I’ve lost count of how many job aspirants have claimed to be “lifelong learners.” Hat tip to them. I’ve yet to encounter anyone boasting of their unlearning skills, but I’d be keen to meet such a person because I believe unlearning is as vital to personal growth—and, in my neck of the woods, investing success, as any other talent. To quote author and futurist Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Or, as RuPaul has said, “The whole point is to…use all the colours in the crayon box.”
If we aren’t willing to rethink, revise, and sometimes, even reject, what we believe to be true, we’re only using half the colours—and not necessarily the brightest ones. Rapid advances in technology, such as machine learning and AI, are the driving forces of the sea change in how humanity will live, work, invest, and grow. The thinking that got us here will not be the same thinking that will get us there—to the next giant step in human evolution. Visionary leaders, such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, are masters of unlearning.
Nadella took over Microsoft in 2014 and immediately recognized the company needed to change its approach. He wanted Microsoft to “unlearn” its dependency on dominating the market with its products and “relearn” to focus on creating products and services that optimized employee and organizational performance through cloud computing and AI. To that end, Nadella wanted employees to unlearn a fear of failure and relearn agility, curiosity, and innovation. Despite the torrid pace of technological change, Microsoft has remained an industry leader and is one of the world’s most valuable companies with a current market value of US$2.2 trillion. The best companies learn—and unlearn— a lot quickly, to stay agile and adapt to changing circumstances.
Developing our capacity for unlearning is a powerful antidote to confirmation bias—a persistent tendency to only pay attention to and accept information that confirms our existing beliefs and ideas. Confirmation bias serves an evolutionary advantage as a heuristic for modifying our mental models of the world. If everyone agrees ‘robins sing’, we don’t expend time and energy to fact check it. And, indeed, every time we hear birdsong, it confirms the fact. However, confirmation bias leads us into trouble when we fail to recognize those situations that require digging more deeply before coming to a conclusion. Getting stuck in a past learning can limit our thinking and lead to making a poor decision. Unlearning can come to the rescue.
How can we learn to unlearn? Simple curiosity will get us most of the way there. Instead of rushing to come up with answers, we should give at least equal time to coming up with great questions. To quote from Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen master and author, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Being humble is equally important. Many times, investors who have been successful in the past, may think too highly of themselves and neglect to give credit where it is due. Howard Marks, the co-founder of Oaktree Capital has said it’s like someone going through an airport and using a moving walkway and thinking of themselves as a fast walker when, in fact, their speed is the sum of their own pace and the machine’s! Likewise, investors who performed admirably during a period of historically low interest rates where asset prices for many growth stocks soared, may wonder where their acumen went during the ensuing period of rising inflation.
For investors, unlearning requires getting comfortable with being, at times, uncomfortable. It requires being more aware of the general environment, economic cycles, and the reality that the world is a complicated place with a lot of moving parts and that curiosity is a more valuable currency than certainty.