Unlearn to learn.

Alvin Toffler, the late futurist who forecast the internet; the acceptance, indeed embracement of the LGBT community; and genetic engineering, to name just three of many predictions from his books, Future Shock, The Third Wave and Powershift of 40-50 years ago, wrote:

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

In my opinion this is perhaps his most valuable contribution.

Of these three aspects of personal development, perhaps unlearning is the hardest of all as often we’re reluctant to accept that an investment has turned into a liability. I know I’ve been challenged by it and consequently have developed a process which might work for you too.

I love skiing, however not possessing any natural talent (but don’t tell my ski buddies I’ve admitted that!) have had more lessons than I care to think about. The same goes for golf and Excel spreadsheets, (actually that’s not strictly true, I’ve never loved Excel even though I’ve had a lot of lessons in my attempt to master the basics of the programme).

Once I’ve realised and come to terms with the fact that my historic learning is actually unhelpful and is blocking my further development I ask three questions:

1. Do I need to learn this anyway? In the case of skiing, the answer was a definite YES, I love it. With golf it was a definite MAYBE, I enjoy the sport but no longer worry about improving and am content with where I’m at. As for Excel, it’s a definite NO and I’ve stopped trying to create a spreadsheet and have colleagues do it for me as necessary.

2. What was helpful about past learning and what needs to be discarded? I’ve found that reviewing the past learning investment has always identified things that still help, even if the majority is no longer appropriate or relevant. For example, nearly all the lessons in using PowerPoint became redundant when we switched to using Keynote for our presentations. However, an appreciation that “less is more” and “pictures paint a thousand words” were transferrable learnings even if “ctrl alt shift” and other keyboard actions, does something completely different.

3. How much better will the new learning make me at this activity? In other words, rather than regret the investment of the past, instead get excited about the outputs of the future. This might seem obvious but in my experience many people will cut their nose off to spite their face and resist changing from A to B when they’re wedded to A because that’s what they’re good at. I recall working with a very talented designer whose artistic skills were second to no one in our agency. However, the arrival of the Apple Mac allowed average artists to become masters and in double quick time. Whilst my old colleague flourished during a powercut, for the rest of the time he ended up lagging behind until eventually his stubbornness to embrace the new technology caused his redundancy.

In many fields, best practice changes over time. For example, the best way to recruit, onboard, review – make that every aspect of people management – have all changed over the last 20 years and will no doubt change again. Likewise marketing, many of the best ways to attract, nurture, convert and retain have changed too. The same is true for finance, IT, operations – make that just about everything. For this reason, unlearning is a skill we all need to develop, indeed the more experienced you are, the more you’ve learned then and therefore in all likelihood the more you need to unlearn. As Mark Twain is attributed with saying:

“It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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