unlearning learning to unlearn

Unlearning is the first step towards discovering unlimited opportunity.

It’s not just a busy mind that gets in the way of clear thinking. Preconceived notions and certainties take up a lot of space in your mind and can be more of a hurdle to fresh thinking than anything else. 

Remember the story about emptying your cup—if you are already full of certainty and locked in your understanding of what everything is, there is no room for the new realities or solutions that could be.

“Most aspects of our culture currently lead us to try to reduce uncertainty,” says Ellen Langer. “We learn so that we will know what things are. Instead, we should consider exploiting the power of uncertainty so that we can learn what things can become.”

You need to allow yourself to explore what might be possible outside of your specific frame of reference. For new ideas, hidden potential, and fresh opportunity to reveal themselves, you have to let go of your certainty from the past. You have to learn to unlearn.

Unlearning is not about “dumbing down” or letting go of hard-won knowledge. As Mark Bonchek writes in the Harvard Business Review:

“Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.”

To realize the full range of possibilities, we must let go of our fixed perceptions to understand the language of new options and opportunities. As Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization says, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn.”

If the word “unlearning” doesn’t work for you, use a different one: opening, discovering, reimagining, whatever you want. The label doesn’t matter, expanding your perception of the world and its untapped possibilities is what matters

Prasad Kaipa of The Mithya Institute for Learning writes:

“What we already know gets in the way of what we want to learn. When we unlearn, we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff. Creativity and innovation bubble up during the process of unlearning…once we remove our blinders, the world becomes quite different, with new possibilities and innovative approaches to situations that previously seemed stale or difficult.”

Recall a moment when you were so certain of a way of doing something, or of the absolute truth of a piece of information, that you knew there was only one path to follow: yours. Then a new piece of information was presented or someone showed you a different way of doing something and you changed course. It might have been frustrating, but you and your mental capacity grew because of it.

Many remain blind to new discoveries because they are fixed in a set frame of certainties and identities. It is difficult to be truly innovative when cut off from the numerous channels of possibility and opportunity that exist beneath previous layers of assumption.

Think of it like stripping the paint from a beautiful antique table. There are beautiful details beneath the layers of paint, intricate subtleties and amazing wood grain, but you’ve got to remove the paint to see them. Stripping paint is hard work and takes time. But what it reveals and what you have afterward makes it all worthwhile.