Jack Uldrich
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Learning to Unlearn

Posted in Books, Business, Current Affairs, Education, General, History, Jump the Curve, Marketing, Quotes, Unlearn Strategy

Jumpthecurve2 The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

—Alvin Toffler


In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

—Eric Hoffer


In some sense our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but on how well we are able to unlearn.

—Alan Kay


The three quotes listed on the previous are all really variations on the same theme. And, to be honest, the idea is an old one and is perhaps best captured by Mark Twain, who said more than a century and a half ago while he was toiling away on the Mississippi River as a boat pilot:

Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was that in order to be a pilot a man had to learn more than any one man ought to learn; and the other was that he must learn it all over again in a different way every 24 hours.


What Twain recognized is that the fundamental condition in his environment was change, and he understood that if he wanted to first survive and then prosper it was imperative that he master this context. To do so, he instinctively grasped that it wasn’t simply enough to know a lot, he also had to unlearn some things and then relearn them in the context of his changing environment.

That is precisely the predicament that today’s leaders and exponential executives find themselves in. But the challenge is much harder than is generally recognized. Why is this? In part it is because humans are conditioned to optimize what we know and add to it. It is not in our nature to discard old knowledge or throw it away. 

Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was deemed one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, discussed how it is that paradigms—defined as conventional ways of viewing the world and trying to solve problems—can and do change over time. One of the keys to managing this change, Kuhn wrote, was that “at times of revolution, when normal scientific tradition changes, the scientist’s perception of his environment must be reeducated—in some familiar situations he must learn to see a new gestalt.”

One of the tricky things about exponential growth, as been mentioned before but bears repeating, is that in the beginning it is almost indistinguishable from linear growth. Recall the example of the lily pad.

Think of day one, with the development of the printing press, as being the beginning. Day ten marked the creation of the steam engine. Day twenty saw the invention of the telephone and day twenty-three the advent of the integrated circuit. Recall that day twenty-six is when the growth curve finally begins to slope noticeably upward. Since 1947 we have experienced the personal computer, the cell phone, and the Internet. Yet we are still only at day twenty-five. To be sure, society has experienced an extraordinary amount of change in the past few “days,” and to a number of people and businesses—many of whom who been widely successful—they might be forgiven for thinking that this growth has been nothing more than fast linear growth. But that just isn’t true.

The amount of change that society will experience in the near future is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Kuhn reminds us, during times of revolution we “must learn to see a new gestalt.” That new gestalt is exponential growth.

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