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To Learn Well, Leaders Need To Be Proficient at Unlearning


For some people, learning comes easily.

Take, for example, Hoagy Carmichael, a popular composer, pianist, singer, actor, and bandleader, who one day decided to take up the sport of golf. His start with his newfound interest was told in Bits & Pieces …

    • Lessons were arranged with an instructor. At the first session Carmichael was patiently shown the basics of the game: how to hold the club, how to stand, how to swing, etc.

Finally, after a half hour of this, the instructor felt Carmichael was ready to drive a few toward the first hole. The ball was teed up. Hoagy stepped up to it, swung, then watched the ball sail down the fairway, bound onto the green, and roll into the cup; a hole in one!

The instructor was dumbfounded. Hoagy flipped the club to a caddy with a jaunty motion, then turned to the still speechless instructor. “OK,” he said casually, “I think I’ve got the idea now.”

If learning came so easily to everyone, we would all be committed lifelong learners!

But for many it doesn’t, and so many are not.

However, the process of learning isn’t just about acquiring new knowledge, it also includes an ongoing process of “unlearning” things that may not be true anymore … or perhaps never was!

A few examples …

For many years, we’ve heard from pulpits across America, and from a plethora of others sources, that about 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. What a negative, discouraging message that is!

It’s also not true.

It never was true!

There’s never been a time in our history that the divorce rate was anywhere near 50 percent.

We know about this myth from rigorous research conducted by people like Shaunti Feldhahn, a Harvard-trained researcher who is also a Christian, who has documented her significant exploration into this and other claims and has not only revealed they aren’t true, but helps to explain how some popular myths got started in her book, “The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce” (you can read my original review of the book by clicking here).

When leaders contribute to furthering this kind of myth, they paint a discouraging picture of marriage to those who are single. If half or more of all marriages fail, why even try?! BUT, if the actual success rate for marriage is much greater than that, the TRUTH becomes an encouraging message. Unlearning false narratives when they’re discovered is important, especially for leaders.

There’s another myth that the divorce rate is as great inside the church as it is outside the church. Not true. This is another myth Feldhahn debunks in the same book already mentioned. Imagine how discouraging it is for church leaders to persistently tell their congregations that not only do about half of all marriages fail, but the same is true about marriages among Christians. Now imagine how encouraging it would be for leaders to unlearn those myths and learn the real outcomes that sound research reveals.

Let’s do one more.

There’s the myth that most marriages “are just hanging on.”

How terribly discouraging!

Fortunately, that isn’t true, either.

How encouraging might it be if leaders reported that a hefty majority of people say they’re happy in their marriages? Most do!

Yet, for many years, church leaders and others have perpetuated these (and other) myths by repeating them over and over and over again as if they were true. This terrible practice among leaders will continue among all those who don’t “unlearn” while continuing to learn.

As we learn such things are not true, we need to eject such ideas from our teaching (“unlearn” it), and replace it with truth.

To be a proficient unlearner, apply the following tips:

    • Don’t repeat something as a fact just because you’ve heard others repeat it, possibly several times. Do the work of checking statements to make sure they’re true before repeating them. If you cannot determine for sure if something is true, don’t repeat it. And if you discover something really is not true, “unlearn” it and replace it with the truth.
    • Don’t use the unsubstantiated statements of others as your source for truth.
    • Remind yourself that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but others change, and sometimes quite often! What may have been true about something or someone in the past may not still be true today. Unlearn as your learn!
    • As you mature and gain greater knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, you’ll likely discover some things you’ve been teaching that may not have been fully accurate. Again, as you learn, unlearn and teach the truth you’ve now learned.

Unlearning is an important part of learning, and both are important for good leadership.

This article originally appeared here.