Learn-Unlearn-Relearn

I’ve been writing professional for going on seventeen years now.  I’ve been self-published, on-line only, and most recently signed to an independent press.  While I’ve never been signed to a major publishing house, I have done some work for/with them and I’ve seen a wide variety of success in the industry.  Yet I still seek out advice and even occasionally straight-up ask for help.

Last night, I called a good friend of mine to talk shop and to get some new bearings.  It was a wonderful and fruitful conversation that left me feeling a little energized about the next stage(s) of my career as an author and a writer (which I do not consider to be the same thing, though they are obviously related).  I was glad that I didn’t have any trouble shutting up and listening, that I took in his every bit of advice and have been mulling it over all day today.  I’ve known more than a few artists of all persuasions whom, upon achieving success (big or small), resolve that what they have left to learn from others is minimal.

At the same time, at work today, we were talking about changes in coding procedures and standards at work (the rarely-mentioned day job).  My industry is in a bit of upheaval as some not-trivial definitions for what is and what is not reportable are being changed.  These aren’t BIG changes, but they are fundamental and will involve rethinking some basic elements of our job.

And also at the same time, I’ve cut my weight with my kettlebell work.  I’ve dropped from the 40kg bell to the 32kg bell so that I can regather and consolidate my strength work, to rebuild (and then surpass) the 40kg bell.

One step forward, two steps back.

Relearn.

The theme of new beginnings and backing up has been on my mind all week.  I feel like in much of our culture, we have this fear of regression, this fear of taking a single step back.  You see it perpetrated across our culture, from the notion that backing down from a fight is cowardice to the constant need to push harder and harder in business.  The idea that you must always be moving in order to be productive, that to stand still for even a second is to suggest that you will immediately begin to decline.

That’s certainly true in some cases, I’m sure.  Yet I think there is something to be said for going back to basics, for deliberately doing less than your maximum (though obviously more than the minimum).  There is so much to be gained by returning to the beginner’s mindset and approaching a subject, no matter how thoroughly known or even mastered, and trying to relearn it from the start.

Some people would look at all of this relearning and feel intimidated.  They’d say ‘we spent all this time learning to do a thing, to have to unlearn it and learn a new approach is going to be so hard’.  I heard precisely that at work, as people protested (some quite validly) these changes in our job’s standards.  It is difficult to unlearn what you learned, but that’s also why you should do it.

If it’s hard to unlearn a thing, you don’t understand it.

How can I say that?  Because if you know a principle, a fundamental, then you can change your approach, your paradigm with (relative) ease.  If you are slaved to a process, however, then change is difficult because you don’t understand the rationale for that process.

Let me use an example: cooking.  Cooking is simply the application of heat to food in order to cause a chemical reaction.  As someone far wittier than I once said, ‘cooking is chemistry for hungry people’.  If you understand the basic chemistry at play when it comes to cooking, then you can tweak and shift a recipe around, experimenting with different ingredients with ease and making substitutions on the fly when materials are lacking.  If you only know the recipe and you make a dish by rote memory, then your ability to make changes is little more than trial-and-error (and maybe some prayer).

The ability to unlearn what we know is a sign of true understanding.  To relearn it, especially to relearn it differently, even more so.

Again, this can all be terribly intimidating and rightly so.  And it is most definitely exhausting.  But it can also be inspiring, and invigorating.  By unlearning and relearning, you are able to shake out the cobwebs, to filter out all the mental static, that has built up over time.  This can be freeing, removing the kinks in thinking and the little mistakes born of repeated bad habits.  It can also make the old and rote feel fresh.

Additionally, and far more importantly, it is a sign that you and what you know is changing.  Evolving.  Innovating.  It means that the process can be improved upon.  It means that there is growth.  Where there is growth, there is potential.  Where there is potential, there is opportunity.

Don’t look at change as a bad thing.  Difficult?  Sure.  Exhausting?  Almost always.  But beneficial?  More often than not, if you know how to approach matters.  And approaching matters to make the most of change is almost always to start anew.  Go back two steps to take a step forward.

Relearn.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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