Meta-skills: Searching For Leading Indicators Of Nobel-like Performance

Dealing with a set of complex, dynamic, holistic, ambiguous problems seems like a daunting task. Many frame those as intellectually challenging puzzles, but many times they are simply unsolvable mysteries. Too many variables, too many difficult-to-ponder knowns and unkown unknowns. And yet sometimes there’s no other option but to go ahead. Enter meta-skills.

Meta-skills are simply skills that enable one to develop new skills. In other words, they comprise the most basic skill-set one can have. They are the leading indicators of future performance. While causation may confound many, reverse engineering for root causes reduces complex problems into simpler ones. For example, a helpful meta-skill is abstraction, which frequently makes things simple. The capacity to transport abstractions (or ‘mental models’) from field to field is a superpower.

Inspired by the speech of Richard Hamming from Bell Labs, I listed below some meta-skills that may lead to “Nobel-like performance”. Each one of the could be entire posts, but I do not intend to expend such an effort at this moment. Anyway, I understand expliciting those already adds value as time is our scarcest resource and the quick drop-list below already provides a “cheat sheet” for identifying pockets of potential outstanding performance, be it for HR processes or identifying great people at prospective investment companies.


  • Intelligently Applied Drive: commitment to be the best, mastery, preparation, repetition, effort

“Don’t settle for less.”

“Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.”

  • Self-Management: time allocation, empathy, self-awareness, capacity to put up with stress, surround yourself with the best, curiosity (seek new challenges)

“If you don’t know what’s important, it’s unlikely you will do outstanding work.”

  • Problem solving skills: critical thinking, creativity, imagination, abstraction, prospection and retrospection, capacity to deal with ambiguity, capacity to frame the problem from different points of view;

Why, what’s the evidence? What could make it change? Ponder nuances, think the problem through.

“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”

  • Communication skills: written & verbal, capacity to summarize and ponder the key variables of a problem-set;

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get anywhere.”

  • Independence: courage to be a thought leader, boldness;

“The real question is whether you dare to do the things that are necessary in order to be great. Are you willing to be different, and are you willing to bear the inescapable risk of being wrong? In order to have a chance of great results, you have to be open to being both.”

  • Execution: test your ideas. Make. Do. Create. Implement;

“If you want to do something, don’t ask, do it. Don’t give people a chance to tell you ‘no’.”

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” -Leonardo da Vinci


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