The Pain of Obsolete Knowledge

When you are trapped in a rut by obsolete knowledge it is tough to improve, whether it involves improving your work or the more personal aspects of your life.  We hold obsolete knowledge when ideas that we believe are true have been rendered no longer valid (if they were ever true in the first place).  New knowledge, new discoveries, new technologies and new circumstances all work to evolve what is true and possible in life as it comes to us.  While at the same time, what we assume to be true about our options, skills or capabilities determines what we conceive of as available to us when we face problems or opportunities.  Actually, obsolete knowledge is more damaging than ignorance, for with ignorance we simply don’t know something and it is easier to ask questions and learn.  When we are sure of erroneous data we aren’t even motivated to look for new information, we just cruise merrily along a dead-end path.  In this paper then we’ll explore how it is that we cling to obsolete ideas, how this harms us, and some strategies for evolving our beliefs about what is true and what is not.

On a personal level, we primarily learn from experience.  We watch the world as it levels consequences to our behavior and that of others.  We build a cosmology of how the world works.  We make interpretations and draw conclusions.  Being the center of our own universe, our reality, what’s possible and what is not is formulated from the interpretations we draw from our experiences.   The conclusions that we draw form the planks from which we construct our reality.  Once they are part of our world view we seldom reassess; we can but we tend not to.  We are on to other experiences and other issues.  There is a positive efficiency to this.  We don’t have to treat every event as if were totally novel.  We draw on past experiences to understand this new event and pull up our old strategies for dealing with it.  However, these benefits are reduced if we “learned” lessons that were erroneous or only partially true in the first place.

I knew a man who was left-handed.  He wasn’t the most dexterous person to begin with.  He had a father who was overly critical and good with his hands.  This dad became frustrated and taught the boy that he was simply inept.  The boy didn’t know that there were such things as left-handed tools.   He didn’t know that with a patient, supportive teacher he could have improved.  Years later, after he discovered left-handed tools he didn’t even try to acquire skills in working with his hands.  Although circumstances had changed, and he had long since lived beyond the influence of his overly critical father, his self-image remained defined by his past experiences.  He “knew” better than to try.

So what’s the solution?  We are all constrained by these out-of-date perceptions.  The world is constantly changing.  Technologies are quickly evolving.  The interconnectedness of knowledge is becoming denser, with wider connections and ramifications.  Your circumstances change.  Your experience deepens.  Unless we recognize that some of what we know has become obsolete we remained stuck, unable or unwilling to update our reality.  By recognizing that some things that were true no longer are true, we free ourselves to grow, to get better, and to find solutions that we thought were beyond us.   Below, we will explore some practical tactics for identifying and revising obsolete knowledge.

Overcoming the chains of obsolete knowledge:

Once we realize that our internal knowledge base contains errors and misinformation the challenge becomes how to purge the obsolete knowledge and update our remaining files.  While the following action steps do not cover all possible options, they give us room to grow and space in which to thrive.

Updating your image of yourself:

A fruitful place to start is where you find yourself saying things like, “I can’t.” “That won’t work for me.” Or, “I don’t know how to do that.”  There are four causes to consider when our performance falls short of our expectations:

  • I  don’t know how to do better
  • I  know how but lack the skills
  • I  lack the resources or the tools to do the job well
  • I don’t care enough to do better

Revising old assumptions can open the door to change and a commitment to gaining new knowledge can empower us to walk through it.  None of the bulleted items is carved in stone.  They are not immutable facts.  If you don’t know, go out and learn.  If you lack the skills, go out and acquire them.  If you lack the resources, go out and acquire them.  If you weren’t motivated in the past, decide if that is still true for you in these present circumstances.  Do what it takes to get you to where you want to be.  Rewrite your story!

Find and use a mentor, confidant or advisor:

We all develop a view of the world that includes a view of ourselves in it.  This view operates as a mindset which is just that, our perceptions and interpretations of our experiences become fixed, often as if set in concrete.  As we grow (or not), as circumstances evolve, our perceptions often lag behind our experiences.  Identifying a mentor, confident or advisor and then building a relationship is a valuable way to gain new perspectives and gather alternative points of view.   Find someone with more or different experience and use him or her as a thought partner, someone who can reframe their experience and relate it to your situation.  You’ll have more than one person over the course of a lifetime that can fill this role for you.  The fact of the matter is that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Someone with more experience and a different vantage point can show the way.  For your part, this must be someone in whom you have trust, a relationship where you are willing to be vulnerable and open about your concerns.  By the same token, offer yourself to someone else as a mentor or confidant.  Taking on this responsibility with another person will cause you to consider your knowledge, think more deliberately, and better articulate your perceptions.  Update your self-image based on current feedback.

Aggregate and use peer counselors:

Because other people have different life experiences, if we are humble and allow it to happen, we can learn something from everyone.  Create situations where you and your peers, coworkers, or friends can come together in a focused way and debrief similar or challenging experiences. These people don’t have to be part of a formal group.  You can accomplish the same results by adopting a curious posture when talking to friends or work mates.  This involves a deliberate effort to learn as opposed to just drifting with the conversation.   Make it a goal to learn from each other.  As I’ve written before, nobody is as smart as everybody.  Don’t just discover what someone else did, but rather, fully explore what they were thinking, how did they decide what to do, what were their criteria, and how things unfolded after the fact.  Not everyone will be right, nor will their solutions necessarily apply to your situation, but if we listen to learn we will improve our skills and judgment over time.  Use the after action review process to guide your conversations.  That is:

  • What did you set out to do?
  • What did you actually do?
  • Why was there a gap?
  • What might you have done more of?
  • What might you have done less of?
  • Looking back, what would you do differently?
  • Identify and analyze your recurring problems:

Identify issues around which you have recurring problems, or where you aren’t satisfied with the outcomes you’ve created.  Analyze them using the same after action review process described above.  What do these situations have in common?  What assumptions do you make that wind up not serving you well?    Think about why you stay committed to these assumptions that don’t lead you to effective solutions.  The only person’s behavior that you can control in those situations is your own.  Experiment.  What can you do differently that might work better?  Try behaving differently and see what happens.  This isn’t a onetime thing.  Practice the new behavior repeatedly, building your skills until they come naturally.

Know yourself – accomplishments and shortfalls:

Work to assess yourself accurately.  An over-inflated self concept is as ineffectual as one that is overly modest.   It is inaccuracy that keeps us stuck.  Periodically review and celebrate your accomplishments.  Seek to understand what they say about your character and your capabilities.  Redefine yourself based upon your current status rather than by what had been definitive of you in the past. Use the processes described above to analyze your shortfalls.   Recognize that those limitations are often the result of your choices.  If you are comfortable with those choices and their consequences, then fine.  Just know that those limitations are the results of your choices and your values.

Commit to continuous learning:

Acquiring new skills and knowledge takes effort.  Are you willing to make the effort?  Feedback can be painful, especially when it conflicts with a cherished view of ourselves.  Multiple sources of the same feedback often tend to be more true of who we are now as opposed to those cherished perceptions.  We can embrace the pain and learn from it or we can stay the same.  The choice is ours and it is a choice.  Continuous learning can redefine us and alter our reality.  It can empower us to make our lives better.  How many people do you know still ascribe their faults and limitations to how they were raised.  They blame their parents for setting them on a path that they still walk.  Grow up.  You became your own person long ago and your choices became yours when you did.  If their lessons are to become obsolete you must move on.

Change your internal dialogue:

We maintain our sense of what is possible and of who we are by how we talk to ourselves about ourselves, through our internal dialogue.  It is our mental propaganda, if you will.  Learn to listen critically to your internal conversation and see if it contributes to your staying stuck.  If you don’t like what you hear, change the channel.  Give yourself a different script.  Don’t continue to reinforce obsolete knowledge as if it was true today.  It takes effort and practice, but it can be done, and doing so can be quite liberating.  The choice is yours.


Obsolete knowledge is knowledge that once may have been true but isn’t or doesn’t have to be any longer.  While ignorance can be limiting, obsolete knowledge can be more restrictive because it is harder to recognize and more difficult to revise.  Still, if you embrace the fact that things have changed; that your abilities, circumstances and options have changed you can free yourself from the limits of outdated knowledge.  We’ve considered a number of tactics for recognizing, addressing, and changing obsolete knowledge.  In so doing we have given you choices as to whether you break free of those constraints or stay the same.  That choice is yours to make.