Learn To Unlearn: Developing Adaptability With Ira Wolfe

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TBT 161 | Developing Adaptability


If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that developing adaptability is essential. Millions of people had to unlearn what they already know to stabilize their business. It’s important that we have all the components of developing adaptability. Learn what those components are in today’s episode of Take Back Time with your host, Penny Zenker. Join Penny and her guest, Ira Wolfe, the President and Chief Googlization Officer of Success Performance Solutions. Ira is also a TEDx Speaker and Top 5 Global Thought Leader of Future Work and HR. Learn how to unlearn and have the grit and resilience to adapt to your environment with Ira.

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Learn To Unlearn: Developing Adaptability With Ira Wolfe

I’m excited to talk about a topic around developing adaptability and unlearning. This word has come up for me three times so it’s appropriate that we’re going to be discussing that. I have Ira Wolfe with me. He is the perfect person to discuss this with as he considers himself the Millennial trapped in the Baby Boomer’s body. He’s the President of Poised for the Future Company, Founder of Success Performance Solutions, fellow TEDx Speaker, Top 5 Global Thought Leader on Future of Work and HR, Thinkers360, and on and on, all of these accolades. He has a lot to offer. Without further ado, Ira, welcome to the show.

Thanks very much, Penny. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m looking forward to a great conversation.

Me too. As I said, the word unlearning has come up three times. Let’s back up. Before we dive into that part of the topic, how did you get here? In two minutes, what’s your story, Ira?

I’ve been called a renaissance man. I guess maybe in the olden days that just meant you could keep a job but I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career. For the last 25 years, I’ve had my Business Success Performance Solutions. I always loved the business side, the marketing side, working with people but prior to that, I started as a dentist. At a very successful practice until I was 44. All along the way, I knew I was going to do something different. I thought I continued practicing but I would be maybe consulting dentists, how to run their business better. It wasn’t about the clinical side, it was all about the business side.

TBT 161 | Developing Adaptability

Developing Adaptability: Business is just like relationships. On the first day, you love what you do, and then it gets old.


That’s the part that you found that you just always loved and it wasn’t the actual patient work.

In my TED Talk, it was one of the first lines in there. “I loved everything about being a dentist but doing the dentistry.”

Which I think A lot of people can also appreciate. That may be the thing they love that got them into doing what they’re doing isn’t the thing that they loved about it and they might feel stuck with that.

We’re on this theme of learning unlearning adaptability. We’re at a crossroads. Many people are at a crossroads. “What am I going to do post-pandemic?” They were there before but it brought everything home. I struggled with that from the day I opened my practice and it was successful. I loved building it. I loved growing it. We were computerized in 1987. The theme of adaptability just has been with me so it’s not that I couldn’t keep a job, it’s that I kept evolving. Like in relationships or business, the first day you love what you do and then it gets old. I enjoyed everything about dentistry but dentistry, which is what most professionals hate to be honest. Dentists don’t like running business positions like engineers, accountants, attorneys. Professionals said, “If it wasn’t for the clients, it wasn’t for the patients, I’d love what I do.”

I frankly loved all the other parts. It was just very hard to manage professionals. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to have dentists and physicians or attorneys as my client, not that I don’t want them as clients but I didn’t want them to be my employees. One is they’re independent, super-smart people and not the easiest group to manage. I didn’t have that opportunity as the next stage when I started this business but I also was a VP of a hospital for a couple of years. I did have the opportunity to manage positions and realized I wasn’t doing that for a lifetime either. I’ve had this business for 25 years. I’ve been focused on helping companies grow, helping them hire the right people, attract the right people and everything we’re talking about is a part of that because companies can’t find the right people, and individuals are struggling to figure out what they want to be when they grow up even if they are a Baby Boomer.

Unlearning is to defrag your brain. Click To Tweet

There’s a whole different topic there. What I want to focus on is you were constantly going to the next level and growing and we talk about unlearning. What does unlearning have to do with growth?

I too was just introduced to that term in 2020 because ever since I’ve been young, I was told how important education was. As we went through my career, it was about continuing education, continuous learning. I was always active in that taking whether it was clinical courses many years ago, management courses or reading in general. I’ve always learned but I never heard the term unlearn. It was like, “How do you keep piling more and more information? How do you squeeze more in there?”

I guess I did some of it intuitively because I would read something new and go, “That’s a better idea. I’m either going to a brain dump. I’m just going to forget what I used to know, what I learned in the past or I’m going to put it away because I may need it at some time,” like reorganizing your desk and your file cabinets. You eventually got to go through there because you run out of room. You got to get rid of all the clutter, the duplicate stuff, all the junk you created and make room for the new things. The challenge is now it happened so fast. We are literally moving at lightning speed. Things change as we’ve all experienced many months ago, overnight, things changed. Things that we thought weren’t going to work, we’d have to learn, we had to repackage that and unlearn a lot of our own old behaviors.

We had a little help to unlearn a little push.

I’m not sure some people would say that was the help but we had to cut the cord. We literally had to cut the cord. If you want a job, you want to get paid, you’re going to learn how to work from home, set up your own computer, figure out how to talk on a webcam, how to present yourself, learn some basic skills and that was learning new skills. It also meant that people had to unlearn the way they did it because the way you manage people, the way you participated in a meeting, you couldn’t do it exactly the same way. It wasn’t just that you were sitting 10, 50, 1,000 miles apart because we have to unlearn how we participated in a team meeting. You had to learn new ways to do it and you had to unlearn old ways.

I always say a lot that things work until they don’t. You go along doing things the way that you’ve always done them or in a certain way and it gets you to a certain level but then it stops working for whatever reason. Circumstance, maybe we’ve changed, maybe the team has changed, team dynamic, it requires us to look at things differently. That means to give up the way that we’ve always done it, which means we have to unlearn that so that we can learn something new or create space.

Some people may understand what defragging a hard drive is, some people won’t but oftentimes, we get a hard drive. Now we have such huge hard drives but you have space. Three, four, five, six years go by, everything’s gets collected and you never clean it out. Every time you download a file, you get all these temporary files but you have old files, duplicate files, you’ve downloaded the same thing ten times because you can’t find the original. A defrag is just this automatic process that you go through it, reorganizes stuff and says, “We can delete these 1,450 files because you don’t need them anymore. You haven’t used this file in six years. Get rid of it.” There’s a lot of other information that got distributed. You add a file here and then you edit it and then it got saved someplace else.

It does all this stuff, it reorganizes, it gets rid of the unnecessary files. The duplicate files, reorganize it and all of a sudden you’ve got three-quarters or half of your space back. That’s what we need to do with our brains. That’s ultimately what unlearning is. Unlearning is defragging our brains. If you want to create space or defragging, whatever term works for you to make you understand, that’s what it is but we have to do that.

TBT 161 | Developing Adaptability

Developing Adaptability: Unlearning is like reorganizing your desk. You get rid of all the clutter and junk you created to make room for new things.


I think there are a couple of different things here. Developing Adaptability is building skills, which we can talk about unlearning separately but there’s also in that hard drive belief systems that were learned. One of the things that I said and I’m pretty sure I have it as one of the principles in my book is, “Anything that can be learned can be unlearned,” because people are holding on to things and go, “That’s the way it is, that’s the way I am or that’s the only way to believe.” We have to remind ourselves that whatever can be learned can be unlearned. Open space and for new beliefs. At one point, people thought the Earth was flat. Maybe some people still believe that but the majority of people now have moved on.

We have enough conspiracy theories out there as things that you would never think were possible. Who knows? Some of them may be true and some of them may not be. You’re right. Until many months ago, 98% of executives said that telecommuting would never work. We can’t run our business remotely then all of a sudden it was like, “We can and be profitable and people get work done.”

That is a perfect example of unlearning, a belief system of, “We can’t work this way.”

Some people haven’t learned that yet. Some people are just chomping at the bit to bring everybody back in because it was a one-year experiment. It’s like, “We didn’t like managing people remotely because we couldn’t see when they were working.” Did the work get done? Yes. That’s the important part.

Isn’t that commonplace in our lives everywhere that we bring resistance instead of embracing and see what’s working in this new model and how can we use it to our advantage? There are still some companies and people who are in resistance and they don’t want to work like that.

There are a couple of parts to that. A friend of mine introduced me to this. There’s a model out there, it talks about that human beings are addicted to certainty. That’s our addiction. We need predictability. For the last 100 or so years in the industrial revolution, through Frederick Taylor’s work, Scientific Management, Henry Ford, Sloan from GM, they all standardized the way we did things. We worry now about humans become dehumanized and robots taking the job. What they did was a successful format and business model for 80 of the last 100 years. They created standardization. We had TQM, Six Sigma and Lean manufacturing.

We squeezed out inefficiency and essentially turned people into robots. “If you follow our rules or our guidelines, this is what your job is, how much you get paid, what your career looks like if you add these skills onto it or you work for us for five years, you can move up.” Everything was structured. That worked because we fed people’s addiction for certainty. We are now living in an era of perpetual uncertainty. I love this term and I don’t like the term new normal getting back to normal. There is no such thing as doing that. I talk about moving forward to the next waves of multiple normal, it’s going to be different normal for different people, in different regions and times, of different socioeconomic groups, it’s going to continue to come in waves. We have the next waves of normal. What I heard was about never normal. We are now living in an era of never normal. That flies in the face of being addicted to the certainty of having never normal, which makes people very uncomfortable.

It creates stress. That’s why we are exhausted by all of this that we’re trying to control what we can’t control.

It is exhausting. My mind is the Millennial mindset, it’s the age of my brain and my mind is older but my Millennial mindset certainly is one thing but the body doesn’t always want to keep up with it. There’s a little bit of a fight there. With that, talking about that adaptability where unlearning has been identified as 1 of 5 critical skills that are important for adaptability. Adaptability is more than just flexibility, reacting to a situation. Two of the big buzz words of 2020 and one of them has been around for a little bit longer than that was grit and resilience. You talk about Grit from Angela Duckworth’s work, tremendous research. Talk to you about grit, which was perseverance and having a passion for that.

In 2020, certainly, people needed grit. They needed the perseverance to get through. Working from home, two kids, internet, struggles, and worrying, anxiety about what was going to happen then sometimes dealing with parents, loved ones, family, friends, being detached, loneliness, very stressful. We needed grit, no question that we need grit. The problem with grit, it’s about endurance and perseverance. It’s the exact opposite. You said sometimes that you hit this brick wall, it’s like, “It’s work.” People say, “If we just work harder at it and if we focus.”

I tried that. It doesn’t work.

I tried it too. That’s why I got out of dentistry as well. I tried all different ways to do that.

Aren’t they all different ways of resistance, too? I’m coming up as I’m hearing you talk about this addiction to certainty and adaptability, what’s in between and keeping us from that is this resistance because we want to have that level of certainty. We are trying to control and get back to that certainty. I think that that’s what’s pulling us in a way from it and maybe creating some challenges.

It’s more complicated than that but I think there are different facets to that. Why did I stay so long when I didn’t enjoy it? I kept tweaking, changing it, and doing things differently. Mine wasn’t necessarily a fear of the change or the addiction to certainty. I probably was addicted to uncertainty as I kept changing things. The challenge was the fear of quitting. It’s everything that people told me. You invested, I had eight years of school, I had four years of college, eight years of professional school, two years in public health service, a year of a general residency.

I had twelve years into it and then invested, hundreds of thousands of dollars into my practice to build it. It’s like, “Why would you walk away from that?” Part of it wasn’t a fear of failure, fear of what people but am I quitting? I think there are different things but most people are fearful of the future. They’re fearful of the unknown. They don’t like to take those risks. For the majority of people, you’re right but if there’s anybody else there in my position, I went through marriage that I should have gotten out way earlier. These personal things that people just do because they think you can fix it. If you work harder, you can work at it. In that case, you were probably right.

You can't learn something new if you don't have resilience. Click To Tweet

It’s more complicated because it also depends on what our values are. It sounds like quitting is the opposite of some of your values so that creates also a challenge in moving through it.

This fits into one of the other components of adaptability. We talked about unlearning, which was one. We talked about grit, resilience is part of that too. Inevitably, when we try something new, we need to be resilient because we’re going to have setbacks. It’s because you make the decision to change doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk. Sometimes there’s a lot lifted off our shoulders and we can move on and a lot less pressure. How many times did you do that? You go, “It wasn’t as scary as I thought.” You still have to be resilient. There are still going to be setbacks in life and we’re going to have to rebound. Grit and resilience, although they’re critical for every stage of our life, they don’t help us grow. They just help you get back to where you are or keep going.

When we look at how you grow, how do you move beyond the present? How do you become better and stronger than you were? Unlearning is part of it. Growth mindset, you’re probably familiar with those terms growth and fixed mindset. That’s the part that we were just talking about. A growth mindset is that we are continually learning. We’re going to continually make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. We grow that our intelligence and our abilities aren’t fixed. We’re not lucky. We weren’t born smart. Whatever statute you are in life, you’re going to continue to grow where people have a fixed mindset.

I think that was part of the reason that I was personally trapped before is I had multiple degrees. I was always at the top of my class. I had a successful practice. I can’t look dumb. I can’t ask a question that people will say, “I thought you had the answers. That’s why I’m coming to you.” That’s a fixed mindset. In the past that might’ve succeeded. In the world nowadays, that’s dangerous because what could be right and smart now, by next month, next year is no longer good enough. The growth mindset is critical and it’s beyond just having an open mindset. A growth mindset also means that you’re confident that even if you try something and it doesn’t work out, you can move on.

Isn’t that about the learning? Doesn’t it come back to learning and unlearning?

They’re all part of it. How can you try something new if you don’t have resilience? If every time you try something new and it doesn’t work out the way you thought, you’re crushed and emotionally depressed. That doesn’t work if you don’t have the grit to plow through it. These are the five components of it that all playing hand in hand. There are some that are more important. Resilience is absolutely important because you need it through everything. Resilience alone isn’t going to allow you to thrive. We have a growth mindset, which helps up positive. The last one is one of the more challenging aspects of this called mental flexibility.

It’s putting CNN, Fox News and MSNBC on simultaneously and not throwing things at one of them. It’s not getting angry but digesting all that material and try to take two opposing thoughts at the same time and make sense of it. How do you make sense of the world, not by listening to one or the other but both? That’s the super part. We live in a world of paradoxes. I’m going to take it back to the world I live in and many people are going to be struggling with this now, too. It’s the hybrid workplace. People are looking at this as a binary choice. Which one is better, working in a physical space or working from home? Hybrid is you can do both. Hybrid, on a scale of 1 to 100, 1 is going to work, physical space and 100 is working from home. There are 98 different versions of it in between. You read things about, “You can’t be productive if you have a remote workforce.” The other one goes, “You could be more productive if you have a remote workforce.” How do you take all that information? How do you have these conflicting thoughts in your head, mindsets, behaviors, attitudes, values that are now getting challenged? How do we continue to digest that?

The mental flexibility, I keep referring them as abilities and the good news about it is they are skills that we can learn. It’s documented. There are exercises, activities, books you can read, ways that we can change our behavior, we can improve our grit, become more resilient, develop a growth mindset, develop more mental flexibility and learn to unlearn. The good news is we can do that. The challenge is getting people to accept that it’s just not second nature and, “Where do I go to school for that? You can take a class. You can take a certification.” A lot of it is practice. Can you learn to unlearn by watching YouTube videos? Probably but you got to do it. It’s not like, “I took this four-hour certification. I’m certified in unlearning and now I’m good at it.”

I said that this topic came up for me a couple of times. I went and did some research and I remembered that Tiger Woods had taken his swing and completely learned it fresh instead, “I’m going to just deconstruct the whole thing, start new and work on a new swing.” I went to do some research and I found all of these people who tried it and failed like they tried it and then they were out of the game. They never were as good as they were before or they retired. Tiger Woods managed to do that three times. There were a couple of people that did. What that tells me is that it’s not easy. It’s a decision that you have to make. I believe that it does come down to the mindset. It’s having that open growth mindset to know that you’re going to learn something. It’s interesting that you said that all of those things come back to you’ve got to have the grit and the perseverance to get through. Usually, it gets worse before you get better when you unlearn something or you keep falling back into old behaviors, got to have that resilience. All of those things in that mental flexibility, I can see how all of that can come into play to make it possible to grow and unlearn where you need to unlearn.

It’s so interesting that you selected Tiger Woods. That’s a great example because certainly, he was at the top of his game then. While he was at the top of the game, he was talking about changing his swing, and then he wasn’t winning. It took grit and resilience because there were certainly a lot of setbacks then. He had drunk driving and then he had an accident but he kept coming back. All of a sudden, he came back, there he was again. When people thought he was done and now he’s at another accident. I don’t know him personally but I don’t think Tiger Woods, from his professional behavior, he’s certainly an exemplary example of grit and resilience.

TBT 161 | Developing Adaptability

Developing Adaptability: The pandemic taught people how to unlearn what they already know. You couldn’t manage people or participate in a meeting exactly the same way as before.


The unlearning, he did unlearn personal skills, bad behaviors, counterproductive behaviors but it showed how difficult it was to be able to do that. Does he have a growth mindset? Absolutely. We had to be able to continually try to do these things. The mental flexibility, there are probably things with the relationship between him and his father like things his father told him that got him where he needed to be but then all of a sudden stopped him from even growing into the man he needed to be. That was tough for him because he loved his dad, he was there for him and that relationship was well-documented. At some point, you can love your parents but sometimes you just have to say what he taught me is no longer as effective as it should be. That’s the unlearning part. The pieces keep evolving and you can’t do one without the other but you at least need to have some of those or moving forward is going to be very difficult.

Share with us an area where you had to unlearn, something that was a real growth spurt for you that by unlearning enabled you to grow to another level.

I’m going to say my last many years have probably been that because of my expectation. When I left my practice, I had a very successful practice. I built some good systems and practices in place. Starting the business, what did that look like? It took me a couple of years to get my feet on the ground. I wouldn’t say I did it abruptly but it was probably over a six-month period, I just was burnt out and ready to get out. I had a partner and he was already in writing. We followed the path to exit. From what the business looked like when I left to what it is now, it’s completely different.

I went out and I thought the original title of the business was Busi Practice, putting business in practice. It was going to help only professionals, certainly dentists and physicians. It was an easy market for me. My first client was an accountant, the second one is an attorney. I never thought I’d be working with manufacturing facilities. My biggest client now has a healthcare facility but it has nothing to do with the clinical side. It’s helping them hire the right people and build the right brand. One of the largest warehouses in the country is a client of mine. What do I know about warehouses? What I know is about hiring people and working but it took a while to get into that.

I had to unlearn some of the things that worked for me in the past that on a larger scale, at a different time, industry, location, had to be very different. I had to become comfortable doing tasks. I’ve always enjoyed speaking and I did mine a few years ago. It was the most humbling experience. I probably had done 1,000 presentations before. I spoke to international audiences in a foreign language. Two weeks after 9/11, I was on a plane going to Malaysia. TED Talk is easy, eighteen minutes talking about something I’m passionate about, simple. That was probably one of the biggest unlearning experiences that I had. It was humbling. That tested my grit and my resilience.

What about it that was different for you that you had to unlearn?

It’s not a presentation. People coming to me to do a brain dump, to get that expertise out. I speak at conferences. They come to me to hear me for 1 hour or 3 hours for a workshop. When I’m there, they want me to do a brain dump. They want to walk away with tips. They want to have my knowledge. That’s not what TED Talks are. TED Talks are about sharing an idea. That’s their model.

It’s more about heart and feeling than transferring skills.

After that experience, to do a TED Talk now would be a completely different experience than it was. Not because it’s like, “Now I know how to do it.” I thought about is it what would I talk about. I had a great topic before. I talked about change. We talked about VUCA but honestly, it’s thirteen minutes. You can see the passion. It took me a long time to get the story around it but it was still more presentation. It’s like I want to say this and we had a few slides, “Here are the steps. Here’s the story.” There are so many topics now that I can talk about passionately. It’s like I’m doing this. We’ve been talking about 30 minutes, 40 minutes. I don’t have notes. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it taught me to do. How do you talk without notes? How do you talk from the heart?

That’s the way you reach more people. I would do it differently as well. That’s why we challenge ourselves with new experiences and new things so that we can take us to that new place of understanding of how we can better impact, create more meaning for ourselves and others. In the end, that’s the goal. Most people want to be fulfilled and part of that is creating more meaning for ourselves and others.

I don’t want to say it’s simple but it sounds simple to do is getting comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” That took unlearning and it took getting comfortable because people are saying, “You’re the expert,” and you go, “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have that.” We’re living in a complicated world. You hear some of the experts even with COVID. There was this guest and they went through this list of everybody who they were interviewing, I think it was in front of Congress, about where did they think the virus came from and the experts in the world are saying, “I don’t know.” That was another thing that as an older Baby Boomer, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and get comfortable with just saying, “I don’t know the answer but let’s work together and try to figure out how to find it.”

Thank you so much for being here. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I encourage everybody who’s reading to think more about adaptability and this concept of unlearning and how it can support you to become your best self, to help you to grow through your experiences.

Adaptability has been recognized by numerous organizations, McKinsey, Deloitte, Boston Consulting, World Economic Forum has identified adaptability as the number one skill that people will need going forward and not specific to any job just to survive.

There was another guy that talked about that whole survival of the fittest, it was really about adaptability. Thank you so much for being here. Where can people find more information about you, your book and your TEDx?

My company website is SuccessPerformanceSolutions.com. I’ve got a very active blog up there. I do my own podcast, Geeks, Geezers & Googlization and everything gets posted there as well. You can also just type in Ira Wolfe into Google or IraWolfe.com and you can get access to the book and learn a little bit more about me. I’m also active on LinkedIn. I’m there multiple times a day. If you ever need to reach out, please connect with me and we’ll go from there.

Fantastic. Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Thank you all for being here. Please subscribe so that you can stay in touch with the next episodes that are coming up. More great people coming on to discuss topics on how you can work smarter, bring you to that next level, help you to grow and embrace the experiences that you’re having so that you can learn these lessons and continue to be smarter and smarter in the way that you approach things in developing adaptability. We’ll see you in the next episode.

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About Ira Wolfe

TBT 161 | Developing AdaptabilityIra S Wolfe is a “Millennial trapped in a Baby Boomer body” and president of Poised for the Future Company, founder of Success Performance Solutions, a TEDx Speaker, Top 5 Global Thought Leader on Future of Work and HR (Thinkers360), author of Recruiting in the Age of Googlization, and host of Geeks Geezers Googlization podcast (selected as one of the top 50 podcasts to listen to in 2021).

His most recent book is Recruiting in the Age of Googlization, now in its 2nd edition. It was selected as one of the top 50 books to read in 2021 by Thinkers360 and recognized as one of the best Recruiting books of all time by Book Authority. He is the founder of the Googlization Nation community and a frequent contributor to HR and business blogs.

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