We have all played video games where something like this happens: Pokemon-inspired video game music plays in the background. The screen fades to black as text announces that you have advanced a level. “Congratulations,” the game says, “you have now reached level 2.” Your abilities immediately increase exponentially, and what was challenging before is now a piece of high-score-encrusted cake.
But of course this isn’t how life works! We can’t just sit around living our lives waiting to reach some checkpoint that will make us destined for wealth, fame, and happiness. We have been taught that we have to work hard, and that life is a long path that must be walked step by step. There is no second level or third level or fourth level; everyone starts on the same footing, and the guy that works the hardest gets the farthest. Right?
Yet people always say “work harder, not smarter”, and school is meant to prepare you for a better (easier?) future. Do corporate executives really work harder than the workers who work 12-hour days, who toiling endlessly at a grinding assembly line? This is only one piece of evidence for the existence of a “second level”, some goal that we can reach that will help us reach other goals.
Consider what a “first-level ability” might be. It is a particular skill applicable in a particular career. Typing is a first-level ability. So is operating a construction vehicle or solving quadratic equations. Even things requiring talent, such as playing the saxophone or painting a self-portrait, are first-level abilities. Why do I call these “first-level abilities”? They are the most basic abilities: you either can or can’t do them, and they are applicable only to one field.
A “second-level ability”, then, is something far more general. When we practice an instrument, we are of course getting better at playing that instrument. But why would playing the piano improve children’s math abilities? Is it really true that math somehow involves Mixolydian scales and dominant chords? No. Instead, playing piano trains deeper, more fundamental, more general skills that are applicable to math. What skills are these? Following directions, thinking logically, valuing creativity, and reflecting on emotions. Piano trains all these abilities, and many are applicable to math.
A second-level ability is a general ability, not focused on what can be done to one thing in the world (such as playing an instrument or operating a construction vehicle). Instead, it regards what you, as a human being, am capable of learning and processing. All first-level abilities require and exercise particular second-level abilities (especially following directions precisely and thinking creatively), and an awareness of second-level abilities is essential to excellence in the first level.
If you have creativity, this impacts your whole person, not just your performance in one area. If you have morals, or are confident, or think logically, these things will translate to improvements in your entire life, and also translate to improvements in themselves. As you exercise your confidence you in turn become more confident.
The relationship between these two levels of abilities might be likened to the relationship between your physical ability and your muscles. Your hands, arms, feet, and legs can do certain actions, like throw a ball or kick a target. But your muscles and overall fitness are the driving forces behind these abilities. Sure, you get better at throwing with some practice, but you also have to be aware of your muscles. Training muscles increases your ability in all these areas, and all areas require some group of muscles.
Just as a star athlete will train his entire body, and keep training to the point of exhaustion; just as he will assess not only his ability right now but also his overall rate of improvement; just as he is aware of which parts of his body are weak and which are strong—so you should also evaluate your second-level abilities. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and strive to improve where you are weak. Improving your second-level abilities will not only improve your first-level abilities but will also improve how fast you can improve.
Let your awareness of your abilities level-up to only the second level, and you will already have expanded your understanding of yourself. As you train your second-level abilities, your first and second-level performance will increase dramatically, and you will not only more forward on the path of life but also in a second direction: up.