Learn, un-learn, re-learn, repeat

In October 2017 I was sitting in the reception room of the music department at Wits University.  I was sweating profusely, not just because of the heat of the day, but because of overwhelming anxiety.  In 10 minutes, I was scheduled to go into the exam room to play my Grade 2 violin exam.  I hadn’t taken any exam in almost 15 years! Yes, at the ripe (old?) age of 45 I was learning to play the violin.  A humbling experience, to say the least.

My teacher, a man in his late 20’s was sitting next to me.  Across from us was a mother and her teenage daughter.  I could see that they were there for the girl’s piano exam from the Grade 6 piano book she was clutching.  The mother, smiling encouragingly, leant over to my teacher and asked:  “So, young man, what exam are you playing today?”  My teacher, explained with an embarrassed smile that he was actually the instructor – the older woman sitting next to him was the student!  The two of us still chuckle about that to this day.  (In case you’re wondering:  I passed the exam with flying colors and will do Grade 4 this year.  Woohoo!)

It’s funny that we assume that learning is for only the young.  Yet, neuroscience shows us that our brains continue to forge new neural pathways until the day we die.  One of the best ways of keeping your brain active is to engage in difficult tasks.  Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant, was great at this.  He lived to be 95 and continued to learn new skills that sometimes didn’t have anything to do with his business.

Chip Conley’s book “Wisdom at Work” tells the story of his second career as an adviser at Airbnb.  After selling his chain of boutique hotels in 2010, he became an advisor to the start-up of facilitating people letting out their rooms and houses.  He speaks about how he needed to play the role of mentor (sharing his wisdom and experience) and becoming an intern at a young tech company – thereby coining the term “mentern”.  Although he had a lot of knowledge and experience, he knew next to nothing about Airbnb’s new business.  The willingness to unlearn and re-learn has been critical in making a success of Airbnb.

As we get older, we usually gain wisdom and experience.  Unarguable this is valuable, but sometimes it can stop us from learning new things.  You can’t fill a cup that is already full, right?  I remember in my corporate career I used to think that I’d seen it all.  When a new problem arose, I would be the one who said something like “When we tried this in 1998, it didn’t work.”  I’m sure that my experience was valued by the team, but my unwillingness to let go of what I knew was sometimes an obstacle.  During a particularly challenging performance review my manager told me that the team found me… unhelpful.  What?  Me, unhelpful?! But I realized that I needed to let go of what I “knew” to be correct in order to re-learn and find new ways.

So, is your experience standing in the way of your learning?  What do you know to be true that’s stopping you from seeing new possibilities?  What do you need to let go of to make space to learn?  And what new stuff do you need to learn?

I’ve designed a template to help you think through this.  Use it and spend some time pondering it.  You might be surprised at the insights that it brings on what you need to unlearn and what you need to re-learn.

And if you want to learn humility, take up the violin.