We are conditioned to believe we only learn new information by building on our current retention of old material, but “unlearning” knowledge makes way for contemporary, accurate information to better our skills and work experience.
You have probably heard the expression “lifelong learner.” For example, our kid’s school considers itself successful only when students continue their appreciation of learning and continued seeking knowledge independently throughout their lives.
I think this concept is incredible. Pursuing learning on one’s own keeps you fresh, curious, and more enjoyable to talk to on airplanes.
There’s always something more to learn. It’s possible you may exhaust a particular topic, short of going after an advanced degree in the subject, but there is always a new topic to discover or pursue.
There is an underlying assumption in our view of self-education ranging far beyond the value of being a lifelong learner. We assume education is cumulative and directional. That is, anything new we learn adds on to what we already know.
We consider the opposite possibility of “unlearning” as an exceptional case. We joke about losing a small piece of current knowledge to take on a new fact or theory. Or, we joke that brain cells which could have been put to better use are devoted to sports trivia or the details of celebrity’s personal lives.
More seriously, educators have studied how much progress school kids lose over summer vacation. In all of these cases, the loss of knowledge is regrettable, and the analysis (humorous or otherwise) reinforces the assumption of the cumulative nature of experience.
Consider, however, another model of knowledge with two assumptions that differ from the view I described above.
Knowledge Isn’t Static
Whatever you learned can become less authentic, less valid, or less relevant as time goes by.
For example, how often have you talked to an older person complaining about prices in a grocery store, a restaurant, or a gas station? Yes, I can remember gas costing 49 cents a gallon, but it’s gone from being a fact of day-to-day usefulness to nostalgia.
The same thing can happen to knowledge about technology, methodologies, software, social progress, economics – everything, basically.
Yes, I think you can take the Second Law of Thermodynamics as unchangeable, but as the old journalism adage goes, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. She may have loved you yesterday, but what about today?
Devote Yourself to Updating Older Knowledge
If you regularly make decisions based on specific information, always check to make sure your base information remains accurate and relevant. If you make frequent use of a process, technique, or technology, seek out the continuation of pertinent information to improve your current knowledge.
I recently heard a story on The Moth podcast that really crystallized this for me. The storyteller observed as people get older, they live in the past more and more. They rely on facts, theory, and analysis that are increasingly out of date.
For example, a neighborhood that was a “no-go” zone in the 1980s may be safe, hip, and expensive today. We used to worry the world was imminently about to run out of oil, then we figured out how to get oil out of the shale in western North America.
Professionally, one of your assets is your experience, but if that experience isn’t based on up to date knowledge, it is more of a liability. When you live in the past of your professional expertise, you become less marketable and less valuable.
In short: Everything you know is wrong or outdated, and if it’s not yet, it’s coming soon if you don’t do pursue current information regularly. To keep yourself current and meaningful, you need to unlearn things as they become obsolete.
Putting Unlearning Into Practice
So, rather than looking at continuing education just as a justification for a training boondoggle, look at it as unlearning. Look at it as a refresh of your skills and intellectual capital.
How can you do that?
- Take every opportunity to learn: read, talk to people, and seek out formal education opportunities.
- Find someone in your field to follow, and keep up with their blogs, videos, interviews, and other content.
- Be open to new facts, theories, tools, and practices, always thinking about how these might change your job.
- Read books and articles by people prevalent in their field of expertise.
- Test everything – new and old. Some new things are fads, and some older knowledge expires.
- Learn about things you’re curious and interested about, not just subjects related to your current project or role.
Practice these, and become a lifelong unlearner!