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Unlearning

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Unlearning

Scott Miker

In the paradoxical world in which we live, we have to understand the value of unlearning.  Most of our lives we strive to learn as much as we can.  We are graded and rated based on our ability to learn quickly.

But we all know people who get stuck in their ways and are unable to learn new things.  The old idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks makes sense when you start to understand this idea of unlearning. 

In Maximum Brainpower by Sholmo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway, the authors state, “In a changing world, it is our ability to unlearn that will determine our ability to survive, adapt, and move forward.”

This idea of being able to unlearn isn’t new.  In fact, the 2,500-year-old text, the Tao Te Ching, mentions this.  It also draws attention to the paradoxical nature of things.

It says,

“Therefore the master takes action

by letting things take their course.

He remains as calm

At the beginning as at the end.

He has nothing,

Thus has nothing to lose.

What he desires is non-desire;

What is learns is to unlearn.

He simply reminds people

Of who they have always been.”

The reality is that we have to understand the value of learning but also understand the obstacles it brings with it.  If we learn something and follow too rigid of a process we can easily miss the reasons for learning in the first place. 

With today’s world, we have to be able to unlearn.  When computers took over and cell phones became powerful navigation systems we had to unlearn how we formerly got directions.  This new way to navigate had advantages that were inconceivable years earlier.

This all might seem like a reason to avoid forming habits and looking at goals systematically.  But I feel that a systems mindset has to be able to see the full picture and make behavior modifications in order to truly form new habits.  If we get too rigid in our approach and only continue doing something because that is the way we have always done it we miss the point. 

In the navigation example, if we stick to our maps and previous navigation systems we miss the point that we were simply interested in being able to reach a destination with minimal disturbances.  Now phone GPS accomplishes that goal in a more effective and efficient manner than before.

But unlearning isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy to spot when we need to unlearn something and it isn’t always easy to drop what has worked for us to move to what is new.  But in order to adapt and change we have to appreciate the unlearning process and make sure we don’t get too caught up in what we have learned and miss the opportunities that arise in life.