Learn, Unlearn, Relearn! — Quotidian — 414

(Transcript of video originally posted on 3 Sep 2022)

Alvin Toffler. We have encountered this man earlier too. 1970, FIFTY YEARS ago, he had predicted already! The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn!

How beautiful!

Namaste! Four hundred and fourteen! Learn, Unlearn, Relearn! Only when I was looking for a suitable Tamil translation did it suddenly occur to me that .. “Hey, that thing Learn is படி, and then there is a மறுபடி, which is.. மறுபடி, திருப்பி, மறு.. படி, but if you look at மறு independently, hey, that is what is Unlearning! மறு… to reject whatever knowledge you thought you had acquired. Something that you had thought to be right, … you tell yourself, hey, unload that junk, it is no longer worth it! So, படி, மறு, மறுபடி! Did you like it? Alright, let us dive right in!

Dots! We discussed them in the previous episode too. It is all about Collecting the dots, we concluded! Connecting comes after Collecting, Emerging comes after Connecting, and finally, we have Sharing. But… do you realise? It becomes one eternal, endless cycle? We collect a lot of Dots. We could call that a Learning phase, perhaps. And then, we strive to Learn even more. And for that, we try to Connect them all up. Oh, this one and that one, there is a connection. This happens because of that. This happens along with that. This happens for that. And so on. We try making a lot of Connections. That is the Learning phase. But, along the way, life is not such a beautiful honeymoon. Along the way, you also get into this.

A beginner-level learner, what does he say? Oh my God, I haven’t learned everything there is to, in this.. The circle is still unfilled! Oh my, I have acquired this, but looks like this is toxic, troublesome. Bad knowledge! This is irrelevant. This is useless. And, Oh, there is a connection that is supposed to exist between this and that, but it is currently missing! These.. these happen in the Unlearning phase. Only after that, we realise what is important, what is needed in more quantity, what is to be explored broadly, and what deeply, that is when you enter the Relearning phase. So, Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn.

If we were to take a simple example, Mathematics… Primitive Man, when he realised that he had countable fingers in his hand, he started keeping track of animals. And, one of the things he told himself was, “If you have some, and I have some, and we bring them together, we will have more!” A fundamental truth of Mathematics, he thought. A number and another number, both of which could be represented by fingers, when put together, will actually yield a higher number.. But, did we stop fiddling with it?? Did we?

This is what we ended up doing! We created a number called Zero! Where do we go to represent it? Which finger would that be? So, whatever we were thinking till now, “A number and another number, will always yield a larger number in addition?” Sorry, wrong, that assumption has been proved baseless! Then we entered the world of minuses, negative numbers. Then we drilled down to fractions, half, quarter, all the way down to irrational numbers, repeatable, non-repeatable, … all the way to Pi! So, we had to Unlearn a lot of the fundamentals that we thought were etched in stone. So many things that we thought as unbreakable rules and unfalsifiable truths…? We had to tell ourselves, “Sorry, no, I don’t have to believe that as the truth any longer”! But, you know what happened in that cycle? We Learned. and then, we had to Unlearn. But you know where the last phase of Learning happened?

It happened when we realised that numbers were actually points on a plane! There is an axis called the Imaginary Axis. There is a Real Axis. And, in that plane, if we were to throw a stone and see it land, and if we had to represent the location of the stone accurately, those are numbers! And, hence, there are infinite numbers. And, every position can be uniquely represented! And, when we get that sort of knowledge, that level of abstraction, that is when we realised: what we Learned was true, what we Unlearned was important, and what we have now Relearned, subsumes what we Learned and what we Unlearned. It puts them all together in a simpler package for us. Only now, all the Dots are Connected completely!

When you Learn, you actually learn it from a Guru. You don’t know it. You go to somebody who knows it. They even call it the Guru Effect. You have to be wary of the Guru Effect. It is the tendency for people to “judge as profound, what they have failed to grasp”! It is called the Guru Effect. You have to be careful about that. But, in this phase, you actually approach a Guru, a Mentor, a person who has already been there and done that, and import, download, knowledge from them. You Learn.

The second phase is Unlearn. That’s when you meet a lot of mentors and you realise, “Hey, both of them can’t be true! Dr. Einstein says something. The Sadhguru says something else. How can both coexist? There is friction when they come together. How can both of these be right about the way the universe works?” That is when you Collect, that is when you sort things out, you sift through the accumulated content, and then you realise, “This little bit that this guy said is right, while the other bit the other guy spoke of is right too, and these two can coexist in this universe!” You create YOUR version! That is the Unlearning phase. And, who is the Guru during this Unlearning phase? Well, YOU are! You teach yourself your version of how the world operates around you.

And then comes the third phase. In the first phase, you Learn from your Guru. In the second phase, you are your own Guru. They call him a Swayamacharya. I dictate to myself what is right based on all the probably conflicting things I have heard around in my world, and create something that will not give me sleepless nights.

What is the third phase? Learn. Unlearn. The third phase is Relearn. While Relearning, who is your Guru? The people you meet. The co-learners. The Gurus are quite a small number. But, interested adults are way too many. And, after the first two phases, you are ready to fill in the gaps. You are ready to take in other conflicting opinions people have built. Like you, they must have done the first two phases too! You go in search of people who have aced the first two phases, find them, and share your version. And they will share theirs. It is OK to have conflict! In the second phase, we were wondering how to resolve conflict! In the first phase, there is really no place for conflict! You are just learning the one right way to do something. But in the third phase, conflicts can happily coexist, you are told! In the third phase, what is the warning for us? What is that something to be careful about? However diverse a cross-section of people you can meet, men, women, whites, blacks, rich people, poor people, all kinds of people, the better for you. They have to be there in that mix of versions that you collect. Only when you collect conflicting and not-easily-indigestible versions, your Relearning phase begins, and gets you ready for the Big Bad World!

We have seen the Golden Circle of Simon Sinek. Hope you remember it! What do we do in the Learn phase? We learn WHAT it is. What is this? Division? Long form division? Organic Chemistry? Finding out of a square root? Something or the other. We understand WHAT it is. That, by itself, is a tall order. So, it takes time. In this phase, we are told to do it in one manner, and we just do it in that manner.

Only in the Unlearning phase, we understand the HOW a bit more. We have been told to do it this way. But there are other ways to do the same thing. We realise that all of these can coexist! So, in Mathematics, for example, you may have approached quite a lot of problems algebraically. When you get to the higher classes, you realise that there is a geometric solution to this, which is a lot more elegant. Multiple pathways, leading to the same answer! Why, let us consider religion! We had been thinking all along that there is but one God. Just one religion. But, when we encounter other religions and the beauties that exist in them, that is where we realise that the HOWs can be many. That is the Unlearning phase.

And then, the final phase, is when we learn the WHY. Why do we do Mathematics? What’s up with Religion? Why are we on the quest for a God? The WHY! Simon had already proposed that we should start with WHY. But, for that WHY to percolate inside and have a clear impact, we must have Learned, and we must have Unlearned. That is when we are ready for our personal WHY.

Looking at the trio once again, we can see them as a timeline too. What do you Learn? You learn about the past. We learn about some random guy having fought a war and won. We learn about another random guy having sat under a tree and achieved enlightenment. We learn about somebody who has mixed one chemical element with another chemical element and created a new compound. We learn history. We learn from the past.

Where do you think is the Unlearning happening? Right now! Right now! As you are watching this video, the Unlearning is happening. You are breaking down some of the things that don’t really work with your mindset, you are making new connections, and you are basically realising, “What got me here won’t get me there!” A colleague of mine told this to me very beautifully, recently. She said, the first iota of enlightenment a butterfly gets is the lesson that all the lessons that the butterfly had learned as a caterpillar are no longer relevant, and that it needs to relearn. It needs to unlearn and it needs to relearn. That is the first revelation it gets when it spreads its wings for the first time. Otherwise, it will be crawling around on a branch. Only because it has that revelation, it is able to fly away. What got you here, won’t get you there.

So, that was the Past, Learning.. And the Present. Which is Unlearning.
The Future, is about your Relearning. What does that mean? Relearn in the Future? Well, while learning a subject, we think it is simplistic. The Moon.
We are told it is a silver plate up in the sky. Wrong, but it is Simplistic.
The mother is able to teach it to the young child, and the child believes it.
But as your learning grows, as you understand about planets and solar systems, gravity, you actually realise that you have to Unlearn a lot of grandma stories. And, you realise you actually know LESSER about something now. I don’t know what the Moon is. I thought it was a silver plate. I don’t know if it is a large rock. I have to go, check it out. And that is when complications and complexity bother your mind. You are at your lowest. But, from that simplistic world, after Learning all that junk, you learn the complications world, where you have to probably Unlearn, and that takes you, if you are AT IT, if you try hard enough long enough, you get to the simple world. Simple is different from Simplistic. What is Simple? That the Apple that falls when ripe, off the tree and to the ground, is acted upon by the same force that pulls the beautiful moon every night to spin around the Earth! Gravity! G M1 M2 divided by R Squared! Newton! That is the elegant simplicity we all want. But, we have to Learn, Unlearn, and have the space into which the Relearning can happen.

We often hear the clichés. Ask advice from the elders. Follow the advice you get from elders. etc. We tell our elders “I will follow what you say!”. But, why do we do that? This is my Dad. As a young Air Force officer. He hadn’t even married by that time. And then, he got married. And then he got old. He lived past the age of 80. He has had experiences. I have followed his advice. Quite a lot! In fact, whenever I strayed off the beaten path, disobeying his advice, I have been beaten up badly by Life! Why do we seek the advice of elders?! I saw a beautiful quote! Why? Is it to learn from them? To Learn and then realise that they are wrong and Unlearn? And then, having Unlearned, reject their advice from now on and Relearn by ourselves? No! We don’t seek the advice of elders because they are always right! We seek their advice specifically because they have more experience being wrong! They have stumbled many times! They don’t want you to stumble the same way unnecessarily! You need to stumble too, but in other, new, potentially useful ways! You need time for that! It is an opportunity for you to live in a day, the life he has lived in eighty years. He gives you that bit of advice. All the mistakes. All the failings. All the shortcomings. Take it… if you want. Else, suffer and struggle through it like a fool. That is why we go to the Elders!

Closing thought on this Dots concept. We saw Alvin Toffler earlier, didn’t we? We saw a quotation by him. Shall we google for it? This is the only quote that comes up in that context. Learn, Unlearn, Relearn! Okay, I have that very book! I have an electronic library! Shall we go to that library, I thought! Shall we see the very page where he talks about it? I did. And surprise! ZERO results! You know what the original quote is? It was really shocking! The original quote goes like this!

“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read or write; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn!” So, Learn, Unlearn, Relearn, are compressed together into a quintessential phrase. Learning how to Learn. If you focus on that alone, even if you learn ONLY THAT, you don’t need a school, you don’t need a college, you don’t need a teacher! Wherever you go, whoever you meet, whatever you see, will be, at that moment, the best teacher you could have had! All the best! We will meet you soon! Thank you!

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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

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Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.