There's something missing from the conversation about lifelong learning. Many of us already know we'll need to absorb new knowledge and pick up new skills in order to stay competitive in the future job market. But it's still easy to forget that that will mean forgetting—or rather, unlearning—the skills, habits, and ideas that got us where we are. This is a process psychologists call "proactive interference," and while you may have no trouble forgetting where you left your house keys, unlearning old data and ways of doing things isn't quite so automatic. Here's why, and what discarding old habits really takes.
I have to think twice about which political party Americans are referring to when they talk about "red states" and "blue states," since coming from the U.K., I learned those colors in reverse: red for Labour, blue for Conservatives. You’ve likely had similar experiences. After swapping your desktop for a notebook, you may have 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 attempted to learn French for work after being taught Spanish in school, and ended up spouting "Franish." When older knowledge interferes with the brain’s ability to accept new information, learning doesn’t always happen as quickly or easily as we’re often led to believe.
"Unlearning" is a bit of a misnomer, though. It’s more a case, as some academics say, of "deliberately discarding" obsolete, redundant knowledge that no longer applies. Once you’ve realized the limitations of an outdated skill and take up a different practice, the new response will eventually wipe the old knowledge from memory. But that’s not always straightforward, either. As Southern Methodist University business school professors David Lei and John Slocum point out, "The more disruptive the new technology, the harder it is to unlearn existing product-development approaches and business models."
The same holds true in our careers. Holding on to stubborn, outdated beliefs and mistaken assumptions can make you obsolete in a business or industry without ever knowing why. To become (and remain) a strategic, lifelong unlearner, you need to consciously challenge what’s worked in the past. These three techniques can help.
In describing how he navigated the doubt and uncertainty of scientific experimentation, award-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wrote: "We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress."
That’s wise advice for all professionals, not just professional physicists. What's more, simply thinking to yourself, "Could I be wrong?" doesn't cut it; our brains' natural tendency toward confirmation bias prompts us to look for evidence to support our existing ideas. A better way to test our assumptions is simply to expose ourselves to information that may contradict them, potentially undermining what psychologists term the "coherence" of our present views.
Continually questioning assumptions is something Julie Friedman Steele, board chair of the World Future Society and founder/CEO of the 3D Printer Experience (3DPX), says she's benefited from in her work.
"When I launched 3DPX, I had to constantly unlearn things I assumed would work," Steele tells me, "like imagining a 3D printer in every home—before learning about the dangers of toxic particle emissions." Shifting your perspective in the face of frustrating information isn't easy, she says. "It’s uncomfortable finding out that what you once considered true doesn’t hold up. That’s why there’s a bigger shift in digital manufacturing by people like me. It was because of my ability to unlearn things that don’t work and embrace the new that I could fly right by others with a traditional manufacturing background."
There are many reasons why coworking hubs are thriving, but one of them is the intermingling perspectives of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, marketers, programmers, and others that can lead to innovation. These interactions may help challenge "habits of mind" that would otherwise stay fixed—something that's vital to unlearning, according to University of Texas at Austin associate professor of educational psychology Andrew Butler.
"There are many ways in which we acquire misinformation and inaccurate mental models, including from books and movies," Butler says. "Instead of relying on what you think you know, you should gather information from a wide variety of trusted sources."
Many of us imagine that our sources of news, ideas, and expertise are pretty reliable, so we stick to a comfortable handful of them—sometimes for too long. But the more time we spend in our roles and the further we get in our careers, the more crucial it becomes to broaden our approach to getting information. Butler says he made it a point to do this as he shifted from being a postdoc to an assistant professor:
I asked different people what I needed to do to be successful. Each helped me gain clarity on different aspects of the role, like teaching, researching, getting grant funding, and mentoring students. All jobs evolve. The more complex and less defined your future role, the greater number of diverse people you need to guide you. Gone are the days when it’s a case of "I’ve got it now."
Adeo Ressi, CEO of Founder Institute also helps people transition from corporate jobs to entrepreneurial roles. In his experience, Ressi tells me, "It takes three and a half months to wipe away a lot of bad conditioning and recondition former employees with attitudes and behaviors that lead to entrepreneurial success." He often uses using fear as a motivator for completing this transition more quickly. In one exercise, Ressi has aspiring founders to set up a website, attract 2,000 people, and sell 50 products in a limited amount of time—an experience many find deeply uncomfortable at first.
But "most people who think that’s impossible" at the beginning, he says, "achieve far superior results as they unlearn the perceived limitations of their potential," says Ressi, who believes that businesses usually teach people instead to "maximize to the minimum, as in, ‘What’s the minimum I need to do to achieve this outcome?’"
This suggests that instead of simply trying to discard redundant skills in favor of new ones, a faster and more effective approach is to question and test how little we may believe we’re capable of—targeting our mind-sets and beliefs about our abilities and ourselves, not just the knowledge and expertise we possess.
Liz Alexander is a futurist and cofounder of Leading Thought, which passionately helps prepare human beings (only) for remarkable futures and collaborates with companies that want to be future-smart. Connect with Liz on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @DrLizAlexander.