Unlearning is an intentional effort to reassemble or even shed, beliefs, perspectives and behaviors that are no longer relevant
Yes, you read it right - what did you unlearn today?
We are flooded with opportunities and expectations to learn a new skill, modify a behavior or build new perspectives. Some of us are wired and motivated by the prospect of a new learning, while for others it may be the inevitable truth. There are a number of platforms that offer “learning on tap” and universities like MIT, Harvard among several others that offer courses for free. Independent of the trigger, when was the last time you took time to unlearn something, making space for that new learning?
The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness - An old Chinese proverb
Our world today is infinitely more complex, unpredictable and rapid compared to yesterday and will be more so tomorrow. There is plenty of talk and rightly so that extols a learning (or growth) mindset. “Be the learner, not the learned,” said a highly regarded colleague at work. My own twitter bio reads “Learner for Life”, a mindset I subscribe to whole-heartedly. So whether you are a learner by choice or driven by necessity, are you cleaning your wardrobe to make space for those new purchases?
Unlearning is not the opposite of learning, rather conscious and intentional effort to reassemble or even shed, beliefs, perspectives and behaviors that are no longer relevant in today’s context. It is like driving in the US for the first time if up until then you drove only in India. Okay, not the same traffic or honking, but you get the drift. Unlearning requires active effort as the mind prefers to work in auto-pilot mode. It is looking at opportunities to not overwork and seeks patterns / familiar situations to prevent that. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has written a whole book on this topic, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Still not convinced, solve this – A Bat and a Ball cost $1.10. The Bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much the ball cost?
In response to a question about its competitor, a highly regarded cosmetics brand CEO commented, “I don’t have to be the first (to market), just the best”. That comment made me reflect on my own beliefs - I have always been a big fan of doing it right versus doing it fast. Only recently, I have started to embrace the mindset “get going, then get better”. Instead of focusing on best practice, lay emphasis on “best systems” i.e. what are underlying circumstances that enable the said practice to work (or not).
I found the following principles useful in my journey of learning to unlearn:
- Don’t play the victim: We are our best lawyer and worst critic, said a wise person. When things don’t go well, we play the victim card blaming others – environment, manager, team, spouse, friend, government etc. This approach holds us hostage and limits new learnings. Sure, others may have played a part, but what could you have done differently?
- Don’t pretend to know it all: This one was tough, especially as a manager when others look to you for answers. Admitting that “I don’t know” took courage and I now qualify responses as possible approaches as opposed to sure-shot bets.
In my quest for learning, I became aware of hot buttons and blind-spots that were holding me back. Only by gaining awareness and then committing to shed those behaviors, I made space for future learning. I agree with William Bridges who said “Before people can begin something new, they have to end what used to be and unlearn the old way.”
I unlearnt something today – what about you?
PS: If you are still solving that question, the correct answer (for the price of ball) is $0.05 and not $0.10.