The most important meta-skill

Note: This ar­ti­cle un­der­went a sig­nifi­cant re­vi­sion on 5/​28/​2015. Thank you to es­ti­ma­tor for all your feed­back.

The most im­por­tant meta-skill that any­one can learn is how to learn skills. With prac­tice, you learn how to pick up new skills as they are needed, which is in­finitely (quite liter­ally) more effi­cient than try­ing to learn each skill in­di­vi­d­u­ally in ad­vance.

There are two ba­sic premises that this method re­lies on:

  1. A skill can be even­tu­ally be bro­ken down into a se­ries of triv­ial sub-skills.

  2. The skill and its sub-skills fol­lows a Pareto dis­tri­bu­tion.

The Pareto prin­ci­ple states that typ­i­cally, 80% of a sys­tem’s effects can be linked to 20% of their causes. Or in this case, learn­ing 20% of the triv­ial sub-skills will make you 80% profi­cient at the over­all skill. Em­piri­cally, many sys­tems, both ar­tifi­cial and nat­u­ral have been proven to fol­low this dis­tri­bu­tion, and skills are no ex­cep­tion. This guide is in­tended to teach you how to iden­tify that 20%.

What lies be­low this is al­most 1,000 words to de­scribe some­thing that’s ul­ti­mately about con­dens­ing things and tak­ing short­cuts. So, to be true to this at­ti­tude, I’ll start with the “20% ver­sion”, and those so in­clined can con­tinue to read the other 80%.

  1. Break the skill you want to learn into sev­eral sub-skills.

  2. For each sub-skill, ask “Is this triv­ial?” If so, add that to your “triv­ial list”. If not, re­peat steps 1-2 for each sub-skill. Con­tinue to iter­ate un­til all you have left is a list of triv­ial sub-skills.

  3. For each triv­ial sub-skill, ask, “How can this go wrong, and what can I do if it does?” Add this to your list of back-up plans, un­less it is re­dun­dant.

  4. Sort your list of sub-skills by how easy they will be to learn, then start learn­ing and prac­tic­ing them. Any time some­thing goes wrong or you en­counter a situ­a­tion you did not ac­count for, use one of your back-up plans.

  5. Re­peat steps 1-4 for any sub-skills you en­counter that you did not ac­count for.

So, that was the short ver­sion. If you find you need more con­text, here goes. Note that the first premise uses the word “triv­ial”, which then begs the ques­tion: “What makes a sub-skill triv­ial?” A con­ve­nient an­swer to that is: “If you per­son­ally feel suffi­ciently con­fi­dent that you can do it.” Or, in other words, “Can you look up how to do it on the in­ter­net?” Which means, if the prob­lem it­self is triv­ial, you don’t need to bother with this. Just look up a guide on­line.

Most skills are too com­pli­cated for some­one to sit down and an­a­lyze ev­ery pos­si­ble sub-skill needed to ac­com­plish it. For­tu­nately, you don’t have to. Your goal isn’t to learn all the sub-skills, its to learn the im­por­tant 20%. The over­all effi­ciency of a sub-skill is a func­tion of two things: how how in­te­gral it is to the over­all skill, and how easy it is to learn. You’re go­ing to let Sys­tem 1 do most of the heavy lift­ing here.

For­tu­nately, our brains are pretty good at pat­tern-match­ing. Goals are high-level con­cepts whose mean­ings are de­rived from the com­bi­na­tion of sev­eral pat­terns and archetypes that you’ve got stored away some­where. When you say, “I want to learn a for­eign lan­guage”, your brain im­me­di­ately starts filling in the pat­terns of what ex­actly that means. It starts iden­ti­fy­ing the things that are in­te­gral to your idea of the con­cept. Then it com­bines them into one co­her­ent con­cept, and that’s what you’re left with. The trou­ble is, most peo­ple don’t pre­serve these in­di­vi­d­ual pat­terns be­fore com­bin­ing them, and thus they’re left with some­thing that’s purely con­cep­tual, rather than ac­tion­able. “I want to learn a for­eign lan­guage” or “I want to learn to code” or “I want to learn so­cial skills”.

So just let your brain go to work do­ing what it already does, but pay at­ten­tion dur­ing the pro­cess and iden­tify the key com­po­nents be­fore they get mushed into a con­cept. Make Sys­tem 1 tell you “You want to be able to con­verse, in­ter­act, and func­tion in a so­ciety that speaks a differ­ent lan­guage,” in­stead of just, “You want to learn a for­eign lan­guage.” Re­mem­ber that you don’t need to iden­tify all the com­po­nents. Just the ones that are im­por­tant enough for Sys­tem 1 to dredge up on a mo­ment’s no­tice. Most likely, these will be the 20% that you’re look­ing for. Of course, chances are the ini­tial out­put is go­ing to be a high level con­cept unto it­self. There’s no “to-do list” for “be­ing able to con­verse in a so­ciety that speaks a differ­ent lan­guage”. So you put Sys­tem 1 to work again. What ex­actly do I mean by that? “Oh, what you mean is: you want to be able to ask and un­der­stand both ques­tions and an­swers, and be able to ex­press your thoughts.

Even­tu­ally you’ll reach the point of triv­ial­ity. You’ll have a siz­able list of triv­ial tasks such as “You want to be able to say the fol­low­ing twenty ba­sic sen­tences: XYZ”, and You want to know the fol­low­ing 100 ba­sic vo­cab­u­lary words: ABC.” and “You want to be able to iden­tify the most com­mon ar­ti­cles, prepo­si­tions and con­junc­tions.” Here’s where Sys­tem 2 goes to work: you look at this big list and ask your­self, which of these would be eas­iest for me to ac­com­plish? And then you sort the list ac­cord­ingly.

Voila. There’s your roadmap.

Now, all of this is fine and good, but at some point you will en­counter a situ­a­tion that doesn’t fall un­der this con­ve­nient lit­tle roadmap you’ve fol­lowed. So you want to make a backup plan. Sys­tem 2 needs to look over your roadmap and ask: “How can this go wrong, and what can I do if it does?” If you do this for each item on your list, chances are there will be a lot of du­pli­cates and re­dun­dan­cies, which you can pare down. When all is said and done, you’ll have a few plans of ac­tion in case things go wrong.

So, you have a roadmap to guide you through the 20%, and a gen­er­al­ized plan for the other 80%. What now?

Well, there’s always room for im­prove­ment. If you do things right, you’ll be pretty well im­mersed in the nitty-gritty of what­ever skill you are try­ing to learn, which means you will be get­ting loads of first-hand ex­pe­rience as to all the differ­ent ways things can go wrong which you prob­a­bly never could have an­ti­ci­pated. And you’ll run in to sce­nar­ios that make you say, “I can’t be­lieve I didn’t think about that.”

For­tu­nately you don’t need to get things perfect on the first try. If you en­counter a situ­a­tion you didn’t ac­count for it, then ac­count for it. Ask your­self what hap­pened, and let Sys­tem 1 go to work on break­ing it down. If some­thing goes wrong in a way you hadn’t thought about, come up with a sep­a­rate plan for that. Even­tu­ally your model will be­come more and more ro­bust as you start to learn many of the fun­da­men­tals that you prob­a­bly skipped over when you made your roadmap.

There seem to be two differ­ent types of learn­ing styles, the “aca­demic” way of start­ing with the fun­da­men­tals and build­ing from the ground up, and the “im­mer­sion” method of just throw­ing some­one into the deep end of the pool and work­ing from the top-down. This method com­bines both: you learn the fun­da­men­tals of the things that are nec­es­sary to im­merse your­self. In­stead of be­ing “top-down” or “bot­tom-up”, this is more like, “start at the bot­tom, skip to the top, then work your way back down through the mid­dle.”