Unlearning is the most important thing

After class

We’ve all become obsessed with learning over the last few years. The world is changing quite rapidly and we need to constantly learn new tricks if we want to keep up with the market we work in. Learning the new-new thing is often seen as the key to success. This attitude has it all backwards; it’s not learning that is the challenge, it’s our ability to unlearn that’s holding many of us back.

The world is changing and we’re all struggling to keep up, searching for that new tool, technique or idea that will provide an edge and help us to survive in a world that seems to lurch from one problem to another. How do we find these new ideas and learn how to use them?

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

—Alvin Toffler

Learning, however, appears to be quite hard. Most of us spend our teens and early twenties accumulating a body of knowledge which we expect to use for the rest of our working lives. Then the majority of our twenties is spent in a learning arms race as we struggle to keep our skills current. Even this isn’t enough though as many managers are starting to think that in today’s rapidly changing work environment that the useful shelf life for our hard won knowledge is around eight years and, consequentially, that by the time you’re thirty you’re considered to be in terminal decline and no longer worth the premium price.

This view of the world has the problem backwards. It’s not learning that is hard; it’s unlearning that we struggle with. Picking up a new skills that fit with what we already know about the world is not particularly difficult. New skills that don’t fit into our view of the world – skills that don’t fit with the assumptions and expectations that we’ve accumulated over our lifetime – are a different matter.

Sometimes learning something new requires us to first unlearn something old. We are all expectation machines, and any fact or technique that aligns with our expectations is easy to learn as it reinforces them. Anything that goes against our expectations is more problematic. Learning a new technique might require us to set aside our assumptions about what is the right thing to do. If we can’t set aside these assumptions – if we can’t first unlearn – then we can’t learn.

We spend our lives accreting knowledge, integrating facts, figures and techniques into our view of the world. By the time we reach our mid-twenties we’ve accumulated a significant body of knowledge that we can use to solve a wide range of problems. We’ve also accumulated our own predilections and prejudices. Some of our predilections and prejudices are based on our genetic heritage: deep seated knowledge that is virtually impossible to shift. Some are based on the cultural traditions we grew up with. And some are based on our personal history.

Anytime that we’re attempting to learn something new this new thing is measured against what we already know. If we put more weight on what we already know, on tradition and our inherited past, then it will be harder to learn the new. The standard which new learning is measured against will be tougher, and we’ll be less willing to set aside our existing assumptions and accept new knowledge if it contradicts what we already know. If we put more weight on what we’re seeing today – on new data – then learning something that conflicts with our assumptions will be comparatively easier, as we will place more weight on what we see than what we remember and we’ll more willing to change our assumptions.

Our nature – our bias towards an inward focus based on tradition and the past, or an external focus on what we’re seeing around us – cuts across age. Those of us who are willing to question our assumptions will find that we can unlearn (and relearn) at any age. Those who put more weight on what they already know will struggle to change at any age. Today’s digital native will be tomorrow’s digital dinosaur if they are unable to unlearn. That bleeding edge agile practitioner who dogmatically insists that they won’t work with you unless you follow these four (in their view) essential agile practices has more in common with their older colleagues still clinging to waterfall methodologies than they are comfortable admitting.

The world is changing more rapidly than ever, making it increasingly import for us to adapt if we want to remain relevant. While learning is important if we want to keep up, unlearning is what really enables us to adapt and remain relevant.

Updated. Just in case you think I’m making words up, here’s a dictionary definition of ‘unlearn’ that I’ve just stumbled across.

unlearn |ʌnˈləːn|
verb ( past and past participle unlearned or chiefly Brit. unlearnt ) [ with obj. ]
discard (something learned, especially a bad habit or false or outdated information) from one’s memory: teachers are being asked to unlearn rigid rules for labeling and placing children.

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