Strategy

2nd July 2015

Learn, unlearn and relearn

The futurist and former associate editor of Fortune magazine Alvin Toffler once said “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Well here we are 15 years into the 21st Century and I think his comment is becoming more and more relevant every day.

I find myself constantly exhorting people to learn, to read, to stretch themselves. The strap line that Team Massive Results owns is “Growing the business Leader to grow the business”. People have been preaching this message for years. To me, now, it is self evident. If I don’t know any more today than I did yesterday, I can be no more today than I was yesterday. I say it is self evident now. It wasn’t always so. There were times when I thought that I knew enough, that I didn’t need to learn or study any more. How arrogant that now seems, and I guess we all need that bubble of arrogance pricking from time to time. Life has a habit of teaching us lessons and if we are incapable of learning it will teach us that lesson again and again. But what did Toffler mean about unlearning?

Well whether we intend to or not we are learning all the time. We learn that a fire is hot, that boiling water scalds and that people can be cruel. We learn all of this and so much more, in a heartbeat, instantly, without ever studying the subject, but simply by living life. Because we learn this stuff instantly without referral or reflection, very often the learnings we have are mistaken. A young child frightened by a dog may well grow up with a fear of dogs. A person who has a bad experience when trying to buy a car may believe that “all car salespeople are crooks and vagabonds”.

Are all dogs scary? Are all car sales crooks? Probably not, and to lead a healthy life we can help people unlearn and shed some of these limiting beliefs.“What got you here won’t necessarily get you there” is another favourite expression. What works in one part of our lives won’t necessarily work in another part of our lives. To a large extent this is one of the key areas of involvement with all coaching clients. Techniques and styles that once worked can suddenly cease to be so effective and can even be counterproductive. The driving cajoling impatient style that might have been so persuasive at the inception of a business might not work so well when working with more senior managers, colleagues and leaders for example. Unlearning the habits of old and replacing them with more appropriate, more effective habits might be what is needed to move to the next level.For people and businesses who are growing quickly in a world that is changing rapidly the ability to unlearn is priceless. The way one generation worked is likely to be very different to the way another generation now works, being able to adapt to a new audience is vital.

The man that has only a hammer sees every problem as a nail but with every new thing we learn, with every new technique that we develop competence in, we are increasing the choices available to us, and with choice comes flexibility and in any situation the person with the most flexibility will come out on top.It is about learning. It is about unlearning. And it is also about relearning. So the question for all of us is this; are we doing enough learning, unlearning and relearning every day? Have we gathered enough tools, besides the hammer, in our toolkit and are we capable and confident to use them all, and can we quickly judge which one is best for the any given situation?

As Jack Welch said “The ultimate competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly.”