Why Must We Unlearn?
“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, we are off the hook for eliciting valuable personal change. In other words, our own imagination renders us 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, at first, it required courage to jump in.
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 the workplace.
Here’s an example:
“No one makes a good living doing what they love.”
While the fallacy of this statement might seem a bit obvious, I cannot count the number of people I’ve met who carry that old chestnut around. It happened with Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons. When his show turned into a hit, he told a journalist, “What I am most happy about is that I am making a great living doing what my parents warned me not to do.” Today, Matt is worth $500million.
In my opinion, the greatest source of turmoil in our country is that half of our workers are underemployed. When people lose confidence in their ability to make a good living, of course, there will be turmoil! Human progress is always accompanied by fear because progress requires action. In our culture, we’ve been taught to torpedo such progress through cynicism, contempt, aimlessness, resignation, and frenzy. However, when we examine how these “filters” impact our willingness to grow, the dirt-colored glasses tend to lose power.
At Inspired Work, we help people identify obsolete beliefs and conditioning by asking the right questions. Then, we ask them the questions that design an upgrade. For many, it is amazing how quickly life can change by simply responding to a sophisticated question process.
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. 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 smoking two joints and listening to Herbie Hancock’s concert album from the Lincoln Center. The next morning, I walked into Daniel Pollack’s studio at USC. As he closed the big roller doors in the Adam Street House that used to home to the music school, 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.
But, the seed was planted and I continued to write new music and lose interest in replicating the old. The progress was wretchedly slow. A rock singer told me of Phil. We worked with world-famous jazz and pop artists all over the world. 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 Jewish stand-up comic with a Fedora hat and sunglasses. 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 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 to 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. Over time, I became a far better musician not by trying to turn into someone else, but by revealing my truth.
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. Years ago, we partnered with two outplacement firms. One executive asked to meet with me. He said, “We are getting these rave reviews from our clients. How would you describe someone who comes directly into outplacement versus someone who comes in after taking your program.
I said, “Well, the first one typically shows up aimless and frightened. After us, they show up to outplacement with bossiness! In other words, they are clear in what they want to do with their lives. They have defined the beliefs that are in the way of the mission. They have let go of those beliefs. They understand what kind of support they need in order to move forward.”
This is the value of skilled self-inquiry. Without that exploration, we continue doing what we are comfortable with, even if it doesn’t work. One of the most blood-curdling examples are parents who tell their kids to not expect to have the same opportunities they were given. These parents are telling their children to lower their expectations rather than even questioning whether not getting the same opportunities is good news!
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. 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.” Usually, that individual was told by someone else that what they wanted was a bad or stupid idea. They have been retelling that for years. But, by lunch, they realize the truth has been in there all along.
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 all people who work find their way into the future. When we tell people who are frightened we are going to fix it, we are not helping them at all. When we give them illiterate information about the work that is growing, they stop fixating on the work that is shrinking.
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 there is far greater power in helping people find their own truth. Sure, it might be disorganized. We might have to dig through a caustic belief to get to it. We might even get to that magic moment where someone says, “I don’t know how to do that.” Because, after this happens, the truth will pour in.
The truth sets us free. But first, it might piss us off.
You’re up for that. Right?
Phil recently passed away. What he gave to me touches virtually everyone that I touch. In many ways, every conversation that I have with clients begins with a version of Phil’s opening line:
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