(Dear Readers: Due to my extensive travel schedule, I will occasionally be sharing chapters from my latest book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future. I hope you enjoy today’s second “unlearning” lesson: Don’t Climb the Highest Mountain.)
“In some sense our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but how well we are able to unlearn.”–Alan Kay
Question #2: What is the world’s tallest mountain?
Did you say Mount Everest? You’re wrong. The answer is Mauna Kea and, as measured from its base to its summit, it is 33,465 feet high—or 4,436 feet taller than Mount Everest.
Mauna Kea’s distinguishing characteristic is that three-fourths of the mountain lies under water. Mount Everest remains the highest mountain as measured from sea level to summit, but Mauna Kea is the tallest as measured from the bottom its base to its top.
Both the question and the answer serve as a useful metaphor for the concept of unlearning, which I define as follows:
unlearn; v. [the act of unlearning; verbal n, to unlearn]
1. the act of releasing old knowledge.
2. to see the world not as one would like to see it, but as it really is.
3. to be un-uninformed.
4. to acquire wisdom either by replacing old information which has been supplanted by new knowledge or, alternatively, by relinquishing known falsehoods.
Unlearning is a critical skill, especially in today’s world of rapid and accelerating change. To understand why, consider this: scientific and technical knowledge is now doubling every seven years.
This may sound a tad astounding until one considers that there are now 6 billion-plus people populating the globe and 90 percent of the scientists ever to roam the planet are alive at this very moment. Moreover, these scientists and their growing legions of students are adding new knowledge in fields as varied as biotechnology, chemistry, genomics, material science, nanotechnology, neuroscience, robotics, quantum physics and numerous other fields at a prodigious rate.
Aided in their quest, the world’s researchers and entrepreneurs are now armed with a bevy of sophisticated new tools capable of doing everything from probing and plumbing sub-atomic particles deep inside the human body to visualizing the outer expanses of the universe. Further accelerating matters, these discoveries are now being enhanced with the aid of wickedly powerful supercomputers and then shared with fellow researchers on the other side of the globe, via social networks and wireless and fiber optic connections, in the proverbial blink of an eye.
One often overlooked implication of this growing tsunami of scientific knowledge is that as impressive as our knowledge base is today; it will represent only half of what society will know in just seven short years and a mere 25 percent in 14 years.
To get a glimpse of the near future, it helps to go back in time two doublings (or 14 years) and consider how advances in just two fields—semiconductors and fiber optic bandwidth—have enabled the creation of the cellphone and Internet and how those devices, in turn, have transformed society.
If you think of future knowledge as an iceberg (insert figure 1) that portion of the iceberg which lies above the water can be thought of as representing existing knowledge. That portion which resides below the water is the equivalent of future knowledge. And, just as the hidden part of Mauna Kea causes many people to overlook the fact that it is the tallest mountain in the world, future knowledge will also cause people to overlook obvious trends which will impact their businesses.
Unless, that is, they are open to unlearning.
Unlearning, unfortunately, is neither a natural skill nor is it an easy one to acquire, and it is here that the metaphor to an iceberg is particularly apt. Imagine you are the captain of a ship entering waters conducive to the creation of icebergs. To survive it is important to beware not only of the presence of the growing number of icebergs, you must also understand that—by an order of magnitude of two— the greater threat is that portion of the icebergs which are submerged but can’t be seen.
And just as a modest-sized iceberg sank the “unsinkable” Titanic, the growing number of future “icebergs” (e.g. biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, the semantic web, RFID, quantum physics, etc.) will similarly take down the most “unsinkable” of industries. To avoid this fate, it’ll be necessary to change course quickly and often, and unlearning is an essential skill every leader and organization must possess in order to safely navigate the future. Or, as Mark Twain, once said about his time as a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River, “Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was in order to be a pilot a man had to learn more than any man ought to learn; and the other was that he must learn it all over again every 24 hours.”
In between the old learning and the new learning, however, resides the often overlooked requirement of unlearning but, just as the bulk of Mauna Kea or the majority of an iceberg can’t be seen, it is necessary to be aware of its need. Thus, one of the first tricks to unlearning, is too simply acknowledge its existence as a vital component of the broader “mountain” of learning.
Homework Assignment #2: In 2001, Wikipedia was created by one man beginning with 100 entries. In its tenth full year (2011), over 684 million people access 10 million different encyclopedia articles which were drafted by 75,000 individuals in 264 different languages. Describe how knowledge providers such as encyclopedia companies and teachers have had to unlearn as a result of Wikipedia? For extra credit, describe how voice and speech recognition technologies, e-Books or social networking tools will require further unlearning in the future.