How often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?

Today is July 15 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?” American writer, futurist, and businessman Alvin Toffler wrote a series of seminal works on the future. Toffler published his first major book about the future with Future Shock in 1970 which would go on to sell more than six million copies. Toffler coined the term "future shock" to refer to what happens to a society when change happens too fast, which results in social confusion and normal decision-making processes breaking down.

He and his wife Heidi Toffler, who collaborated with him for most of his writings, then moved on to examining the reaction to changes in society with another best-selling book, The Third Wave in 1980. In it, he foresaw such technological advances as cloning, personal computers, the Internet, cable television and mobile communication. His later focus, via their other best-seller, Powershift, (1990), was on the increasing power of 21st-century military hardware and the proliferation of new technologies. In Powershift Toffler wrote “The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Toffler learned firsthand how to navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well by understanding the necessity to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Born in New York City, and raised in Brooklyn, Toffler was inspired to become a writer at the age of 7 by his aunt and uncle. "They were Depression-era literary intellectuals and they always talked about exciting ideas." After meeting Heidi in college, the two married and moved out to the Midwest where they spent five years as blue-collar workers on assembly lines while studying industrial mass production in their daily work. He compared his own desire for experience to other writers, such as Jack London, who in his quest for subjects to write about sailed the seas, and John Steinbeck, who went to pick grapes with migrant workers. In their first factory jobs, Heidi became a union shop steward in the aluminum foundry where she worked. Alvin became a millwright and welder.

His hands-on practical labor experience helped Alvin Toffler land a position at a union-backed newspaper, a transfer to its Washington bureau in 1957, then three years as a White House correspondent, covering Congress and the White House for a Pennsylvania daily newspaper. They returned to New York City in 1959 when Fortune magazine invited Alvin to become its labor columnist, later having him write about business and management. After leaving Fortune magazine in 1962, Toffler began a freelance career, writing long form articles for scholarly journals and magazines.

Toffler spent the 1960s conducting research with Heidi for what would eventually become their first book Future Shock. The world has been in constant change from its inception. Despite man’s attempt to create normalcy, however that may be defined, the world maintains a constant, uninterrupted, and dynamic flow of change. Learning the art of living well amidst such change, which is often chaotic at times, requires one to be comfortable with the iterative process of learning, unlearning, and relearning. As Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock: “To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots - religion, nation, community, family, or profession - are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources.”

But this ‘searching out totally new ways’ to do just about anything is often met with resistance from those who are unable, unwilling, or unrealistic about the rate and frequency of change. As Toffler wrote in The Third Wave: "A new civilization is emerging in our lives, and blind men everywhere are trying to suppress it. This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changed ways of working, loving, and living; a new economy; new political conflicts; and beyond all this an altered consciousness as well...The dawn of this new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes."

To survive and thrive in a world of constant change, those who navigate the chaos often put into practice the observation of psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization who noted in Future Shock: “The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Toffler was unapologetic regarding the role individuals had when it came to adapting to change and wrote “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.” This trauma of transition is in perpetual motion. Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well happens during this transition, while the world changes, and requires a daily commitment.

  • How often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?

  • How often do you look at problems from a new direction?

  • Are you blind and trying to suppress change? If so, why is that?