When to Forget What You Know


thinking womanThe quality of your new idea is determined by the things you already do, and don't, know. No accomplishment can stand on it's own shoulders. Your insight is peered through a window of past experience, past understanding, and past knowledge. This window frames each piece of information that passes through your mind.

Past learning helps us deal with new learning.

We call this type of ideation positive transfer: when past learning helps the individual deal with new ideas. But there is a dark side to prior learning as well. Sometimes what we know cripples our ability to think forward because it prohibits us from effectively dealing with new information. We would call this negative transfer. We don't often consider how our past experiences could prohibit us from processing new information in a healthy and beneficial way. The truth is that we filter everything we are learning through everything we know... and everything we know is not always right.

What you already know may cripple your ability to think forward.

So how do we get around this? How can you wrap recalcitrant minds around new ideas? Consider these three simple steps:

  1. Start with the big picture in mind. People need to know where they are going tomorrow in order to better interpret what they are doing today. When we can connect our work to a bigger picture it becomes easier to connect the things that we know, and have previously learned, to our work. Giving people context helps them connect new information to proper learning.
  2. Ask questions to help connect “this with that.” Sometimes people need help connecting the dots between ideas. It is possible to frame discussions around different ideas in order to connect the meaning between the two. How does missions giving relate to printed curriculum? Asking the right questions can bring out the meaning behind previous learning experiences and connect them to the ideas of today. This is what Sousa (2011) would call positive transfer.
  3. Follow divergent threads of thought. This is the most literal ways to connect new information to prior learning: demonstrate how previous learning has lead individuals to their current knowledge or worldviews. Its easier to understand leadership trends when you see the logical flow of ideas step-by-step.

Simply acknowledging that what we "know" can keep us from learning new things is the first step. Helping ourselves and others move past this can be a tricky thing.

LeadershipBrent ColbyComment