I can clearly recall the first ‘meta’ thought I encountered. I was sitting in the first day of high school in my first English class, and the professor began with the year with the question of What is a Word?
Why? Up to that point, I had been so head down and focused on taking the tools of learning and applying them, I had never stopped to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Meta-thinking or meta-analysis it to analyze something at a higher level. Investor Howard Marks terms this as second-order thinking.
If we never step back to consider the big picture, we are no better than Neo not realizing he is still plugged into the Matrix.
For English class to understand stories or poetry, it pays to consider their primary sub-component, words. From there, you can build a more thorough framework about how words are arranged to construct phrases, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, or whole novels.
This is not unique to just literature. All around us, various games are being played that are influencing our behavior. To be successful, we have to see where these games are, and respond accordingly.
Have you ever watched a sporting game with a former professional athlete? They are able to show you not just what is happening on the field, but the why? They known and understand the game at such a deep level, they can have a meta-level discussion about it.
For me, a great example is the Chartered Financial Analyst Exam. I have passed Levels 1 and 2, but failed Level 3 twice. The reason why is that Level 3 changes the format from multiple-choice to essay. With my liberal arts background, I wrote essays that were suitable for a philosophy class, not a globally administered exam with thousands of papers to be graded.
What I have realized is that, I have to understand how the game (i.e. How the exam will be graded) in order to know how to respond. The wrong response is to double down and work harder (which was my exact response after the first failure at Level 3).
So in 2017, as you encounter challenges and opportunities, take a step back at the outset and consider the structure of what is going on. Only after that, can you begin to lay out your specific plan of attack.