Today’s robots are primitive. They can do certain kinds of repetitious work fairly well, but their brittle skills cause them to fail if changes are introduced to their routines. This is not unlike our own Industrial Age skills, which have been mostly job-specific and not easily transferable to other tasks.
This higher-level understanding is the realm of metacognitive skills, or metaskills for short. They act more like guiding principles than specific steps, so they can be transferred from one situation to another without losing their effectiveness. Metaskills determine the how to, not the what to. They form the basis of what Americans call know-how, and what the French call savoir-faire, “to know to do.” They’re adaptable, not brittle.
Skill-based knowledge, unlike fact-based knowledge, can only come from doing. Sure, you can read about the theory of a golf swing, but until you master it in practice, you won’t have anything worth knowing. It’s not just about the mechanics of the club head arcing through space, it’s the feeling of the club in your hands, the way your body moves with the swing, and the state of your mind as you tell yourself where you want the ball to go. These things can’t be understood from a manual. You have to experience them firsthand.
Metaskills are no different, just pitched at a higher level of knowing. For example, if you’ve mastered the metaskill of playing sports, your broad range of experience may reveal some patterns that you can then transfer to golf, making that particular game easier to learn.
One advantage of computers is that they never get emotional. They’re not misled by their dreams or desires. They’re not seduced by the lazy answer or the simplistic story. They’re not subject to mood swings, and they’re not swayed by irrelevant data. In short, they don’t suffer from the cognitive biases that make humans so irrational. Computers simply follow the instructions they’ve been given—quickly and accurately. That’s their charm.
Intuition isn’t just for artists, scientists, or other professionals in so-called creative fields. It’s for anyone who has to make decisions or find solutions when there’s not enough information or time to be painstakingly thorough. It’s for the doctor whose patient presents a commonly found set of symptoms, and still something doesn’t “feel” quite right. Or the accountant who scans a balance sheet and without focusing on it finds an anomaly that seems to jump off the page. Or the mother who doesn’t hear any sounds coming from her child’s room and realizes that something is wrong. In other words, it’s for everyone who lives in the modern world. It’s the eyes in the back of your head, the extra sense that defies rational explanation
“Oh, I see,” your eye says. “In flattened space, the distance between that corner and that line is about half the distance between that edge and that point”—even though your knowledge of the three-dimensional world tells you something quite different. By constantly measuring the relative distances between points in two-dimensional space as you go, you can bring the drawing into some semblance of visual realism. The trick lies in overriding your beliefs, biases, and mental models—temporarily—through rigorous, rational discipline.
However, the human mind doesn’t like discipline. Discipline is hard work, exacting a cost in time, energy, and ego while we’re learning. It’s much easier to make our decisions quickly, go with the flow, and not expose ourselves to failure. In the West especially, we prefer decisions to be multiple choice rather than open and ambiguous. And when they are open and ambiguous, we try to shrink them down to a size we can deal with. The mind likes simple choices, and it loves a choice between opposites. “Either/or” propositions are so prevalent we hardly question them.
But we should.
Dreams don’t simply visit us. We actively create them while we’re unconscious, not unlike the way we create our perceptions while we’re awake. What makes dreams so fascinating is the absence of logical narrative. The word for dreaming in French is rêver—to rave, to slip into madness. Even though the scenes we create in our dreams may seem random or fantastical, their emotional trajectory often makes complete sense. Our emotions are fully engaged while our reasoning is disconnected.
What if we could harness this capability at will? Wouldn’t this provide the mental leap needed to connect the facts to a new conclusion? As it happens, there’s no other way to do it. Innovation needs a little controlled madness, like the controlled explosions of an internal combustion engine, to move it forward. Applied imagination is the ability to harness dreaming to a purpose. Innovators, then, are just practical dreamers.
The encouraging news from science is that people who have this talent are no smarter on average than other people. They’ve simply learned the “trick” of divergent thinking. Biographer Walter Isaacson described this quality in Steve Jobs: “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical.” Jobs had the ability to make connections that other people couldn’t see, simply because they couldn’t let go of what they already knew.
Leonardo was famous, or perhaps infamous, for taking months to complete a painting—if indeed he did complete it. Some say this is the reason there are so few Leonardo paintings extant. Whether that’s true or not, he did leave quite a bit of time between layers of paint. He felt that il discorso mentale, the mental conversation, was more important than the actual painting. The extra time gave him the mental space to reflect on the details—what to include, what to exclude, and how the elements might fit together to make a unified whole. To Leonardo, an artist didn’t learn to paint. He painted to learn.
Creativity is more than imagination. It’s imagination coupled with craft. It’s the metaskill of making. It envisions, embodies, elaborates. It develops, shapes, solves. It advances, iterates, proves. Note the lack of passive verbs in this list. Making is action. Unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty, your imagination will remain unrealized and uninformed.
All too often, says Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, “we try to push, pull, outline, and control our ideas instead of letting them grow organically. The creative process is one of surrender, not control.” By letting go our fears of looking foolish or wasting time, sketching or doodling can take us where we might not ordinarily go. Our experience with the subject we’re drawing, or the idea we’re pursuing, will be direct, undiluted, and free from the strictures imposed by our egos.
The future doesn’t belong to the present. And we don’t belong to our education. It belongs to us. We need to take responsibility not only for what we learn, but how we learn. As Howard Gardner said, “We need to be able to formulate new questions, and not just rely on tasks or problems posed by others.” More importantly, we need to be able to transfer learning from one context to another and not settle for rote answers.
Today’s students are not only rewarded for shallow learning, they’re punished for deep learning. Genuine learning requires going “offroad,” spending as much time as necessary to really understand a subject or a discipline. Traditional schools are simply not set up for this. If an ambitious student decides to buck the system and seek a genuine level of understanding, the outcome is likely to be a bad scholastic record
Instead of expecting traditional schools to do what they can’t do, take your education into your own hands. Use traditional courses for what they can do—introduce you to what’s broadly known—and use other vehicles to explore what’s not broadly known, what’s special to your own deep interests, and therefore more valuable to you. These vehicles might include apprenticeships, workshops, special projects, noncredit classes, online tutorials, or self-prescribed reading regimens. When you shift your focus from getting grades to gaining understanding, you set yourself on the road to mastery. You begin learning how to learn.