Liz Alexander, Ph.D. 

Preparing for the Unpredictable

The Most Powerful Way to Learn is Not What You Think

Here's the reason why trying to learn something new often fails.

Posted Apr 10, 2017

Something important tends to be missing from most articles about lifelong learning. Because they fail to identify—as do educators and trainers on the whole—the challenges presented by what psychologists call proactive interference. In other words, to successfully learn something new we first need to “unlearn” what we’ve previously been taught.

For example, the reason I have to think twice about which political party someone is referring to when they talk about “red states” and “blue states” in the U.S. is because I was born in the U.K. Over there I learned those colors in reverse: red for socialists; blue for conservatives. You’ve likely had similar experiences, as when your attempt to learn a new language interferes with one you already know. When I tried to learn Spanish as an adult after being taught French in high school, I ended up mixing the two together in a mish-mash I call “Franish.”

While learning doesn’t always happen as quickly or easily as we’re led to believe, holding on to stubborn, outdated beliefs and mistaken assumptions can make you obsolete in your business or industry without ever knowing why.

To become a strategic, lifelong unlearner you need to consciously challenge what has worked in the past. Try the following three approaches:

1. Prove yourself wrong

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.”

In today’s VUCA world that’s wise advice. It’s just not that easy to think “Could I be wrong?” when confirmation bias prompts us to look for evidence that we’re right. Even though history is littered with prominent people and institutions whose false predictions continue to dog them as a result.

Continually questioning assumptions is something Julie Friedman Steele, Board Chair of the World Future Society and founder/CEO of The 3D Printer Experience (3DPX) benefits from.

“When I launched 3DPX I had to constantly unlearn things I assumed would work. Like imagining a 3D printer in every home, before learning about the dangers of toxic particle emissions,” says Steele. “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.”

2. Gather from broad sources.

There are many reasons why co-working hubs are thriving. Not least the innovations that come from intermingling the perspectives of designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, marketers and programmers. Such challenges to previously fixed “habits of mind” are vital to unlearning, says 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. Instead of relying on what you think you know, you should gather information from a wide variety of trusted sources.“

Dr. Butler did this before shifting from being a Post Doc to 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”.”

3. Feel the fear

Adeo Ressi, CEO of Founder Institute also knows a thing or two about unlearning as he helps transition people from corporate jobs to entrepreneurial roles.

“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,” says Ressi. He often uses using fear as a motivator, such as requiring aspiring founders to set up a website, attract 2,000 people, and sell 50 products in a limited time. 

“Most people who think that’s impossible achieve far superior results as they unlearn the perceived limitations of their potential,” says Ressi, who believes that most businesses teach people 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 discarding redundant skills in favor of new ones, the greatest benefit of unlearning could come from questioning and testing how little we believe we’re capable of.

Nevertheless, whenever you see the words “lifelong learner,” remember what Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu advised: “To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

[A version of this article appeared in Fast Company on 24th August, 2016]