Unlearning – Today’s Shockingly Important Skillset
In a world where change grows every day, it is vitally important that we become athletic active learners. It is equally important that we become “unlearners.” America’s great, late futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that by the turn of the century, most of us would be in a state of “future shock,” which he characterized as a paralysis from trying to absorb too much change in too short a period of time. He also told us that the future would belong to those of us who develop the capability to learn, unlearn, and learn again.
How on earth do we unlearn? How do we identify the beliefs, the software, the education and conditions that are obsolete and delete them? How do we become skillfully suspicious of everything we know? For me, the journey began when I gave up the need to be right.
Many of us never have the gift of unlearning and yet that became natural for me because of a brilliant and wise mentor. I went to USC to become a classical pianist. As a freshman, I was fortunate to become part of concert pianist Daniel Pollack’s Master Class. There, I found myself in a ridiculously competitive environment but stayed ahead of the game by practicing until I dropped – day-after-day. During one session, Pollack asked what I wanted to work on. I pulled out a copy of Herbie Hancock’s concert album from Lincoln Center and shyly announced, “I want his job.” The idea of stepping out of classical music was dismissed on the spot. However, to my point-of-view, Frederick Chopin had also been a revolutionary very much like Hancock. Pianists of his time voiced great difficulty in being able to play his music because older styles filled their musical vocabulary. Later, I had the same challenge growing as a jazz musician. Old software got in the way. Quite simply, there wasn’t room for the new.
A rock singer told me of Phil Cohen, the legendary Artistic Director of Concordia University’s Leonardo Project. I asked what he did and she said, “He gets rid of blocks. He opens the door to becoming a true artist.” I had the good fortune to secure a session with him. He was wearing a Heisenberg Fedora and sunglasses, sitting in the corner of a recording artist’s living room. He motioned to me, “Play something.” I performed a tortured little ballad that I was quite proud of. When I was finished, he asked, “You studied at USC? Did you play the Russian exercises for hours? Even on the floor?” After several affirmative answers, he continued, “You need an emotional enema. If you hope to play one living note of music you are going to have to forget everything you have ever been taught.”
It was one of the single most frightening moments in my life. By agreeing to study with Phil Cohen, I was making an agreement to unlearn. He had an acute radar in zeroing in on thinking and behavior that blocked the parts of me that had yet to flourish. Over the years, Phil gave me the skill of forgetting, of letting go of the “right way” to play or think or behave. I had the nicest piano of his LA clients. So, he moved everyone to my home. I used to sit in the hall and peek through the slats in the door simply stunned at the musical icons sitting at my piano or singing as he played. But what was even more exciting was to see some of the most successful artists in the world of music eager to surrender their best thinking – quickly.
Phil’s work informs so much of what I do. His teaching shows up when a client throws away the script and facilitates a miracle. I see it when a client who wants to be a writer forgets the syntax and let’s out his soul. It happens when someone answers one of our questions and realizes the one belief that continues to dictate his or her life is now obsolete. The new truth can flow in. Time and time again, it is clear that untruth and truth cannot occupy the same place.
Self-inquiry is the most reliable way of beginning an unlearning process. Until we examine our own lives, we are usually living someone else’s life or instructions. Questioning our beliefs and way we live is key to having fulfilling lives and it is key to positive change. Periodic self-examination used to be enough. Today, change happens so quickly that continuous self-inquiry not only allows us to be more flexible and nimble, it paves the way for rapid and transformative growth. I know this because we teach it.
The ability to unlearn gave me the life that I lead today. It pierced through the righteousness that once held up a one-dimensional future where music was my only career option. It opened the door towards realizing I am here to touch people’s lives. Unlearning allowed me to open my eyes in the morning and realize that life is now filled with meaning and purpose and goodness. Unlearning not only makes it easier to change, it makes it possible to change. Because of mentors like Phil Cohen, I am no longer concerned with hanging onto my old or even current self. It is far more exciting to see what’s coming. By identifying the restrictions and letting go, each edition is better than the one before.
It doesn’t get better than this.
Each day, we get to see the world with new eyes.
Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work Services, Inc.
(C) Copyright, 2017, David Harder – (All Rights Reserved)
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