If I could choose just a handful of skills you must learn to be a successful engineer, being metacognitive would certainly be among them. What is metacognition? OOne of my favorite books on the virtue ethic applied to mental skills defines it thus—

Metacognitive people are concerned not just with what they need to know but with what thinking strategies are best suited to achieve that end. —Philip Dow, Virtuous Minds

The concept is simple. Implementation, as always, is the hard part. Particularly as engineers, we spend a lot of time thinking about technique. We ask questions like—

  • How do I configure this?
  • How would I use this technology?
  • What is the problem here?
  • Why would I want to do it that way?

These technos focused questions are great for solving day to day, or even no-so-day-to-day problems. But they aren’t so great for mental growth? Why not? Imagine you are tasked with cutting wood for a living. You might start out by simply cutting the wood. You place a piece on the block, swing the axe, and the splits fall off. You can consider this the what of cutting wood (or, for those who are interested in philosophy, the efficient cause). Then you notice the axe gets dull, and you find that sharpening it makes cutting wood easier. Or you notice that the wood seems to have a grain, and if you align the grain a certain way, or split from one end instead of the other, it splits much more easily. Now you are asking why questions (the material cause, perhaps), which will help you improve your effective splitting speed.

Lets say you spend 20 years splitting wood, and you get really good at it. At the end of that twenty years, what are you going to be good at? Splitting wood. You will not grow as a person, and you will have limited growth even as a wood worker, by figuring out how to split wood efficiently.

But what if you ask, “How am I splitting wood? How do I hold my body, and what do I need to think about when splitting wood to become a better wood splitter?” When you start examining yourself, abstracting yourself as a person, then you are moving into the metacognitive. In the world of network engineering, metacognitive questions are things like—

  • What skill do I need to learn next, and why?
  • How am I thinking about this problem? Is there a more efficient way to think about this problem?
  • What model can I learn from the way this technology is designed, and how can I apply this model to other technologies?

Metacognitive thinking goes beyond the what, the how, and the why (in the material or efficient sense), and into a new realm of why. Being metacognitive is being intentional about what you learn, and considering not only what you learn, but how you learn.

If you can learn how to learn, you can learn anything.

This is a classic metacognitive statement. It is actually quite difficult to keep your head in the metacognitive. I have to set aside time periodically (about once every other week) to intentionally think through how I’m thinking, and to be intentional about developing habits and thought patterns that help me learn, read, write, and simply perform better.

A great place to start is with the book I mentioned above—Virtuous Minds—which is on my list of 60 books.

One Comment

  1. Venkata Dendukuri 15 February 2017 at 8:54 pm

    What I would say is more than skill set, skills are required.

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