more easily determine the fastest way forward.
If you know the way broadly you will see it in all things.
Instead of focusing on the task at hand we can zoom out and focus on becoming better at becoming better.
By doing this we can disconnect our emotional attachment to what is happening right now and instead use it as a tool to become better over time.
The better we are at becoming good, the faster it becomes and the more things we can learn.
Here are three short tips to get the ball rolling.
1) Make a habit of learning new things
You can do this by attending online courses, reading books or taking on projects.
It does not need to be something intellectual but can be something physical or creative as long as it is of interest.
2) Take the online course Learning How To Learn (Free)
This is an amazing course on the fundamentals of how humans learn in the most efficient way possible.
3) Put things in a broader perspective
To understand what a tree is do not start with the details of the leaves.
How do the facts fit into the whole?
Start with the fundamentals, and work your way up from simplicity to complexity.
To first learn the intricate details and then derive a model the details fit into is difficult, ineffective and demanding. Start with the simplest model you can understand and increase the complexity over time.
Meta-skill 2: Focus in a world of distraction
As humans, we have an innate drive toward progress. We have always had to be one step ahead of the looming threat of death.
When this threat no longer exists it makes it hard for us to have to motivation to do hard things.
In Digital Minimalism, one of my favourite authors Cal Newport makes the case that the skill of focus is one of the most valuable skills to have. This is because, in the age of information overload, this skill is slowly being lost.
The fewer people that have something the more valuable it becomes.
Focus works like a muscle. The more you train it the better it becomes.
We need to actively do demanding activities during a period of time. After a period of rest, we can go into a period of focus again.
If we do this, day after day, and slowly increase the time spent in absolute focus, our focus muscle will grow in size, and become stronger and more resilient.
But, most of us have a hard time focusing on something demanding for more than ten minutes.
However, people who have grown their focus muscle for decades can spend hours in deep focus every single day.
Just look at this video and tell me you are not inspired to “work out”.
Focus is the tool we use to get things done, and to derive meaning we need to get things we want done. If we work on our focus muscle we increase the amount of things we can get done in a week, a month and a year.
We also increase the amount of time spent on things that give us meaning, things that are demanding and fill a purpose.
In other words, we move our life in a direction we’ve chosen, we become more effective at moving us there, and we spend more time on things we find meaningful.
Meta-skill 3: Adaptability, the skill for a dynamic life
We continuously change while living in a constantly changing environment.
Circumstances outside of our control change all the time. The future is, and always will be, unpredictable.
We will be met with setbacks regardless if we want to or not.
Some are better than others at handling life’s inherent unpredictability.
As humans, we have inbuilt mechanisms that make it difficult to see reality for what it is. We twist and turn things even if the twisting most often is counterproductive.
To develop adaptability we need to learn how to see circumstances for what they are and not for what we want them to be.
Let’s learn how to do this.
There are three subcategories of adaptability (that all are their own meta-skills):
We need to get to know ourselves as unique individuals and humans.
Here, evolutionary biology and psychology are excellent areas to study. The more we understand humans generally the more we understand ourselves practically.
And, the more we understand ourselves the easier it will be to notice when we do, think or say something that is not aligned with ourselves.
We are problem-solving machines. Becoming a better problem solver will permeate your entire life.
You can do this by actively solving more problems, or researching how to solve problems in the most efficient way. I recommend you look up the concept of reasoning from first principles.
This meta-skill is all about the ability to handle demanding situations. You increase it by voluntarily exposing yourself to demanding activities.
I wrote an entire previous newsletter on this (you can read it here).
Humans are an animal that needs to improve to feel good.
It’s how we generate a sense of self-worth and the motivation to move forward toward whatever goal we have chosen.
If we do things we “have” to do that we think are “useless” we need to either change what we are doing or change our perspective. I recommend the latter as it is easier.
What meta-skill can be developed through the activities you are doing anyway?
View meta-skills as character traits you want to develop. Assign a meta-skill as the purpose of the activity. Now use the activity to move toward your goal (purpose).
What you are doing now fills a productive purpose in your life making it easier to accept that what you are doing is what you want to be doing.
Only once the doubt is removed are we allowed into the present to enjoy the moment at hand.
The moment is the place we are all striving to exist within. Just look at any spiritual practice ever created.
What meta-skills do you want to improve?
And until next Sunday, do what makes your future self proud.