"When any real progress is made we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before." ... Henry Dvid Thoreau
I am a huge Thoreau fan – his theories, beliefs, actions, and words. As I near the end of a year long, intensive unlearning process, these particular words from Thoreau strike a chord.
After many years in the “real” world, I was interested in adapting new ideas and concepts as I evolve my career. I immersed myself in a course of study to learn a new coaching methodology to interact with people and organizations and help them achieve their goals. On the first day, we were told quite simply: in order to learn, we were going to need to unlearn. We all had qualities and skills that had brought us great success. We needed to accept these may no longer serve. What may have been considered strengths were now being characterized as “edges” and a part of the “shadow self”.
I pondered as I jumped into this program to see what I would find. The beginning steps were painful, like trying to find the undo button to my mind. It felt a deliberate and literal process to clean house and the attic was a bit cluttered. At the same time I was forcing massive amounts of new information into my head. I had a constant, dull headache. I felt clumsy with my words and thoughts. I wondered if and when it would all “click”.
Next came the absorption phase. My mind was mush. I was processing all of this learning and trying desperately to translate it into something meaningful. There was so much “new” there were times I couldn’t recall basic information. Someone asked me a trivial question and I was stunned I couldn’t remember. My mind was blank. Yet, it wasn’t. It was in process. Like when the rainbow wheel starts spinning on my Mac. It’s busy. Best leave it be to do its thing. Take a beat and it will tell you when it’s ready to take on something else.
Now, I am in the heart of Thoreau’s quote. Thoreau was a Darwin enthusiast. He embraced the concept of new creation. My greatest learning in the process of unlearning is this: Unlearning isn’t about forgetting. It’s about learning to unlearn. It’s not the undoing or deleting of a past thought, belief, skill, or trait. Unlearning is about adaptation and flexibility.
It’s creating a new ready state to meet new aspirations. It allows our minds to consider how to best redirect. It looks at things through a different lens and adjust accordingly. It’s awareness that there may be some things we have learned that do not serve the current state. We can let these fade to the background and perhaps become extinct. This creates the space to allow for new ideas to seed, flourish, and integrate with all we have learned and unlearned. When we learn how to unlearn we are ready to start anew. We are open to the possibility of evolution and what we could become.