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Unlearning Lesson #3: Become Uncomfortable in Your Own Skin

Posted in Unlearning

(Dear Readers: Due to my extensive travel schedule, I will occasionally be sharing chapters from my latest bookHigher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful FutureI hope you enjoy today’s third “unlearning” lesson: Don’t Climb the Highest Mountain.)

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

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

 Question #3: 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 some effort you can train your brain to see both images. In many ways, the journey of unlearning is comparable. This is to say unlearning provides a different perspective on learning but you must train your mind to view it as an equally legitimate educational outcome.

As with many journeys, it helps to begin small. To get started, it may first be beneficial for you to become uncomfortable in your own skin. One effective strategy to remind you of the importance of unlearning 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, clasp 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 consistently do it only one way.

Now take a moment and fold your hands in the opposite manner. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.) It feels 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 opposite your normal way—think of it as becoming uncomfortable in your own skin. You might 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 another person’s thinking or line of reasoning they defiantly fold their arms against their chest. By actively unfolding your arms and refolding them in an opposite manner this, too, 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 it a tenth, eleventh and twelfth time.

Gallivan did so by 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. 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 old problems in new, different and innovative ways. One good way to remind you of this is to become uncomfortable in our own skin and fold your hands and arms differently on occasion.

Homework Assignment #3: 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.

Interested in other “unlearning”-related posts? Check out this old post:

Unlearning Lesson #2: Don’t Climb the Highest Mountain


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