How to build general skills

General skills not only help you with a narrow problem but can be used repeatedly to solve other problems.

But building general skills can be challenging because it is built from many specific ones. If you're prepared to do the work, you can find better ways to learn that can make breadth possible.

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Earlier theories of the mind - like the formal discipline theory - assumed that things like reason, language and attention were like muscles and that any activity strengthened them. It led to views that learning Latin and geometry was essential even though few students would use these skills.

Edward Thorndike disproved this theory in 1901. He formed a new theory known as the identical elements theory, which suggested that two problems must share common elements for one skill to apply to another.

Ideas influence thinking

Thorndike's replacement theory was not correct. He was wrong in thinking that only the superficial elements of a task needed to match.

An idea, as an abstract concept, can influence your thinking more on a broader range of problems than only memorising some steps in a procedure.

The power of ideas as a starting point

Learning ideas are useful to a point. To make a general idea useful, some key obstacles need to be overcome:

  • We need to notice the idea in other contexts. Research found that people tend not to apply patterns they learn to different domains unless prompted.
  • We need to change the idea to suit our current purposes.
  • Knowing about an idea is not the same as using it.

Ideas help, but it is just the start. Easy ideas in a field may be the only visible tip of deeper knowledge.

How to build general skills

People that develop expertise in multiple areas are able to solve a wide range of problems.

The key is to gain broadly valuable skills:

  • Breadth comes from specificity. General skills are built from large libraries of specific knowledge.
  • Deeply understanding more abstract ideas extends the range of your knowledge.
  • Visible knowledge is built on invisible ones. The easy facts depend on skills that are harder to spot.
  • Practice in various real situations because knowledge is not always expressed.

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