Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget

As a follow up to my last post, The importance of forgetting, it seemed appropriate to republish the following, which I originally posted in March 2007.

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A blog post I wrote a year ago. Playing around with David Allen’s Getting Things Done. A recent article in Fast Company. Reading Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open over Thanksgiving. Autism.

All of these things came together in my mind over the past few days. (If the internet is a global cocktail party, and blogs are its conversations, I’m the guy who takes it all in and thinks of something to say as he’s driving home from the party. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, especially with topics such as this one.)

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

This same question has come up, albeit in a different context, in that other domain in which I blog: autism autism.

MOM – Not Otherwise Specified recently posted a very interesting piece about the role of memory, and the inability to purge it, in autistic behaviors. In her post, she quotes Paul Collins’ book The trouble with Tom:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

This also plays on my long-held dislike of best practices, at least how most people implement them. If you are so caught up in what has happened before, it is hard to get caught up in what is to come.

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

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