“How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires when we are using our knowledge all the time.” Henry David Thoreau
The author and poet Henry David Thoreau identified the crux of unlearning in the above quotation. Our growth requires we acknowledge our ignorance but this is difficult to do when we are using our knowledge all the time.
The issue becomes further complicated by the fact that our knowledge sustains us. Whether this knowledge is in the form of our earliest ancestors knowing what animals to avoid on the Savannah (lest they be devoured), to our forefathers knowing when, where and what crops to plant, or you know the ins-and-outs of your specific business; it is evident knowledge is integral to survival.
The paradox is that knowledge is important until it no longer is. Consider, for example, the knowledge of constructing a horse carriage: Useful and important knowledge in the 19th century; not so much in the 20th century.
As the future accelerates, the plight of the carriage manufacturer will become increasingly common as technological advances render numerous other industries and business models obsolete. This implies that what you don’t know will be just as, if not more, important than what you do know.
To begin the journey down the unlearning curve, the first question a person must, therefore, ask themselves is: What don’t I know?
This begs the obvious follow-up question: How can a person know what she doesn’t know?
The first step—like the first in the twelve step Alcoholic Anonymous program—is to admit there is a problem: “Hi, I’m ______ , and there is a lot I don’t know.”
This isn’t a natural thing to do but it is a fact. Regardless of how smart a person is there will always be more he doesn’t—or can’t—know. Even in a given field, it is important to understand that what is essential isn’t simply the breadth or accumulative total of one’s knowledge but rather an understanding and appreciation of the cutting edge of new knowledge.
One method to keep “what you don’t know” top-of-mind is to construct an anti-resume. A resume is a written compilation of knowledge, skills, and experiences. An anti-resume is just the opposite—a list of things you don’t know; skills you don’t possess; and experiences you haven’t yet, well, experienced.
Obviously, if a person were true to this exercise, the resulting product would be humungous. To keep it manageable, an anti-resume might begin with a listing of those things you suspect could impact your job or industry but which you are unfamiliar. For example, if you’re a healthcare professional, the explosive growth of genomic information might be listed as a field you know little about. If you’re marketing executive you might admit to a blind spot in understanding of how new location-based social networking tools will transform your work; and if you are a writer (as in my case) you might list e-books or multi-media books—books which combine videos and Internet access with interactive hand gesture and voice recognition technology—as something with which you have no experience.
Because this step requires a high level of self-awareness, you will also want to query others, including friends, customers, consultants and colleagues about areas they believe you might not be familiar with. You can then supplement their insights by broadening your reading diet and picking up magazines, journals, periodicals and books outside your field of expertise.
The benefit of these latter two approaches is three-fold: you’ll educate yourself about new things of which you are unaware; you may come across helpful new information or insights, and you’ll be reminded of how little you know.
By taking these steps and exposing yourself to what you don’t know, you are acknowledging the possibility that there will always exist some information or knowledge that will require you to unlearn something you think you know.