How often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?

Today is April 14 and the Navigate the Chaos question is: “how often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?” Many people believe that once they graduate high school or college their learning has ended. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In a small but impactful publication entitled The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours, Marian Wright Edelman, American activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, summarized “Twenty-Five Lessons for Life.” In an interview she noted that “Growing up in Bennettsville, South Carolina there was one thing that my father continually stressed—education, education, education. My parents taught us that education and knowledge were an individual’s source of strength.”

In The Measure of Our Success, Edelman noted: “Don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind or you’re going to get left behind. The world is changing like a kaleidoscope right before our eyes.”

In a world where today's students will have job not yet created using technologies not yet invented to solve problems not yet identified, it is an absolute imperative that individuals across all industries demonstrate a commitment to being a life-long learner.

With disruptive technologies altering entire industries, causing drastic change in how people work, communicate, live, and just do about everything else, the number of jobs where people can simply turn up and be told how to do the job and be well paid for it is diminishing rapidly,” says John Howkins author of The Creative Economy. “We need now to go on learning throughout our lives,” he adds. “When somebody stops learning, now it’s like they’ve stopped thinking, or at least being creative.”

Futurist and best-selling author Alvin Toffler echoed similar thoughts when reflecting on how individuals can succeed in today’s hypercompetitive and ever-changing global marketplace. Toffler concluded that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

American inventor and businessman Charles Kettering noted “People are very open-minded about new things – as long as they’re exactly like the old ones.” This lack of connecting, developing, or using a new idea is also known as cognitive inertia.

Cognitive inertia refers to the tendency for beliefs or sets of beliefs to endure once formed. The phrase “we’ve always done it this way”, and any resistance to change, is a common adage illustrating cognitive inertia. The inclination to rely on familiar assumptions and exhibit a reluctance and/or inability to revise those assumptions, even when the evidence supporting them no longer exists or when other evidence would question their accuracy, presents a unique challenge to those looking to change a situation. The world of business presents a valuable case study.

As Forbes noted “most businesses in the United States kick the bucket before they reach middle age. Less than 0.1% of firms founded in the U.S. make it to the age of 40. And among firms founded in 1976, only 10% were still going strong a decade later.” Large, long-successful companies fall prey to cognitive inertia and shut their doors. Polaroid, founded in 1937, dominated the market for instant photographs and was also one of the first companies to invest in digital imaging, yet the business closed in 2008. In 1955, RCA was almost twice as big as IBM and was viewed as having better technology, yet by 1986, it was pronounced dead. The list of bankrupt or deceased giants goes on: RadioShack Corp., Blockbuster, and Borders to name a few.

Why did these once world-beaters succumb? In Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma, Charles A. O'Reilly and Michael L. Tushman suggest these companies, as well as many others, became extinct because they suffered from a failure by leadership to grapple with changing technologies and business markets. In short, the cognitive inertia demonstrated by leaders led to a lack of ambidexterity that, in the end, failed to help each organization remain competitive in their core market while also winning in new domains. Leaders that fail to learn, unlearn, and relearn lack the mental agility to manage in today’s volatile world.

Not all instances of cognitive inertia result in negative outcomes. Cognitive inertia is a key component of love, trust, and friendship. For instance, if evidence showed that a friend was dishonest, the cognitive inertia of the friendship would demand much more evidence to form an opinion than that required to form an opinion of a stranger. In this fashion, cognitive inertia provides an additional level of trust in a relationship.

How often are you learning, unlearning, and relearning?