Different Kinds of Skills

in Ability

It's tempting to think of ourselves like characters in a video game, with a certain fixed pool of pre-programmed skills we can't ever deviate from. That's how I used to think of myself. As a kid, I was good at running, reading, and programming, but I couldn't do math, or sing, or-- this is a little embarrassing-- tie my shoes. But eventually, I discovered a powerful "meta-skill", the ability to pick up whatever new skills I wanted. I learned how to teach myself new abilities. I didn't even need a teacher-- just a book, or even just a website.

Let's take a look at some of the different types of skills in the world.


An innate skill is one you have from birth. A learned skill is one you pick up at some point later in life, from a classroom or a book or a teacher or any other method. Certain abilities obviously fall in one category or the other. The ability to pilot a jet is obviously not something anyone had when they came out of the womb. On the other hand, the ability to see colors is something you're born with (provided you're not totally color blind).

That last example seems almost trivial; seeing colors is hardly really a "skill", so much as it's just something built into your body. As a matter of fact, the ONLY innate skills are trivial ones like this. This is a good thing, because it means you can acquire any other skill you like-- including ones which some people mistakenly think are innate.

The best example is math. A common complaint is: "I'm just not any good at math." This sentiment reflects a belief that people are simply born being good at math, or not. This is an unempowering belief system, leaving us at the whims of fate. I was terrible at math until the seventh grade. I thought I was just born that way. Then one day I was seduced by the beautiful illustrations in Euclid's "Elements", and as I read through the ancient propositions in that book, I realized math was learnable. Now I'm a third year math PhD student!


Another way to divide skills up is to distinguish hobbies from chores. A hobby ability is something you do for fun, something that makes you feel like a child again, something you'd do even if you weren't being paid. Chores are things we do to put food on the table. For most people, playing cards is a hobby, while washing the dishes is a chore.

What determines whether an ability is a hobby or a chore, is whether we do it because we choose to or because we're forced to. But here, again, the dichotomy isn't quite what it seems. The truth is, we're hardly forced to do anything. An accountant is not forced to do accounting: he always has the choice of quitting his job. Even a soldier doesn't have to fight, having the choice to opt for court martial and jail instead.

So with the exception of the basics like breathing and eating, every chore is something which we chose to do. No matter how lousy someone's job is, they're there because they chose to be there, and they can leave at any time. Yes, I am saying what you think I'm saying: every chore is a hobby. This counterintuitive claim reflects a deeper metaphysical property of the universe: we all get exactly what we want-- just sometimes we don't really know or direct our deepest inner desire.


This division isn't really a division, but a hierarchy: every meta-ability is an ability, but not vice versa. The "meta" prefix indicates that the ability acts upon other abilities. For example, when I learned that it was possible to teach myself whatever skill I desire, that's an example of a metaskill: the ability to learn any skill. Other examples include the ability to teach any skill, the ability to analyze any skill, the ability to write about any skill, and so on.

The coolest thing about these "meta" abilities is that they can act on themselves recursively. For example, as someone with the meta-ability to teach myself any skill, in particular I can teach myself more about self-teaching. Someone who can teach any skill, can, in particular, also teach that teaching ability.


Be wary of buying into arbitrary divisions among talents-- there's usually more to these divisions than meets the eye. When in doubt, always go with whichever belief is more empowering. Whether you're right or wrong, you're more empowered either way. Even if a limiting belief were true, it would still be limiting.

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Samuel Xander has 1 articles online

I wrote a whole article about Metaskills at my blog, Glowing Face Man.

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Different Kinds of Skills

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This article was published on 2010/04/02