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Learning to Unlearn

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Learning to Unlearn

During one of my recent speaking gigs, someone in the audience asked me a pertinent question – how to unlearn the past...

5 Minutes Read

During one of my recent speaking gigs, someone in the audience asked me a pertinent question – how to unlearn the past for future jobs. I had no straight answer, but the question really made me think: how will we unlearn skills, unlearn education, unlearn work, and unlearn jobs to be successful in this new machine age? Jobs were stable, linear and singular in the past – people chose one path and pursued it over the course of their entire lives, from education to retirement. The pace of business change has intensified dramatically now as nearly 70% of executives agree that their industry will change more in the next five years than it did in the previous fifty. The stakes are even higher because the goal posts are now moving so quickly.

Alvin Toffler had asserted that “the illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” But what exactly is unlearning? Can we literally erase things we learnt? If unlearning the past is so easy, why do organizations continue to struggle to find the right talent? And why is our education system not preparing kids for the future jobs?

I am starting to believe that unlearning is a skill that needs to be cultivated along with learning. Unlearning is not about forgetting what you already know. It’s about being courageous to challenge the status quo (“things that I know that are no longer critical to survive in the future”) and breaking down old rules to write new ones. For instance, successful entrepreneurs continue to unlearn their mistakes and learn and relearn new ways to disrupt a particular industry until they achieve success.

Kodak is one example cited in endless conferences and industry reports about digital disruption. But the fall of Kodak also reflects the sobering truth — a company’s inability to unlearn the traditional pathways to success. It didn’t know how and why it needed to change and adjust to the reality of new market conditions. Therefore, we can learn a lot about the importance of unlearning from Kodak’s failure.

Also, part of the issue with unlearning is that our education system has always taught us to learn and learn, not to constantly unlearn and relearn. We need to teach kids to learn to unlearn the habits and beliefs that hold them back and to be open to new skills, experiences, behaviors and knowledge for future jobs. It’s like stripping the old paint before repainting. Luckily, some universities are leading with example.

The University of Sydney’s new initiative, Unlearn Career Path, is aimed at better preparing graduates to succeed in a world where the careers and jobs of the future will be very different from today. That’s why the university has been doing some unlearning of its own: changing the way they teach and the way students learn. Per university’s web site, “our new curriculum provides students with the skills, capabilities and agility to thrive in a changing world. There are now more opportunities to study and combine a wider range of subjects, work on real-world projects, access cross-disciplinary learning tools and programs, and exchange and intercultural opportunities.” The future of education will be to help people actively unlearn and learn as they see fit by providing experiential playgrounds.

The rise of the new machines is a game-changing moment in which it could be all too easy to get sidetracked. Changing business models often translate to skill set imbalances. Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning are likely to replace repetitive human tasks rapidly in the future, challenging workers to focus on new skills and adjust to rapid changes in core job skillsets. This trend requires organizations and higher education institutions to help workers and students learn to unlearn so they can acquire and nurture the skills not only required today but that also fit tomorrow’s job requirements. Here is our take on 21 new jobs of the future that will require new skills, new tools and new ways of working.

The future of your career will not be determined by your last job title or your 15- to 20-year-old educational degree or certification. It will be based on your ability to quickly unlearn the past. In the end, it will come down to survival of the fastest to learn to unlearn for the future jobs.


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