Most of us know that learning should be a lifelong endeavor. We need to constantly absorb new knowledge and learn new skills to remain relevant in our lives and competitive in our careers. But acquiring too much information can be a problem, says Dom Price, head of R&D at Atlassian, a software development firm in Sydney, Australia.
“In the digital world, we’re privy to an abundance of knowledge,” he says. “We believe getting smart means knowing more, but in fact, it is not. We’re not practicing what we know. The acquisition of knowledge is dangerous when you don’t practice it.”
In order to succeed, Price argues that you need to understand the importance of “unlearning” – identifying the things you know that you don’t have time to nurture, and then letting some of them go, replacing them with new, more useful things.
Out with the old and in with the new
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of swapping your desktop computer for a notebook, and found yourself reaching for a mouse or using the track pad incorrectly, at least for a little while. Maybe you’ve struggled to drive a stick shift after being used to an automatic. Or tried to learn Spanish for work after being taught French in school, and ended up speaking “Franish”.
Older knowledge interferes with the brain’s ability to accept new information, preventing learning from happening easily. Yet holding on to outdated information can make you obsolete in a business or industry without ever knowing why. That’s why it’s vital to identify the things you no longer need to know or do and deliberately discard them. And once you take up a different practice, the new response will eventually wipe the old knowledge from memory.
The three parts of the unlearning process
First, you have to recognize – and accept – that the old mental model you’ve been relying on is no longer relevant or effective. This can be challenging because most of us are sublimely unaware of our mental models – we just employ them through habit. In addition, it can be difficult to admit that our existing model is growing outdated. Lots of us have built our reputations and careers on the mastery of these old models. Letting go can seem like starting over and losing status, authority, or even our sense of self.
Second, you need to find or create a new mental model that can better achieve your goals. To do so, you need to drastically increase the number of your data sources to help challenge your mental habits that would otherwise stay fixed. “There are many ways in which we acquire misinformation and inaccurate mental models, including from books and movies”, says University of Texas at Austin associate professor of educational psychology Andrew Butler. “Instead of relying on what you think you know, you should gather information from a wide variety of trusted sources.”
Third, you need to ingrain your new mental habits. This part of the process is no different from creating a new behavioral habit, such as changing your diet or altering your golf swing. The tendency, at first, will be to fall back into the old way of thinking and therefore the old way of doing. It’s useful to create triggers that alert you to which model you’re working from. For example, when you’re talking about your customers, catch yourself when you call them “consumers”: this corresponds to a transactional mindset. Find a word that reflects a more collaborative relationship. The shift in language will help you to reinforce the shift in your mindset.
Learning agility is the path to success
There are countless things you may have to unlearn in your job, business and career, even in the course of the next 12 months, from the methodology and technology you use, to the way you communicate and deliver your value, to the skills and knowledge you need to get to the next level.
The choice is simple: act or be acted upon. Since change is the only constant you can truly rely upon, learning to navigate and adapt to it isn’t just important to your survival, it’s essential for you to thrive in the bigger game of life. As futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”