We often focus exclusively on education and what we must learn in order to propel ourselves forward. Continual learning is critical for anyone who values keeping pace with the expectations of today’s business environment. But, just as there is much to learn, there are also many things we must unlearn in order to make room for real growth and sustained change, especially if we want to build a world where inclusion is the norm.
Our perspective on the world is based on teachings – implicit and explicit – and the meaning we make of experiences. Much of what we have been taught and experienced is useful. And, some of it, perhaps more of it than we care to acknowledge, is outdated, inaccurate and no longer serves us.
Technology and the rapid pace of change have reached a crescendo. We’re at the point of no return. We are not going back to the good old days, again. Yet many of us hold tightly to old beliefs and ways of thinking and behaving in spite of overwhelming evidence that proves them to be obsolete. The days of knowledge gained during youth lasting an entire lifetime are over.
I admit that as a Baby Boomer, this is a bit unsettling. I understand how comfortable and comforting it is to stay the course, like keeping my older cellphone because I know how it works. I’ve bristled at updates on my computer or at the abundant use of automated systems that are designed to replace human service providers. I’ve resisted learning and using the advanced technology in my car, or the way I have to sign myself in on an iPad-like device at the doctor’s office. But, I also realize that just like I need to update my cellphone, I need to update how I think of myself and the world around me if I value remaining relevant.
Time and time again, I’ve seen parents try to predict and judge what their children should do based on their own decades-old experiences. In the workplace, I’ve witnessed frustrated co-workers twist themselves in knots because of the manner in which their co-workers communicate or complete projects. I’ve watched people in the supermarket line let out a big “harrumph” when the person in front of them pulls out a checkbook.
Underneath all of this is the unspoken demand that all people be the same if they want to fit in; that we should all adapt to change at the same rate if we want to be accepted. We should all love and embrace the exact same things in the exact same way if we want to be a part of the group. Today’s political climate is fueled by our inability, or perhaps more accurately, our unwillingness, to see, value and use divergent perspective to its greater advantage. From where I sit, expecting everyone to be the same is the most important thing we must unlearn.
The reality is that each of us is as unique as our fingerprints. This isn’t new news. It has always been so. The difference is that our society has evolved to a point where everyone wants to be, and expects to be, heard. We want to feel safe to be who we are rather than let society define us. That’s what my generation taught the generations we raised. The 60s and 70s gave birth to individuality and the right to express it. Millennials and other post Baby-Boom generations believe that their voice matters because we taught them that it does.
Today, I invite you to join me in a challenge I have set for myself to unlearn the lesson of us versus them. I’m working to override my innate tendency to lump people into convenient groups and categories. No more monolithic categories of black or white, young or old, fat or skinny, right or left handed, rich or poor, good or bad, right or wrong. Why? Because categorizing human beings has less to do with the actual similarities and differences among groups of people and more to do with the unconscious human need to feel in control and safe. That’s our need to put self and others in a box we think we understand. Such boxes are places where unconscious bias, unfair advantage, prejudice and exclusion fester and grow.
Equality, fairness and inclusion are not about everyone being the same. They are about valuing all of human life and not punishing others for being who they are, no matter how different from you they may be. To live in alignment with the values of equality, fairness and inclusion I have to release my expectation that the world needs to conform to my preferences and standards. I have to let go of the belief that my way is the right or best way. I have to open my mind to the possibility that there is another way – or, more accurately stated, there are many other ways, all equally valid and valuable.
Unlearning means taking the high road, which is the longer, more rugged, route up the mountain of consciousness. It means resisting our natural tendency to make snap judgments. It means letting go of our need to be right or comfortable or prevail. Across all cultures, we unlearned the idea that earth was the center of the universe. We unlearned the habit of getting up and turning the knob on the television to change the channel. We unlearned sticking our finger into the hole marked with the number we wanted to dial and rotating the opening to point where our finger could move no further.
Just as we have the capacity to learn, we have the capacity to unlearn. That is how we, as individuals, cultures and the whole of humanity evolve. What do you need to unlearn to be more inclusive of the diversity in your world?