Unlearning: What If You Don't Know as Much as You Think You Do?


Beyond the Known Unknowns

I ran a course a few years ago and, as a bit of fun, I asked the participants to rate themselves a on a scale of 1-10 in the skill we were learning. I wasn’t that interested in their scores, I was curious to see what would come out of it.

At the end of the day I asked the same question. Everyone’s score had gone up apart from one guy, whose score had gone down.

We all laughed as he admitted this, a little sheepish, suspecting perhaps that I’d be disappointed in myself and my teaching capacity.

I thought I was pretty good at this, he said, but I’ve realised now how little I know and how much more there is to learn.

Unconscious Incompetence?

You might have heard about the competence circle? Where someone goes from unconscious incompetence—we don’t know what we don’t know (those famous unknown unknowns…)—to conscious incompetence—we get a glimpse of what we don’t know (and the size of the learning curve starts to appear).

Hopefully we then move to conscious competence, where we have some capacity, but it doesn’t yet feel completely natural—we have to ‘think’ our way to do the thing we’re doing, remembering instructions. Finally, the pinnacle, so called, is conscious competence, when the learning is so embodied we don’t realise how good we’ve become.

While models like this are a construct, it’s can be a useful reminder that there are stages, and there is progress. Like dancing, or driving a car—we go through that awkward stage of feeling like there are too many things to remember, or too many things to do at the same time, and that we can’t possibly get the hang of it. Next thing, with a bit of perseverance, we’re driving, or dancing, without any awareness of what we’re doing or how we got there.

Humility is the Path to Mastery

The memory of my student floats back to me from time to time and I welcome it. It’s a reminder of humility. That I don’t know as much as I think I do—and I don’t even know what I don’t know. How can I possibly?

It seems to me that unlearning plays the bigger part of learning. Only when we let go of what we think we need to do, to learn, do we become truly open and able to step into something more—which is where real growth comes from.

When I feel that “I’m” the one who is mapping out my journey, that “I’m” in charge, then it’s a reminder to stop, take a breath, and (hopefully!) laugh at myself.

How could I possibly know? I’m like that student, thinking I have all the answers and realising that there’s so much more I don’t see.

It reminds me that there’s nowhere to get to, only the learning, or, rather the unlearning—the unlearning of my own expectations and judgements, of myself, of others, of what mastery means, of what anything means.

Whatever I think I know, it’s only ever a small part of what’s possible.

It’s Not On Me (or You!)

And I find that a very relaxing and reassuring place to be. Knowing that there is only now, only enjoyment, maybe a little confusion, but, ultimately, there is always more—levels of mastery I don’t know exist, a depth of insight I can’t begin to see—until I do.

It’s not on me to know. And, therefore, it’s not on you either.

Life lived like this is a magic adventure. It’s fun, and wondrous, and, yes, sometimes I’m struck by the same realisation my student had that day—what do I know?! And that brings a loving humility as I’m reminded that there is so much I don’t see and don’t know and the best way to uncover is to unlearn, to let go of whatever I think I do know.

Of course, there are always moments when “I” take over, but I can feel them and let them go.

Allowing myself to feel the expansiveness of the unknown is always much more exciting than treading the path I think I can see. I see clearly, in those moments, that it’s not on us; that the way to live life is to dive into the unknown—the infinite unknown. And that this is where ultimate freedom lies.

Because the only thing that’s actually true is that there’s always more to see—I just don’t always realise it.

With love