Remember when Yoda tells Luke Skywalker to unlearn what he has learned in The Empire Strikes Back?
OK, so maybe we’re not all Star Wars fans. But yes, I promise you, I am going somewhere with this.
While browsing through a few of the blogs I read on a regular basis, I came across a post about video games and learning on John Hagel’s Edge Perspective. John makes some great points about the growing importance of exploring and developing niches as a means of ensuring the enterprise of tomorrow’s success.
Video games are certainly a great way to learn. When it comes to games that teach players to build and manage resources, these can actually be effective skills that will readily translate into other areas of life.
This got me thinking about how learning actually works, and one of the most useful components of the learning process that we very often ignore: unlearning.
So how can we actually take advantage of this?
Too often we think about learning in a very narrow way: we think that we are continually learning more and more, and constantly improving our skills and knowledge.
In reality, however, this is very seldom the case. We all have a finite capacity — we don’t just absorb more and more knowledge without losing a bit in the process. I certainly don’t want to portray us all as sponges with a limited capacity for absorption, but in some senses, that is quite an accurate analogy.
It’s not even that we have to ‘dump out’ some of our existing knowledge to contain new knowledge. It’s more often the case that our existing knowledge of how to do something often impedes the new knowledge we are attempting to gain.
Kathy Sierra talked about horsemanship as an example of this type of learning in an older post over at Creating Passionate Users. Mostly, she talks about unlearning many of the bad habits that we use as shortcuts in order to get something accomplished.
We all use these shortcuts — we simply learn the easiest (and what we consider to be the most painless) way to solve a particular task, without really thinking objectively about our actions.
Let me give you another example.
For every post I write on this site, I create a list of keywords (which also get fed back to Technorati so people can find the posts I write). When I first started adding keywords to my posts, I tended to add words like ‘gaming’ and ‘technology’ beside they described, in general terms, the topics I was writing about.
After visiting many other sites to take a look at how they tagged their keywords, I was a bit surprised. Most publishers tagged their posts with keywords such as ‘Google’ or ‘Nintendo’ — words that described much more specifically what it was they were discussing.
Without even realizing I had done it, I had learned to tag my posts in a particular way, which I found was actually hurting the discovery of my site. Through unlearning the ineffective tagging technique and readapting with a more successful technique, I actually improved the discovery of my posts quite a bit.
Don’t just learn from your own mistakes. Too often what you’ve learned will actually be quite invisible to you, and it will take going to a competitor to benchmark yourself against their techniques.
For more information on how to do this, take a look at the previous article I wrote about collaboration and benchmarking.
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