Big Picture

Flex Your Curiosity to Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”  – Alvin Toffler.

In his 1970 book, Future Shock, written with Adelaide Farrell, the prescient futurist foresaw the complexities of the 21st century. He anticipated the sharing economy, remote working, and much more. Today, 50 years later, many of his predictions have come true. We live in a digital age, and surviving and thriving in it requires us to set aside many things we learned—the unlearning—and relearn a new way of living.

One critical attribute—curiosity—can help us with our unlearning and relearning. When accompanied by humility, curiosity enables us to admit that our knowledge is limited and seek new knowledge. As kids, we ask questions constantly. But we stop asking questions when we grow old. The educational system rewards one for having answers and not for asking questions. As we progress through school, we ask fewer and fewer questions. Soon we forget the art of questioning and develop a fear that if we ask questions, we will be perceived as ignorant. 

In our quest for lifelong learning, there are times when we are learning something new. Sometimes we may have to unlearn what we learned and relearn it to become innovative.  

Learning, unlearning, and relearning all require us to be curious.

Curiosity’s Role in Learning and Osmosis

In a 2014 study conducted at the University of California, Davis, researchers found that curiosity influences memory and, thereby, the ability to retain what one learns. Curiosity primes our brain for receiving new knowledge and makes learning a rewarding experience.

Curious people exercise their brains constantly. Just like how our body becomes better with physical exercise, the brain becomes better with the mental practice of wondering about a topic, coming up with questions, and learning about it. New ideas and thoughts get triggered when we are curious. 

In a structured educational setting, the opportunities to be curious exist. The instructors invite questions from the students during the session as well as outside the session. Formal presentations have Q&A time built into the schedule. It is up to all learners to flex their curiosity muscles and make learning more rewarding. 

Does it surprise you that The Beatles never formally learned music? John Lennon’s mother, Julia, taught her son to play the banjo and taught him simple chords and songs. Paul McCartney had a musical background. His father was a musician and encouraged him to take piano lessons, but most of McCartney’s learning happened by listening to music and imitating other artists. As they matured, The Beatles continued to learn by osmosis, absorbing American rock and roll, rhythm and blues, among others. Their inquisitiveness about the appeal of winning songs led to experimenting with different ideas and new instruments. Their curiosity about what delighted the audience when they played in Hamburg, Germany, in the early days led to their winning performance when they returned to Liverpool. When we learn by osmosis, our curiosity drives us to explore avenues that will provide us with opportunities to learn. 

In a personal story, the curiosity about how the data generated by Radiofrequency Identification (RFID) can help the retail industry led four of us, co-founders, to create a start-up and offer innovative ways to use the data to solve business problems. During the initial phases of this start-up, we had to learn about technology, the retail industry, and data analytics to bring innovative solutions to business problems.

The 21st century offers us many means to learn—formal classes, books, journals, videos, self-paced online courses, learning forums and networks, mentors, and more. Curiosity will help us explore these avenues and choose those that are conducive to our way of learning.

Unlearning and Relearning

In his book “Think Again,” Adam Grant talks about the story of Blackberry and its inventor Mike Lazaridis’s reluctance to unlearn everything he knew about the device’s ecosystem, which led to the shrinking market for Blackberry. History is full of such stories, including Polaroid, which lost its footing when the world turned to digital cameras. Organizations (and their leaders) tend to operate with obsolete mental models. Unless one is willing to unlearn them, one cannot learn what is needed to thrive today—relearning.

From a behavioral perspective, we all would like to unlearn certain habits that hold us back. To do this unlearning, we need to be curious about ourselves. For example, the well-known ABCDE method, which helps pessimists learn optimism, has five steps. The first step, “A,” is Adversity—the setback you experience. The second one is “B”—your Belief about the event, the interpretation of what happened. The third step, “C,” is Consequence—how you react to the event. The fourth is “D”—Disputation,” questioning what you believe about the setback, and the last step is “E”—which stands for Energization, which is the result of the fourth step that can help you move forward with resilience. You cannot get to the final step without using your curiosity in the fourth step.  

Get Back to Being Curious

We can increase our curiosity by questioning our beliefs about ourselves regarding the fears that hold us back.  

In his Psychology Today post, “Are You a Beautiful Questioner?” author and journalist Warren Berger offers five strategies to increase curiosity and become a beautiful questioner by asking these five questions:

  1. Am I willing to be seen as naïve?
  2. Am I comfortable raising questions with no immediate answers?
  3. Am I willing to move away from what I know?
  4. Am I open to admitting I might be wrong?
  5. Am I willing to slow down and consider?

When you pose these inwardly directed questions, you get clarity on how to overcome your fears. Our ability to ask good questions is enhanced with practice. The more questions we ask, the better we get. 

Conclusion

When we are humble enough to realize we don’t have answers to everything, we are primed to be curious and use it to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Get back to being a child who is not afraid to ask questions.


Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
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Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an Executive In Residence at the Integrated Innovation Institute, Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global software engineering leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. Shantha also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing. She is the author of Roots and Wings - Inspiring stories of Indian Women in Engineering and is a co-author of Demystifying AI for The Enterprise - A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles, was published by Taylor & Francis in May 2022.


Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.