The Man Who Taught Me Unlearning
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
Alvin Toffler – Futurist
It has been said that love & hate cannot occupy the same space.
The same can be said of truth versus myth. Every day, technological innovation speeds up the world that we live in. But when someone characterizes a myth or belief as their truth, there is no room for change. In fact, as human beings hold onto obsolete beliefs, they are off the hook for eliciting valuable personal change. Helpless. In the 1970s, Alvin Toffler predicted that in today’s culture, people would be in a perpetual state of future shock, which he characterized as “trying to absorb too much change in too short a period of time.” Recently, tech journalist Kevin Kelly said that change has accelerated to the point that we are no longer growing towards a goal. We are in a constant state of “becoming.” For someone who has lived in that space for a while, I find the state of “becoming” quite wonderful. But, it required courage to go there.
Our ability to unlearn has become a crucial key to our future. Unlearning is simply making room for the truth. It is much like a chore that I did with my Apple desktop recently. So much is going into my computer that I periodically have to dump stuff to make room for the new. If I try storing all of this obsolete junk in the cloud, I eventually will be buried by files that are obsolete and the human mind is much the same.
If we believe that employers have failed us by losing the predictability and survival model that worked for years within the industrial revolution, we will need to rely on luck in finding new and more interesting opportunities.
When a CEO clings to the belief that human capital is human resources responsibility, he or she will never drive that organization into category leadership.
When we tell our children they will not have the number of opportunities that we had, we have given them a corrupted piece of software that sets lower expectations and encourages them to give up before getting started.
I learned how to unlearn by studying with Phil Cohen, the late and great leader of The Leonardo Project at Concordia University. In my 20s, I had one career ambition: To get a recording contract and do concerts. I was giving classical concerts by the time I was seven. This led to a rigorous trajectory of development from great teachers. When I turned 18, I was accepted into Daniel Pollack’s master class at USC. My perceived road forward cracked when I heard Herbie Hancock’s concert album from Lincoln Center. From that point forward, I wanted to play fresh music, less linear and fully spontaneous. I wanted to become the kind of pianist and composer that had enough confidence to step over the boundaries from the past.
But, I was having a dreadful time of it. I overplayed lines. I routinely stuck to the known with harmony and rhythm. A rock singer told me of Phil. He worked with world-famous jazz and pop artists all over the world. It so happened he was coming to Los Angeles. I begged for a meeting, got it and soon found myself in a recording studio with a guy who looked a bit like Jewish stand-up comic with a Fedora. He wore sunglasses indoors because of a sensitivity to light. So, the room was quite dark. He waved his hand towards the piano and said, “Please, play something for me.” I proceeded with a tortured little ballad I had written, filled with angst and led by what I thought were amazing melodic lines. When I finished, Phil peppered me with questions. “You studied with Daniel Pollack at USC?” “Yes.” You practiced for hours in practice rooms.” “Yes, until my hands were bleeding.” “You even did the Russian Exercises sitting on the floor.” I nodded.
At that, Phil leaned forward and pronounced, “You need an emotional enema. If you hope to ever play one note of living music, you are going to have to forget everything you have been taught.”
I responded with the first few words leading us to unlearning:
“I don’t know how to do that.”
Over the next few years, Phil taught me that unlearning comes from observing anything that is blocking us from greatness. All it requires is a little bit of courage and persistence. By and large, myths, untruths, and limiting beliefs persist and even flourish when we avoid self-examination and inquiry. One of my spiritual leaders once said, “The most important conversation we are having is the conversation we are having with ourselves. If we want to improve the quality of our lives, improve the quality of the conversation.”
Time and time again, we have participants come into our Inspired Work Program with the declaration, they will be the one person “who doesn’t get it.” Socrates believed we help people connect with their own truth by asking the right questions. This is what we do. And, the ones that didn’t believe realize they can define and rely on their truth. This is far more powerful than having another talking head in a room telling people what to do.
My relationship with Phil grew over the years. At the time, I had the best piano of his clients in Los Angeles. I would sit in the hallway peeking through the slats at musical icons in my living room! But mostly, I had this far more objective view of how we worked with artists. He watched them like a hawk and when they ran into a wall, he would ask, “What did you do there?” “Where did you learn to play it that way?” “Does it really fit your style, your truth?” Until he asked that question, I didn’t know I had a “style.” We would compare what I wanted to accomplish with a section of music and he would lead me to these superficial walls that had been imposed on me by someone else. I didn’t need years of therapy to move forward. Once, I saw the block and realized where it had come from, it lost its power.
We live in a world of transformative and dramatic change. I believe the single biggest challenge America faces today isn’t political. It is in helping hordes of workers find their way into the future of work. This will not happen if we patronize people with promises of a return to the past. It requires courage to explore our truth. It requires courage to look for obsolete beliefs.
Rigorous self-examination isn’t especially popular in western culture. Human nature seems to prefer certainty to humility. After delivering skilled Socratic (question-driven) programs for years, I have come to the conclusion that everyone has their own truth but they have to be willing to look. When I propose that we search for the truth to an individual, she or he often responds that self-examination could turn their life upside down. If that is the case, then perhaps it is time to turn that life upside down. In our engagement programs, many employers have said, “Well if we get them into talking about their truth, they will pack up their bags and leave.” Actually, about 5% of our organizational participants self-select to leave. Invariably, they are the ones that must leave if that team is to thrive.
The truth sets us free. But first, it might piss us off.
I’m up for that.
Recently, Phil Cohen passed away. He changed my world. He touched virtually everyone that I have touched. In many ways, every conversation that I have with clients begins with a version of Phil’s opening line,
When we take that and boil it down to our truth, we can throw the script away.