Skills and meta-skills

One issue that always amazes people is why so many Ivy Leaguers go into investment banking and consulting. I’ve talked in the past about risk-aversion and choice overload as some causes for these questionable career choices, but recently I’ve started thinking about another culprit, the very idea of a liberal arts education. Let me explain.

The idea of a liberal arts education is that it teaches us to learn. We don’t learn specific skills, but rather meta-skills that allow us to learn any other skills later in life should we need them. If it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, then it’s even better to teach him how develop new methods of procuring food. As far as education goes, liberal arts, done effectively, is about as good as it gets, and after hearing their virtues extolled throughout our education, it’s understandable that we hold these meta-skills in high regard.

Enter i-banks and consultancies. One of their major selling points: we will give you skills that you will be able to apply anywhere. This argument falls on eager ears; the students think, hey, someone is going to pay me huge money for two years to learn the type of skills I learned at an Ivy League school? Awesome! And it isn’t just the banks that have caught on with this sales pitch (I’m looking at you, Teach for America).

Leaving college is a big step. For the first time in your life, there isn’t really a pre-defined sense of how you should be spending your time. There’s this sense that graduation is the moment you choose your life path – that everything before that day was preparation and everything after that day is your contribution to society. I think a lot of students really internalize this viewpoint to some extent, at the cost of their mental health. Unsure about what they want their contribution to society to be, they think, well, it won’t hurt to build more skills for when I do figure out.

I think all this raises two problems. The first is more straightforward: how applicable an experience at a consultancy or i-bank actually is to careers outside of consulting and banking? You learn how to work long hours, which can be useful, but I’ve see plenty of people burnt out and come out of those jobs saying, “I’ll never put in those kinds of hours again.” There are other skills as well, but I can’t think of many good arguments why consulting skills are so much more valuable than the skills you pick up anywhere else. Two that are definitely missing are managing people and making big-picture decisions, skills you can more easily develop in less prestigious operations where your educational background is seen as having a greater premium.

The second problem is harder: how do you balance between meta-skills and tangible ones? At what point do we have enough of the former and can focus on the latter? You can teach a person skills that will allow her to derive fishing and other ways of feeding herself, but at some point, she has to pick one of those ways and actually learn it. Otherwise, she has a lot of potential, without anything useful to show for it.

So should we be looking for jobs after college that will increase our meta-skill set? I doubt it. After 16 years of top-level education, the typical graduate from a good university “gets school.” They’ve had to master the sort of skills that school has required. On the other hand, there are a lot of skills that their education hasn’t touched with a ten foot pole. Granted, there are plenty of meta-skills that school hasn’t taught (hello, emotional intelligence), and I’m sure there are plenty of non-meta skills to learn at a consultancy (PowerPoint! Pie charts! Bullshitting!), but I would guess that most freshly minted grads aren’t thinking about these. Instead, they’ve been successful at a liberal arts education their whole lives, and think they’re being given a chance to continue that run of success. It’s also a great excuse to postpone thinking about what they “really want to do with their life.”*

That’s the paradox of a liberal arts education. It prepares you to do so much, and yet it doesn’t give you a sense that you’ve finished preparing. It forces you to develop meta-skills, which is great, but after 16 years of hearing how great and valuable those skills are, it’s hard for graduates to get out of that mind frame and apply their hard-earned meta-skills to learning real ones. Critical thinking becomes the proverbial childhood blanket.

*And by a great excuse I mean a terrible excuse. Mini-rant: I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something like “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, so I’ll just do banking for a few years, earn some money, and then see” or “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, so I’ll just do grad school for a few years, get some more credentials, and then find something that really fits my interest.” Wrong. You won’t “see” or “find” anything. Saying that is like saying “Well, I don’t know what kind of girls/guys I’m interested in, so I’m going to live in a monastery for a few years and think about it, and then find someone when I leave.” The only way you’ll find something you care about is by trying things until you hit on something. Do you think you’ll have time for a lot of soul searching when you’re working 100-hour weeks? Similarly, if you didn’t find anything worth devoting your life to in college, what makes you think that grad school will produce the answers you’re looking for? You’re postponing making a decision, one that will be all the more difficult after your self-imposed grace period expires.

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5 Responses to “Skills and meta-skills”


  1. 1 Ruth June 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Ooooh, grad school rant smarts a bit.

    Totally agree that grad school is a terrible place to sort out what you want to do with your life. That said, having figured out some interests and chosen a program with care (not all are just a continuation of liberal arts undergrad), it can be a pretty efficient place to pick up some of those specific, tangible (what’s the opposite of meta?) skills.

    • 2 JSC7 June 3, 2010 at 11:21 pm

      No, I’m with you on that. I’m sure even consulting and i-banking can have good rationales for doing them, and grad school all the more so. If you know what you want to study, and, perhaps more importantly, have a sense of how you’ll want to apply what you study after you graduate, then I think it’s hard to criticize going that route.

  2. 3 M July 3, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    While your analogy is biting, it sort of fails for me because romantically I’ve pretty much been living in a monastery and thinking about stuff for a few years before I come out and find somebody. But, while I might be failing at life in this aspect, at least I’m not in grad school or finance.

    Here’s my thesis about why so many Harvard grads (and those from other similar college) go into finance: after 4+ years of having our self-confidence shattered by constant internalization of competition, of measuring our self-worth by our accomplishments and thus constantly internalizing feelings of worthlessness, we’re desperate to go back to the way things were in high school. In high school, see, we got really good at switching on automatic, and of plowing through work without even knowing what we’re doing or understanding how we are doing it. But that only works when we’re given structure, it only works when the each successive step is clearly laid out. But that breaks down during and especially after college, when we need to create our own structures and meaning; with our shattered self-worth, taking on this task is overwhelming. But, see, i-banking and consulting offer a way out: through those, we can go back on automatic. Even the application process, the e-recruiting, gives us structure all perfectly laid out. We don’t have to think anymore. While it’s certainly not easy to do, it is the easy way out, because we can switch onto automatic and then be working hard without it being very hard to do. Then, we go on to work 70+, 100+ hour weeks, and again, we’re working hard, but it’s not hard work because we’re doing it all on automatic.

    This leads into larger theses of mine relating to the role of metaphysical structure in directing our lives…

    • 4 JSC7 July 5, 2010 at 12:14 am

      I totally agree with you, and this post wasn’t meant to be a definitive answer to the post-college choice problem, it was just a thought experiment about an issue that might be one aspect of it. I agree that a big portion is people’s need for structure and objective evaluation – I sort of covered that point in ‘School is not for Revolution’.

      The only quibble I have with the way you put it is that I don’t think that Harvard, among the population of people who go run into the issues we’re talking about, shatters student self-confidence in the way you describe. I think they succeed at Harvard precisely for the reasons they succeeded before it and after it, because they could follow a system well rather than create anything original. I think if your self-esteem were that shattered, you might not even bother reaching out to something like e-recruiting, especially since it pushes an image of soaking up the Harvard elite.


  1. 1 Fame and awkwardness « Joint Stock Company Trackback on June 3, 2010 at 11:34 am

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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