Clear thinking

What Did You Unlearn Today?

"It ain't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so"

At today’s pace of change, it’s obvious that the ability to learn is a critical life skill. What may not be so obvious is that the ability to unlearn is at least as important.

When things are stable, it is a virtue to learn something once and for all. A skill that becomes routine saves time and effort, freeing our mind for other things. Fundamental “truths” become a deeply ingrained part of who we are, providing a stable and dependable foundation for choices and decisions. And experts develop excellent intuition through the ability to unconsciously recognize patterns, which is why they can make swift, effective choices when needed.

But when that routine or that knowledge no longer fits the facts, predictions and choices can go awry. I saw a vivid and important demonstration of this in the late 80s, when I was studying for a graduate degree in Soviet Studies. When Mikhail Gorbachev came on the scene, with his ideas of glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet experts who were my professors were confused about how to interpret his words and actions. Drawing on their 40+ years of study, they interpreted Gorbachev through the lens of what they had seen before: it was another underhanded Soviet ploy to trick the West, or to make Reagan look bad. When the Soviets unilaterally declared that they would withdraw 500,000 troops from Eastern Europe, one of my professors declared that this would only make them more dangerous adversaries, because it would allow them to concentrate on quality.

In medicine, Australian doctor Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2005, was literally laughed at and booed by audiences of doctors when he presented his theory that ulcers were caused by bacteria. He finally had to resort to causing his own ulcer by drinking a culture of the bacteria, and then curing himself.

I had to unlearn something myself in writing this post. I was going to cite the example of Ken Olsen, CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, who famously said in 1977 that there was no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home. Fortunately, I checked the statement before publishing, and discovered that the quote, while accurate, was taken out of context. Olsen was actually referring to a central computer that would control everything from lights, to doors, to preparing meals.

Sometimes the vividness of a lesson causes you to overlearn it, making it nearly impossible to unlearn. Military planners are famous for preparing for the last war, and I suspect that the billions of dollars spent on airport security since 2001 are a symptom of this. (Which reminds me of Mark Twain’s observation that, “the cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid, either.”)

Been there, done that—maybe not!

Faced with a situation, we match it to a similar experience, and do what worked then. Learning from experience is a form of reasoning by analogy, but in important situations you should examine the analogy you’re using.

  • Try to list the differences between this situation and the one in your mind.
  • Get a devil’s advocate, or become your own.
  • Look for disconfirming evidence. As uncomfortable as it may be, read something occasionally that you don’t agree with. When observed facts don’t match your assumptions, don’t automatically assume the facts are wrong.

Expertise is a wonderful asset, except when things are in flux. Then, knowledge and experience can be dangerous. When what you know blocks learning, you must unlearn it. What have you unlearned today?

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