Unlearning in America

According to astronauts, the experience of seeing the Earth from space is a profound experience. From a distance, national boundaries vanish. Differences disappear. Everything becomes interconnected. We are a pale blue dot, tiny and fragile, suspended in space.  

Today I have my own version of what's called the “Overview effect.” It is the morning after the Presidential election and I’m on a flight from Boston to San Francisco.  The world woke to one of the great surprises in political history. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.  

My fear is that electing Trump is like handing a teenager the keys to a Ferrari for a drive on the Autobahn on a rainy night. Not enough experience. Too much power. Hazardous conditions. And no speed limits.    

But as I look down over states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, I realize they aren’t red or blue.  In fact, they are mostly brown and green. You can’t tell where one state stops and the next begins. I am brought back to my own purpose and the work of Shift Thinking.  

My original plan for this newsletter was to focus on my two recent articles in Harvard Business Review. The first is about “How to Create an Exponential Mindset.” In brief, I argue that there are two mindsets for change:  one incremental and linear, and one discontinuous and exponential. Apply an incremental mindset to an exponential process, and you will squander its potential. Apply an exponential mindset to an incremental process and you will be perpetually frustrated. You have to align the mindset to the process in order to set goals, measure progress, and enable growth.  

The other article is called “The Problem with Learning is Unlearning.” My premise is that in times of disruption and exponential change, our mental models become outdated. It’s not enough to learn new things, i.e. add new knowledge to existing models. We have to make the shift to a new model altogether. Like driving on the opposite side of the road, it’s often harder to let go of the old mental habit compared to learning the new one.  

As I look down on the farmland of America, I realize these two concepts help illuminate the events of the past 24 hours. 

First, the 2016 election is an extension of what we’ve seen in business into the political sphere, namely the triumph of the exponential over the incremental. The defining quality of an exponential process is an accelerating rate of change.  The success of Donald Trump’s campaign was consistently underestimated by experts and opponents.  And the result of the election is clearly discontinuous with what anyone expected.  

More broadly, the election itself can be seen as an explicit choice by the electorate of the exponential over the incremental. Hillary Clinton was promising to “improve and enhance” while Trump was promising to “rip and replace.” A couple months ago, I heard a Trump supporter say that she felt America had been hijacked by the establishment, and that Trump was the right person to rush the cockpit and take back control of the plane. It didn’t matter if he could actually fly the plane, or whether she liked him as a person. What mattered was that he was going to replace the old with the new, whatever that might be. 

Time will tell if Trump can learn how to fly the plane. Clearly a lot of people are concerned. The website for Canadian immigration crashed on election night. But while some may move to Canada, the rest of us need to find a way to move forward together. It’s not going to happen by doing things the way we used to.  

We’ve all got some unlearning to do.


P.S. For your own Overview effect, follow the Daily Overview on Instagram.