The New Learning is Unlearning
The Jedi Master, Yoda, once said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
These words of wisdom from the little green humanoid may seem irrelevant to the business world today, but they could not be more applicable. Everywhere you turn, from your LinkedIn or Twitter feed to a professional association, the importance of continuous learning, upskilling your workforce, and adapting to new ways of doing things is drilled into our heads. After all, we are in a time of unprecedented technological change that requires us to develop new abilities.
The very idea of unlearning might sound like absolute nonsense. However, to understand the importance of unlearning, we must first appreciate what the word and process actually mean. Unlearning is discarding knowledge or habits from your mind. To unlearn, you must forget an idea, process or knowledge, put it aside and lose memory of it.
But why, when you spend so much time mastering a skill or absorbing information would you then want to dispose of it?
Because hoarding in any form – from saving items of no value or purpose for 25 years to hanging on to out-of-date, disproven ideas – is not an effective path to success or balance. Too many of us hold on to the past, doing what was taught to us decades ago. There is old saying that ideas will die only when the people indoctrinated with them die. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Unlearning is required to problem-solve, innovate and permit creativity. Essentially, unlearning is being nimble and capitalizing on the winds of change. However, unlearning is more difficult than just learning. Letting go of what we have worked so hard to acquire is unnatural to most of us. Opening your mind, exploring new ideas and withholding judgment requires us to adjust the traditional way of thinking of things as simply right or wrong.
For example, if you have ever painted an old piece of furniture, you know that preparation to paint requires time-intensive stripping or removing old paint from the item, which is much more work than the actual painting.
Ancient beliefs held for thousands of years, such as that the sun revolves around the Earth, have been held as truth for the simple reason that that was what had been taught. It wasn’t until Copernicus asserted that the Earth, in fact, revolves around the sun in the 1500s that the idea was first challenged. It was an additional 200 to 300 years later that his theory was accepted by the scientific community.
Unlearning is essential to progress, because you can’t always learn something new until you first let go of something you have held on to as fact. In business, unlearning is required to make changes to your products or services to remain relevant to the current needs of your customers.
It is necessary to unlearn old procedures and policies required that will best meet the needs of managing new generations of workers, as well as unlearning old technology to move forward with mastering the new.
What are the best ways to unlearn?
• Learn from the opposite.
If you surround yourself with like-minded people, you will retain the same way of thinking and be less likely to encourage creativity and innovation and develop an environment that supports complex problem-solving.
• Keep an open mind.
One of the most important, yet hardest behaviors to overcome is withholding judgment until all aspects of an idea are considered. Dismissing new ways of doing things or discouraging employees from trying (and sometimes failing) alternative methods or different ideas is the most certain way to remain stuck in the past. Focus on the external trends and discoveries, as opposed to preserving traditional practices.
• Don’t measure old versus new.
We tend to give more weight to what we already know or past process we are accustomed to than something new. This makes the unlearning process harder to accomplish. It is often a habit to measure new knowledge as either contradictory or analogous to what we already know, leaning toward ideas that are consistent to existing beliefs.
As the world continues to change at an exponential rate, remaining relevant and achieving success require us to obtain not only new knowledge and skills, but, first, the ability to adapt by letting go of what we may already know.