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Become Uncomfortable in Your Own Skin

Posted in Unlearn Strategy


If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.”

– Juan Ramon Jimenez, 1956 Nobel Prize winner for literature.


Question #2: Take a look at the picture to the right. What do you see?



Do you see an older woman or a younger woman? Most people see one or the other but with a little effort you can train your brain to see both images. In many ways, the journey of unlearning can be thought of the same way. That is unlearning is simply a different perspective on learning but you must train your mind to view both learning and unlearning as equally legitimate educational perspectives.


As with many journeys, it helps to begin small. To get you started, it may first be beneficial for you to become uncomfortable in your own skin. One effective strategy is to develop a modest, easy-to-implement, unlearning habit. In my case, whenever I think I may be in need of unlearning I fold my hands the opposite way.


To demonstrate, I’ll ask you to fold your hands as if you were in prayer. There are only two ways to do this. You can either place your left thumb and forefinger over your right thumb and forefinger or vice versa. Regardless of which way you do it, most people religiously — pardon the pun — do it one way or the other.


Now take a moment and fold your hands in the opposite manner. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.) It feels quite different, doesn’t it — almost unnatural? Of course, it isn’t.


Unlearning can also feel unnatural in the beginning but really it is just a different way of thinking about learning.


Therefore, whenever you feel you may be in need of unlearning I encourage you to fold your hands oppositely – think of it as becoming uncomfortable in your own skin. Alternatively, you may also choose to fold your arms the opposite way. Personally, I’m fond of this method because when people are closed to an idea or a person’s line of argument they will often defiantly fold their arms against their chest. By actively unfolding your arms and refolding them in an opposite manner, it can serve as a powerful physiological reminder of the importance of being open to unlearning.


In keeping with this spirit of folding, I’d like to highlight another unlearning folding exercise. How many times can you fold a piece of paper in half? Conventional wisdom holds that a strong person can do it only 7 times – at which point the paper gets too thick to fold.


In January 2002, Britney Gallivan, in an attempt to solve an extra credit problem for her high school math class, became the first person in the world to fold a piece of paper nine times. For good measure she then went on to fold a piece of paper a tenth, eleventh and twelfth time.


Gallivan did so questioning everything. First, she began by using ultra-thin toilet paper. Next, she used a very long strip of paper (about the length of six city blocks) and, lastly, she didn’t limit herself to folding the paper precisely in half after every fold. Instead, she sometimes folded the paper in different lengths and directions. (See photo). A More detailed explanation can be found in her book, How to Fold Paper in Half Twelve Times: An “Impossible” Challenge Solved and Explained.


In this same way, unlearning also requires us to fold common problems in new, different and innovative ways. It also requires us to become uncomfortable in our own skin.


Homework Assignment #2: Think of a problem that has been vexing you for some time. Challenge three basic or underlying assumptions about that problem and then develop new tools or approaches to tackle the problem.


Extra credit: To demonstrate your understanding of exponential growth, estimate how tall a piece of paper would grow if it could be folded 50 times. (Answer: Approximately 100 million kilometers – or 62 million miles).

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