“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.
Though this quote is from Toffler’s book “Future Shock,” written in 1970, these words couldn’t ring truer as we usher in a new year and another decade. The last decade has been a test of our ability to embrace change, adapt, and advance. Let’s look back at the last ten years. The ubiquitous nature of mobile phones, access to fast internet, pervasive adoption of technology, and the unmistakable influence of social media have changed the game. It’s not just technology that has changed — social constructs, and careers have been swept through a massive revolution.
Traditional workplaces and practices are fast disappearing. Gone are the days of career trajectories that are linear and singular. The new work order is one that’s open, collaborative, and agile. It’s not surprising then that there are entire industries catering to change management and learning and development. An essential skill for the next decade will be the ability to view change not as a challenge, but as an opportunity to grow and innovate.
The change leaves us with only two choices — to act or to be acted on. Today, learning to navigate and adapt to change is not just a survival tactic, it’s the only way to thrive.
Think about this — the top jobs of this decade didn’t even exist a decade ago. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report highlights, multiple times, that it is imperative and unavoidable that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning. In fact, it suggests that by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant re-skilling and upskilling. The skills slated to grow in prominence by 2022 include analytical thinking and innovation as well as active learning strategies.
So, what does a professional in this environment look like? This is a person committed to a proactive and persistent pursuit of excellence — through unlearning, relearning, and learning. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization describes it as the ability to “classify and reclassify information, evaluate its veracity, change categories when necessary, move from the concrete to the abstract and back, to look at problems from a new direction”
Knowledge Experts v/s Knowledge Entrepreneurs
What today’s knowledge economy needs today are fewer knowledge experts and more knowledge entrepreneurs.
The difference? Knowledge Experts are satiated with information, so much so that it could be difficult for them to branch out and begin to learn in a new way. Knowledge Entrepreneurs thrive in challenge and chaos, driven by an insatiable quest for learning, growth, collaboration, and value creation.
To solve the demands of a changing world, we need to go beyond — to take ideas from drawing boards to the real world. This can only be done with the courage, conviction, and commitment that comes with being an entrepreneur.
The way ahead — Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning.
Learning is an innate part of the human experience, and it’s something we seek at all stages of life. Today, as the fortunate inhabitants of the knowledge economy, we have the best tools and resources at our disposal. Whether it’s Google, YouTube, social media, or MOOCs, access, and exposure to information and opportunities has never been easier. What a colossal waste it would be not to use this opportunity to learn to grow in our pursuit of knowledge.
We can only learn and evolve if we are open-minded and willing to let go of anything that might be holding us back — whether this is an old experience, habit, or method. This does not mean that we forget and discard old knowledge, but instead, embrace new ideas, approaches, and skills.
This mindset shift is not just limited to individuals. Both individuals and organizations need to adopt a culture of learning, unlearning, and relearning. Take, for instance, companies like Kodak and Blackberry. Once the pioneers of photography and mobile phone technology, they have slowly faded into the background. The biggest reason? They failed to take the opportunity to change and adjust to new market conditions and rival technologies.
In other words, they failed to unlearn.
Why unlearning is the skill of the future
Ray Kurzweill’s law of accelerating returns talks about the exponential, and not linear effects of technological changes. In fact, his analysis says that we won’t be experiencing 100 years of progress in the next 100 years — we’ll be experiencing 20,000 years of progress!
In today’s connected world, technology takes unexpected turns affecting and irrevocably impacting everything it touches. Think about a life minus the technologies, apps, and websites that simply did not exist 10 years ago. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Let’s take a moment to think about voice technology and artificial intelligence today. With the shift towards voice communication, the widespread adoption of voice assistants, there is no doubt that engineers of the future have to be ready to unlearn and learn — rapidly.
On that note, it’s worth knowing that there are nearly 2500+ programming languages today. Successful programmers can stay at the top of their game only by unlearning outdated code — so they can learn and write the code of the future.
The need for unlearning is not just limited to technology. Think about the field of marketing. Search engines and social media have changed the face of the game. Today’s most successful marketers are those who have unlearned traditional advertising and marketing strategies in order to learn new technologies and behavior influencers to stay ahead in the game.
Another example? Data. Data analysis, data science, and data management — are all skills that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Yet, they are the most sought-after skills in today’s market.
Even more traditional fields such as teaching and academia have changed tremendously over the last decade — thanks in no small part to the influence of technology.
What this means for us
To put it simply, all learning is unlearning.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the key is to not be deliberate about unlearning. Just replace the old with the new, and the unlearning will happen by itself.
Here’s an example — you want to overcome a long-standing coffee-drinking habit. Instead of obsessing over the act of giving up coffee, focus all your attention on drinking water. Do that each time you reach out for that cup of coffee. Slowly, you’ll find yourself thinking of the water, more, and the coffee, less.
It’s really that simple. An open mind and a commitment to new ideas is all it takes.
In our next post, we’ll tell you how you can commit to Learning, Unlearning, and Unlearning in your everyday life. Stay tuned!