“We’re going to have to make a lot of different assumptions,” says the head of one large publishing house in this article discussing the imminent demise of Border’s — one of the world’s large bookstores.
The individual is, of course, correct but the real question is why he (or she) didn’t begin questioning his assumptions years ago.
I not only agree with the thinking behind quote, more importantly, I like that Mr. Horgan is willing to admit the author's book (and ideas) had changed his mind. (Apparently, Deutsch even criticized some of Horgan's own ideas in the book.)
As I've said before, I wish more people would expose themselves to unlearning and admit when they have been persuaded to see the world differently. Ironically, it would make the world a better place.
Later today, I'm addressing 200 senior executives of the Allina Hospital System in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The topic of my keynote presentation is "Why Future Trends in Healthcare Will Require Unlearning."
I'll cover a great many areas but I intend to begin my talk with a discussion about humility. There is, perhaps, no better place to begin "unlearning" than by simply acknowledging the possibility you might be wrong--a point eloquently captured by Kathryn Schultz, author of the new book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error:
“If you really want to be right (or at least improve the odds of being right) you have to start by acknowledging your fallibility, deliberately seeking out your mistakes, and figuring out what caused you to make them.”
In other words, by embracing the idea you can, have and will be wrong, you're more likely to get it right.
"When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don't already know."
This is the question that Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, would routinely ask people he was interviewing in the early day's of Google's existence.
It is an excellent question--and one I have recommended before--but, as this article points out, there is an additional positive side-effect of asking this in an interview setting. Even if you don't end up hiring the person, your time will not have been wasted if you learned something that you didn't know--or, better yet, unlearned something you thought you knew.
Interested in some other questions that might help you unlearn? Try these on for size:
“How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time.” Henry David Thoreau
The author and poet Henry David Thoreau identified the crux of unlearning in the above quotation. Our growth requires we acknowledge our ignorance but this is a difficult to do when we are using our knowledge all the time.
The issue becomes further complicated by the fact that our knowledge sustains us. Whether this knowledge be in the form of our earliest ancestors knowing what animals to avoid on the Savannah (lest they be devoured), to our forefathers knowing when, where and what crops to plant, or you knowing the in-and-outs of your specific business; it is evident knowledge is integral to survival.
The paradox is that knowledge is important until it no longer is. Consider, for example, the knowledge of constructing a horse carriage: Useful and important knowledge in the 19th century; not so much in the 20th century.
As the future accelerates, the plight of the carriage manufacturer will become increasingly common as technological advances render numerous other industries and business models obsolete. This implies that what you don’t know will be just as, if not more, important than what you do know.
To begin the journey down the unlearning curve, the first question a person must therefore ask themselvesselves is: What don’t I know?
This begs the obvious follow-up question: How can a person know what she doesn’t know?
The first step—like the first in the twelve step Alcoholic Anonymous program—is to admit there is a problem: “Hi, I’m ______ , and there is a lot I don’t know.”
This isn’t a natural thing to do but it is a fact. Regardless of how smart a person is there will always be more he doesn’t—or can’t—know. Even in a given field it is important to understand that what is essential isn’t simply the breadth or accumulative total of one’s knowledge but rather an understanding and appreciation of the cutting edge of new knowledge.
One method to keep “what you don’t know” top-of-mind is to construct an anti-resume. A resume is a written compilation of knowledge, skills and experiences. An anti-resume is just the opposite—a list of things you don’t know; skills you don’t possess; and experiences you haven’t yet, well, experienced.
Obviously, if a person were true to this exercise, the resulting product would be humungous. To keep it manageable, an anti-resume might begin with a listing of those things you suspect could impact your job or industry but which you are unfamiliar. For example if you’re a healthcare professional, the explosive growth of genomic information might be listed as a field you know little about. If you’re marketing executive you might admit to a blind spot in understanding of how new location-based social networking tools will transform your work; and if you are a writer (as in my case) you might list e-books or multi-media books—books which combine videos and Internet access with interactive hand gesture and voice recognition technology—as something with which you have no experience.
Because this step requires a high level of self-awareness, you will also want to query others, including friends, customers, consultants and colleagues about areas they believe you might not be familiar with. You can then supplement their insights by broadening your reading diet and picking up magazines, journals, periodicals and books outside your field of expertise.
The benefit of these latter two approaches is three-fold: you’ll educate yourself about new things of which you are unaware; you may come across helpful new information or insights; and you’ll be reminded of how little you know.
By taking these steps and exposing yourself to what you don’t know, you are acknowledging the possibility that there will always exist some information or knowledge that will require you to unlearn something you think you know.
The yin and yang symbol is used to describe how polar opposites or seemingly contradictory ideas are not only interconnected but how they can also give rise to each other. The concepts of learning and unlearning fit this mold.
If you are going to learn new things, it stands to reason that at some point in the future some of that knowledge (as it becomes obsolete) will need to be unlearned. After the unlearning takes place, there will then be room for new learning to take place. The two concepts are complimentary and yet most people only reference “the learning curve” or, more commonly, the “steep learning curve.”
Why never an unlearning curve?
The answer is because the former is about acquiring new knowledge, while the latter is about letting go of old knowledge. If you possess a closet full of old clothes; a basement stuffed with toys or paintings; or an attic (or perhaps even an off-site storage facility) brimming with material acquisitions from yesteryear, I think you’ll agree the real difficulty comes not in acquiring new possessions but, rather, in getting rid of old ones.
The same is true of knowledge.
Therefore, of the two curves, the steeper—and the more difficult to navigate—is the unlearning curve.
1. "Asking radically different questions in a non-linear way is the key to creativity." (If you're looking for some new questions you might try these, and if you're looking to think in a non-linear way you might recall the lesson of the lily pad).