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 beliefs.
This is why skilled self-inquiry is so very important. When we examine our lives, we are able to identify myths that are no longer true and beliefs that hinder our growth. At Inspired Work, we advocate developing self-inquiry into an art form where we regularly shed the old and make room for the new. Think of it as software. If we don’t make room for the truth, the system will break down.
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.” Nineteen years into a new century, we have whizzed right past that one. Recently, tech journalist Kevin Kelly said that change has accelerated to the point that we are no longer growing towards a goal. Instead, 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 jump in.
Today, accelerating change is producing the greatest restructuring of work in our history. The biggest societal problem is that far too many of us are still in the era where security, repetition, and sameness were the prizes for taking a job. Today, with a 3.8% unemployment rate, why are so many people frightened? The fact is, we are looking at the wrong number.
48% of America’s workers characterize themselves as underemployed. Over 50 million workers over the age of 50 wonders if they will ever be able to work again in the business they used to be in. The elimination of task work isn’t just impacting coal miners and assembly-line workers. Disruption directly impacts millions of attorneys, claims adjusters, accountants, forklift drivers, office assistants, and more. Unfortunately, our political leaders, on both sides of the fence, are promising to rescue us rather than telling us a most simple of truths:
“You need to change your skill set.”
More importantly, we need to change our mindset. Try making room in your software for this:
The elimination of task work is providing freedom for many of us to do the work that we love. Security cannot be found in just another job. We find it by defining the work that matters. But, in order to let this truth in where it can flourish, we have to recognize we can change. How many of us don’t know how to change, don’t believe we can change or are simply too afraid to change?
Our ability to unlearn has become a crucial key to our future. Unlearning is simply making room for the truth. This is why regular self-inquiry is vitally important in staying contemporary and valuable in any workplace. We find an example in cynicism. Without finding and recognizing our cynicism, it operates in the dark, routinely killing off opportunities to change our lives. If clocking-in and clocking-out have lulled us into a trance, we will not realize that we haven’t taken the time to define work that we love or a meaningful mission, vision, and purpose.
In our Inspired Work Program, people change in just two days. It isn’t a random chance. They define the best and ideal work that fits their ambitions and dreams and career DNA. They walk out the door with clarity in how they will succeed with this brave new direction. The deliverable occurs because of the Socratic process, a form of questioning that leads them to their own truth. All of us are filled with software that no longer serves us. When we find it, we can let go and make room for a new life. This is what Toffler referred to.
I learned how to unlearn by studying with the late Phil Cohen, who was the head of The Leonardo Project at Concordia University. Phil worked with many of the world’s greatest musicians. His approach was amazing. Instead of teaching and imposing new skills and techniques, he helped reveal the real artist by removing obstacles. In other words, he helped his students find beliefs and behaviors that were in the way of living music. I had been fortunate to work with great teachers in classical piano performance. My desire to become a classical concert pianist vanished when I sat up all night listening to Herbie Handcock’s concert album at the Lincoln Center. The next morning, I walked into Daniel Pollack’s studio at USC. As he closed the big roller doors in the ancient mansion, he asked what I wanted to work on. I pulled Hancock’s album out of my backpack and said, “I want his job.”
He was not supportive. In hindsight, there were no shortcomings in his approach. The agenda was to learn. It was not to unlearn. But, layer after layer of technique and conditioning became frustrating blocks when I made a decision to become a jazz musician. Progress was wretchedly slow. A rock singer told me of Phil. He worked with world-famous jazz and pop artists. I called and it so happened he was visiting Los Angeles. The next afternoon, I was sitting in a recording studio with a guy who looked a bit like a Jewish stand-up comic. He had an eye condition and wore sunglasses indoors. On his head was a small Fedora hat. Phil 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 what I thought were amazing melodic lines. When finished, Phil peppered me with questions. “You studied with Daniel Pollack at USC?” “Yes.” You spent hours every day in practice rooms.” “Yes, until my hands were bleeding.” “You even did the Russian Exercises sitting on the floor.” Once again, 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 that lead us into real unlearning:
“I don’t know how to do that.”
Over the next few years, Phil invited me to play anything that I was working on or that came to mind. He had this inner radar that zeroed in on the moment where an obstacle got in the way of full expression. As these blocks fell away, I fulfilled my idea of a living musician. I had to make room for that musician to step forth.
When someone comes through one of our programs, we don’t tell people what to do. We set the stage for them to reveal their own truth. This is the value of skilled self-inquiry.
Unlearning requires connecting with the routine conversations we have in our heads each and every day. It is the most important conversation we are having because it shapes our lives.
So, let’s engage in a little test. See how you respond to the following statements.
Rapidly advancing technology is giving us freedom from tasks. We are no longer tied to a desk doing rote and monotonous work. Work is not going away but it is radically transformed. In order to join the future of work, it isn’t enough to look for a job. We must find the work we love.
Why is this so important? Because love is the only fuel that will persistently push us to change ourselves. Love will push us to adopt the kind of courage that pushes us into action whether we are afraid or unafraid. For the first time in the history of work, love is the ingredient that we need to be successful in a sustainable and growing fashion. Find a purpose that you love so deeply that you are willing to change your skillsets, your mindsets, your support systems, and your outlook.
Who on earth will do this for just another job?
One of the necessary skillsets in the new world of work is active learning. Savvy employers are only hiring active learners because they will not become obsolete! People have asked me, “What shall I study?”
I respond, “Study what you love! Become an expert in something you care about so much that you are able to help the world.”
The rate of change has hit such a dizzying height that today’s average college graduate will change careers, not jobs, 4-6 times. That means they have to learn how to sell themselves, build new support systems, influence others, stand up and present themselves or relegated to the scrap heap. How do we become willing to learn these skills? Especially if they frighten us? Do what you love.
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.” Usually, that individual was told by someone else that what they really wanted was a bad or stupid idea. They have been retelling that story for years. But, by lunch, they realize the truth has been in there all along.
I believe the single biggest challenge America faces today is not political. It is in helping inspire all of us who work to find our way into the future. Help everyone who works to understand that if you are working in a shrinking industry or company, leave! Stop waiting for the human resources death angel to come around the corner. Start changing your life right now. Because if you stay and hang on to the bitter end, your emotional or energetic margin will be smaller. You want big!
The truth sets us free. But first, it might piss us off.
You’re up for that. Right?
Last year, Phil Cohen passed away. What he gave to me touches virtually every person that I support. In many ways, every client conversation begins with a version of Phil’s opening line:
Because, somewhere in there, we are going to find your true voice.
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