Almost every truly productive person knows how to use the skills they currently possess to multiply their productivity. Being able to do this is itself a skill (you can think of it as a meta-skill) that anybody can learn.
In this article, I will explain how this meta-skill works and how you, too, can learn to use the skills you have today to multiply your productivity tomorrow.
Let’s Begin With Biology: Exaptation
The meta-skill of using the skills and abilities you currently possess to multiply your productivity is very similar to the process known as exaptation within evolutionary biology.
Exaptation is used to refer to the process by which features that evolved for one purpose are then used for a different purpose.
For example, biologists tell us that the human tongue evolved to help us capture and eat food. It was a survival mechanism to help prevent us from starving to death.
But, over time the tongue came to be used for a very different purpose: communication.
And, because we developed the ability to speak to one another, this allowed us to begin to develop highly complex social relationships.
This, in turn, enabled us to develop standards for communication by crafting complex language patterns.
And, eventually, based on the language we were speaking, we developed ways of writing our language down.
Then, because we had developed the ability to communicate through writing, our cognitive abilities needed to evolve, which eventually produced the human capacity to think abstractly.
So, even though the tongue was not initially meant for this purpose, being able to apply it to something else—namely, communication—has turned out to be one of the most important developments in our evolutionary history. I would not have been able to write this article, and you would not be able to read it, without exaptation.
Applying the Principle of Exaptation
However, the principle of exaptation does not only refer to biologically-determined developments. It has also been used to refer to psychological and social developments as well.
This is where it becomes valuable for learning how to multiply your productivity.
We use exaptation in a wide range of everyday behaviors. And these behaviors can often be harnessed and used to achieve success in a variety of different domains in our lives.
For example, my friend, Katie, who has a graduate degree in art history, became very successful in the business world. She doesn’t use her knowledge of art history every day, but she leans on her ability to do in-depth research quickly and efficiently in order to give her an advantage in the company she works for.
I have known retired military personnel who rely on the discipline they developed during their time in the military to get up at 4 a.m. every day and work on their business before the demands of the day start rolling in. They are not necessarily the best business minds, but they have figured out a way to harness the skills they do possess to make up for other skills they might lack.
Applying the principle of exaptation means learning how to achieve success by leveraging your unique knowledge, skillset, and abilities.
The most productive and successful people don’t learn the ins and outs of everything they pursue. Rather, they maximize their ability to use the principle of exaptation so that they can achieve success by relying on the things they’re already good at, regardless of the context.
Cultivate the Skill of Multiplying Your Productivity: Step 1
There are two main steps you will need to take in order to harness the power of exaptation and use it to multiply your productivity.
The first thing you need to do is you need to get reasonably good at something.
You don’t need to be the best in the world at that thing. But you need to be above average.
The good thing is that most of us are already at least close to above average at something, whether we know it or not. So, you probably just need to figure out what that thing is and improve on it a little further.
The reason why it’s important to begin by getting good at something is because being good at anything requires you to develop a whole bunch of smaller skills.
For example, to become good at playing the piano, you don’t actually develop some skill called “playing the piano.”
No, you develop a whole set of smaller skills that you then use to play the piano.
You develop the ability to read music, keep rhythm, recognize pitch, and play scales and chords. You will also need to understand something about the mechanics of the piano and music theory. There are probably at least a hundred other related things you need to learn to do in order to be able to play the piano well.
And you could break down each of those smaller skills into even smaller skills. Learning music theory, for example, means that you have to be able to think mathematically, and playing scales means that you have to develop a certain amount of finger dexterity.
When you think about it like this, setting out to learn the piano actually means that you are setting out to learn an extremely large set of small skills that you will use to play the piano.
What You’re Good at Might Not be What You’re Really Good at
This means that what you think you’re good at right now might not be what you’re really good at.
You might think that you’re good at being a server, for example, because you earn more tips than your co-workers. But, in reality, you’re actually receiving those tips because you have figured out how to apply a bunch of smaller skills to your job.
Maybe you’ve developed strong interpersonal skills, which cause patrons to like you. Or maybe you’ve developed a sharp working memory, which allows you to keep a lot of complex orders straight in your head.
Once again, there’s no such thing as having the skill of serving drinks or food, even though we commonly talk like there is.
In reality, being a good server simply means that you’ve figured out how to use a bunch of smaller skills effectively in the context of a restaurant.
When you think about every skill you possess like this, a whole new world opens up.
When you understand that everything you learn to “do” is really a matter of using a bunch of small skills to achieve a particular outcome, you will begin to see all kinds of possibilities.
You can combine those small skills together in all kinds of ways and apply them in a wide variety of contexts.
You can also become exceptionally good at things by focusing on improving very specific smaller skills.
So, instead of trying to become a better pianist or server, you can become really good at playing the piano or serving drinks simply by identifying the particular skills you are using for those tasks and focusing on improving those small skills incrementally.
This is essentially what focused practice is.
But, more importantly, all of the small skills you learn “for” playing the piano or waiting tables could also be used to help you in other areas of life.
Once you begin to see that what you initially thought your skills were “for” is just one of countless ways you can apply them, you will begin to see the possibilities the principle of exaptation opens up for you.
Cultivate the Skill of Multiplying Your Productivity: Step 2
This brings us to the second step you need to take to harness the power of exaptation. This step involves the ability to recognize opportunities for exaptation.
In order to be able to use the principle of exaptation to your advantage, it’s not enough to know that every skill you possess is made up of a bunch of smaller skills that can be transferred to other domains.
You must also be able to recognize opportunities to apply those skills for your benefit.
To do this, you will need to practice breaking down big skills into their smaller pieces.
Not only do you need to do this to fully understand the range of skills you possess, but you also need to be able to do this to figure out where you might be able to apply those skills for your benefit.
My friend, Katie, would never have been able to apply her research skills to the business world if she wasn’t able to recognize that she possessed skills she could apply in that world in the first place. She was able to recognize this because she thought carefully about all the small skills needed to succeed in business, and she compared them with all the small skills she developed in graduate school.
Katie knew that, just like there’s no such thing as being good at graduate school, there’s no such thing as being good at business. She recognized that, in order to succeed at business, you need a bunch of smaller skills. And, because she was able to identify these smaller skills, she was then able to figure out which of these skills she could bring to the table.
The Benefit of Exaptation: Multiplying Your Productivity
There’s a double-benefit that comes from getting good at recognizing opportunities for exaptation.
Not only does it help you recognize how you can apply the skills you currently have to new things, but it also helps you identify additional skills you might want to develop.
Katie knew that she could bring the ability to do high-quality research to the business world, but this didn’t mean that she didn’t have to develop any new skills. She still needed to learn the language and concepts that would enable her to navigate the business world, for example.
So, she spent some time researching the business world and talking with business people. Eventually, she felt comfortable in that world, and when she had the opportunity to pitch herself, she was able to speak their language.
The principle of exaptation does not completely eliminate the need to gain additional knowledge and develop additional skills.
But it does provide opportunities to significantly shorten the learning curve needed to succeed.
And that shortened curve means an exponential increase in productivity.
We would do well to refrain from thinking too narrowly about what the various skills we have are “for.”
When you think that all the smaller skills you possess from learning to play piano, for example, are for playing the piano, you will miss out on a wide range of opportunities to use the skills we’ve developed to multiply your productivity.
In the end, the more skills you have, the better it will be for exaptation.
This is why accruing a large skillset is always a good idea for productivity, regardless of what you might have initially thought each of these skills were “for.”
You might not know what you will use each individual skill for in the end, but the point is that you can always use every skill for multiple things.
In fact, if you’re doing it right, it’s almost a guarantee that what you end up using your skills for will be very different from the reasons you initially acquired them. If you want to multiply your productivity and find success, you really should take advantage of the principle of exaptation.