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We should be “unlearning.” That is how we meet the challenges of global changes.

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”Leo Tolstoy

The irony of what I am about to write does not escape me. Right around the time I publish my conversation with Larry McIlvain on learning in the 21st century, my view has evolved to the value of the exact opposite: innovative unlearning in the 21st century. I believe that what the world needs today in order to meet the challenges of global changes is a revolution of unlearning, a shedding away of beliefs, conditioning, stories, versions of history, assumptions, and truths. What we need is a fresh start with wild curious eyes, open minds, and pure hearts.

James Clear introduces the concept of the Plateau of Latent Potential in his book Atomic Habits. I personally find it deeply profound in its simplicity and significance. I get very excited and know I have come across something of true value when the concept applies to a multitude of scenarios. Is this how scientific theory is built?

If you find yourself struggling to build a good habit or break a bad one, it is not because you have lost your ability to improve. It is often because you have not yet crossed the Plateau of Latent Potential. Complaining about not achieving success despite working hard is like complaining about an ice cube not melting when heated from twenty-five to thirty-one degrees. Your work was not wasted; it is being stored. All the action happens at thirty-two degrees.

I have often written about motivation, discipline, mid-race, and the modern-day curse of instant gratification. This curse has taken up residence in my childrens bedrooms and school desks, unfortunately. It is a fight I have to fight everyday. But Clear has also opened my yet to unlearneyes to another factor that could be impeding our progress and growth: the stagnation of our learning, possibly over lifetimes (but I dont wish to exclude the sceptics amongst you, so please ignore the previous phrase if it makes you uncomfortable) and the limitations this poses to our evolution.

Let me focus first on the reward as Clear calls it because thats what gets customers. We all agree that the notion curseof instant gratification has been downright destructive to humanity, more so with every new generation. Contrast this with the gratification that is had in increments, 1 to 10% increments to borrow from Dan Harris and Clear, over a lifetime or more. Dan Harris argues that meditation can make us 10% happier. He has set the bar pretty low, thereby managing expectations and softening the process. You will most likely not experience earth shattering moments of enlightenment and connection, but you will become a 10% happier more-pleasant-to-be-around human, and God knows we need more of these people around. To live a life of 10% more happiness is a gift we would all welcome, and I believe most of us would be willing to put in 1% of work to make it happen. James Clear is clear no pun intended in his predictions and goals, working 1% (or 1 degree in the ice cube example) at a time until one can finally break through the Plateau of Latent Potential when the ice cube melts and we all live happily ever after.

But now let us try to imagine how powerful the breakthrough can be if not much energy is wasted on clearing, cleaning, and healing learning damage? Doctors occasionally say things I agree with: preventing disease is much easier, faster, and more powerful than curing disease. It also happens to be much less costly and far gentler on the environment, both the one around us and the one within us.

I am all for the power of positive thinking, an optimistic outlook, and a focus on the glass half full perspective. But arent we doing ourselves an injustice by not examining the cracks in the empty half of the glass?

The Plateau of Latent Potential applies to the harmful habits, beliefs, conditioning, and general outlook on life as well. Nothing will happen to us from smoking 2-3 cigarettes a day. But this 1% is a latent potential that will break at 32 degrees. We have all either experienced this ourselves or witnessed someone going through this plateau breakthrough at some point in our lives. Years of learning eventually take their toll.

This 1% is a very powerful potential because of its simplicity and impact. It is doable. It is not wasted. And it puts us on the path of who we want to be. Reading one page of the book that has been sitting on your night-stand gathering dust makes you a reader. Writing one paragraph a day makes you a writer. Going for a 10-minute run makes you an athlete.

More importantly, not smoking the 2-3 cigarettes you usually smoke everyday makes you healthy.

If I could sit down with an educator again, I would ask this: how can we build a system of unlearning that clears, cleans, cleanses, and heals the damage of assumptions and truths we have inflicted on generations? How can we support students to unlearn non-conscious biases and prejudices and start clean? 1% unlearning every day? Isn’t that so doable? And won’t that make room for 1% relearning from a new cleaner platform?

 

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