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Top Five Books on Unlearning (for 2012)

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Dear Readers:

As is my annual tradition, here is a list of the books which have caused me to engage in the most unlearning over the past year. You will note that the books include both new and older books. (If you’ve read a book that challenged your thinking in the past year and/or caused you to do some unlearning, I’d love to hear about it. My list is neither comprehensive or complete–and, luckily, it never will be–for the task of unlearning is never complete.)

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. A wonderful book! Before I read it, I believed extroverts made better leaders; open office-space plans encouraged innovation; and “brainstorming” was an effective process for generating ideas. After reading this book I’ve unlearned all of these notions—plus countless others. You can follow the author @SusanCain.

2. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb. Written by the author of one of my favorite unlearning books of all-time, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, this latest book has similarly uprooted my thinking. Instead of seeking to minimize the role of randomness, uncertainty and chaos in our lives (a fool’s errand), Taleb makes the powerful case that we need to build individuals, organizations and societies that thrive in spite of these forces. As an analogy consider an overly protective “helicopter” parent who does everything in his/her power to shield their child from every lurking danger. This parent may honestly believe they are protecting their child but, in reality, they are hurting them child by preventing the child from obtaining the life skills necessary to survive on their own in an uncertain and chaotic world. Follow the author @NNTaleb.

3. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Scientifically, there is no reason why shampoo, laundry detergent or toothpaste must foam. The reason this characteristic is baked into the products is because the foam serves as a reward for engaging in the activity and, soon, a habit begins to form—which is precisely what the company desires because it wants you to keep purchasing their shampoo, detergent or toothpaste. Whether you’re interested in forming a positive new habit, breaking an old bad one or just understanding why you do what you do, this book is a good place to start. Follow the author at @CDuhigg.

4. Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The classic book begins with this simple but powerful quotation: Ne te quaesiveris extra, which is Latin for “Do not search outside yourself.” In the middle of the book, Emerson writes, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and near the end, he states, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” The lesson? What I took away is that it’s important to spend an ample amount of time just thinking and reflecting. (You must unlearn the idea that these activities are frivolous or a waste of time). It is also OK—and beneficial—to change your thinking over time. And, lastly, teachers, mentors, friends and colleagues all serve important roles but, at the end of the day, the only person who can really learn—or unlearn—anything is you. (Sadly, this is no Twitter feed for Ralph Waldo Emerson. He died in 1882. There are, however, numerous individuals helping keep this legacy alive on Twitter.)

5. A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher. This 1977 book is heavy and difficult to read at times but it’s worth the effort. Having personally been involved in both politics and technology for years, it is easy to believe that knowledge ultimately points us towards “solutions” to “problems.” Unfortunately, this isn’t true. There is, however, a knowledge that it is more important but, ultimately, more difficult to obtain and that is self-knowledge. The reason self-knowledge is important is because if enough people obtain it, some problems may, in fact, be addressed. And those that are not? Well, self-knowledge removes the anxiety of feeling we need a solution to every problem. It’s a powerful life skill. (The author died in 1997 but his legacy is being kept alive @EFSSociety.)

Related Posts by Jack Uldrich, Author of Higher Unlearning.

Best Books on Unlearning for 2011
Best Books on Unlearning for 2010
Best Books on Unlearning for 2009

3 thoughts on “Top Five Books on Unlearning (for 2012)”

  1. Brian Hanf says:

    Good stuff. I like the line “removes the anxiety of feeling we need a solution to every problem.”

  2. Kim says:

    One of the biggest unlearning books for me was the first Harry Potter book. It challenged how I look at the world. Could, or maybe should, staircases move once we step onto them? I think the answer to that in the general sense, is no. It would not be practical to be re-routed every time you are going upstairs. However, not knowing where you’re going certainly adds adventure and novelty to life. Plus, change seems to keep life feeling fresh and seems to keep my brain at (seemingly) peak performance.
    Another thought stream that I learned from the book was to wonder what would I do differently if I could wave a magic wand and have it done. What would I do away with and what would I keep? Often, the learning is in the process and not the end. How would the world change if we did away with the processes? I think this is the beginning of great innovation.
    In conclusion, perhaps the most important lesson I learned from the first Harry Potter book, was that insight happens when we least expect it. Sometimes this unexpected treasure is more valuable for the insight we go in search of.

  3. Kim says:

    I’d like to add that I read the first Harry Potter book during graduate school when I was constantly being challenged to think, to think of new ideas, and to push the limits of conventional thought.

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