pencil eraser

Harness the Power of Unlearning

Change is happening at an exponential rate. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA)—a term introduced by the military in 1987—has become our status quo. A shift in demographics within the labor market, rapid urbanization in developing countries, economic power shifts, technological evolution, the push for globalization, and now the new reality of COVID-19 are changing the fundamental nature of the way humans work.

Our lives, as we knew it, shifted overnight. From work, school, socialization, or shopping—our in-person reality changed to a virtual reality. Our economy has shifted and business models have pivoted to survival mode. Amid the confusion and chaos, in order to adapt to the change, we are having to quickly relearn much of what is common and familiar to us both personally and professionally. We are experiencing agility and adaptability in its truest and most beautiful form, much of which can be attributed to our ability to learn and relearn. But in order to successfully relearn, we must be willing to unlearn what is no longer relevant or existent. So, what is unlearning and how does it happen?

What Is Unlearning?

The simplest definition of unlearning is to overwrite or discard something from our mind. Unlearning involves the giving up or abandonment of knowledge, actions, or behaviors. Unlearning is not about forgetting, it is 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. Mostly likely you have experienced unlearning without realizing it. Each time you start a new job, you need to unlearn the dynamics and environment of your former job and relearn them in the context of your new organization. When you travel to a foreign country, you are quickly unlearning and relearning local customs or laws. Luckily, countries like the UK recognize this can be a challenge for some and are gracious enough to remind us at every corner to look left before we cross the street. Or think about every time you get a new mobile device or smartphone—there is always an unlearning curve and relearning curve as you navigate the new device, upgrade, or enhancement that replaces an existing function or feature. You adapt to the situation and establish a new mental model in accordance with the need.

Unlearning isn’t just for us. Organizations go through the process of unlearning as business models shift—much like we are seeing right now with auto manufacturers producing ventilators and safety gear, fast-food franchises leveraging their supply chain to deliver school lunches, and beer manufacturers producing hand sanitizer.

Unlearning Is the Foundation of Lifelong Learning

Harnessing the ability to unlearn is the foundation of lifelong learning. Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of what tertiary students are learning will be obsolete a decade from now when they will be working in jobs that have yet to be created. Undeniably, the top 10 most in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Change in the business environment is continuous, and the ability of people to be agile and respond accordingly is the optimum solution.

Abandon the commonly held notion that learning is for children and young adults. You graduate from high school, get a university degree, and consider yourself done with education. In the past, this may have been sufficient to land and keep a great job until you retire. The concept of being a learner has shifted. The concept of learn, do, retire ceased to exist years ago. To be agile and adaptable, you need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. This is the cycle of a lifelong learner.

Modern careers are like nonstop conveyor belts—you need to keep moving and learning no matter what stage of your career you are in. Being content is a mindset that puts us at risk. Consider how quickly industry, business, and technology evolve—this is how our employees get left behind. Instilling lifelong learning ensures talent remains agile, adaptable, and ready to fill the next organizational gap.

In our current situation, unlearning paves the way for current and future success.

The Three Steps of Unlearning

The process of unlearning has three steps.

First, you need to acknowledge that the old mental model has become obsolete or no longer relevant. This step is the most difficult of all, especially in our current environment. The acknowledgement of change can trigger grief for what is no longer—and for us, much of what we knew will require unlearning from travel to socialization to the way we work. Businesses are also recognizing their operating models are no longer relevant and need to pivot.

As we establish habits and behaviors, we start acting involuntarily and it makes us unconscious of our mental models; moreover, people tend to ignore the fact that their habit, skill, or knowledge has become irrelevant. Acknowledging lapses in mental models can even trigger fear of losing our jobs, reputation, and career. To overcome this fear, stay open to new ideas and have a growth-oriented mindset.

Our mindset is a set of assumptions and it varies from person to person. There are two distinct types of mindsets: growth mindset and fixed mindset (as established by American psychologist Carol Dweck). People with fixed mindsets believe that their aptitude, character, and creativity are static fundamentals that they cannot change in any meaningful way. They consider success to be an assessment of those inherent attributes, an assessment of how those given attributes measure up against a standard, and they focus on avoiding failure at all costs because failure deprives them of the sense of being smart or skilled.

On the other hand, people with growth mindsets tend to thrive on challenges. They see failure not as a measure of unintelligence or being empty-headed, but as an impetus for growth and learning new abilities. If you have a fixed mindset, you would not be able to even identify the areas where you are lacking. Having a growth mindset is necessary for unlearning, relearning, and learning.

Second, identify or create a new model or plan of action that helps you achieve the unlearning goal. For example, think of a software engineer who has mastered one coding language—soon, he will find that the market has evolved, and there is a new language trending. If he ignores the trend and keeps his focus on that one language, his knowledge becomes obsolete. The engineer will need to develop a plan of action to unlearn, or evolve, his current skill set to include a new programming language.

Remember that this process of unlearning and then identifying an alternative will lead you to self-actualization. People undergoing this process usually end up realizing their true potential. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the highest level of psychological development and it occurs when you maximize your potential. This realization of true self helps people embrace the unknown and find motivation in their growth.

Once you’ve identified the “problem” and “solution,” focus on the last and the most important step: ingraining the new habits. You might find it easier to fall back to your old habits, but if you focus on creating milestones and have S.M.A.R.T.—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based goals—you will see your habits changing. When you focus on the new model and flood your routine with newly designed actions, the process of learning something new consumes you and makes the old actions you wanted to unlearn extinct. Practicing unlearning will make it easier for you to be adaptable and your brain will become tuned to adjust with the changes. The ability of the brain to change continuously throughout our lives is referred to as neuroplasticity by doctors and psychologists. As we learn how to unlearn, our brain becomes elastic. It develops new neural connections, recognizes new stimuli, and starts acting accordingly.

We often use the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” when describing something that is ingrained in our memories and becomes instinctual. But what happens when you try to unlearn something as common as riding a bike? How does your brain react and just how difficult is it to unlearn and relearn how to ride a bike? Engineer Destin Sandlin sets out to explore these questions by changing one feature of how the bike operates to test how his brain reacts (or doesn’t react). Check out his TedEd video to see unlearning and relearning in action.

Unlearning Is the Future

As we are seeing today with the global response to COVID-19, our ability to adapt to change is imperative for survival. The most successful companies and employees will be the ones who learn, unlearn, and relearn. Computers, artificial intelligence systems, robotics, and other machines are easily programmed to unlearn and relearn through coding—human workers need to do the same to stay relevant.

About the Authors

Keith Keating

Keith Keating

With a career spanning over 20 years in learning & development, Keith Keating holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and has experience in a myriad of areas ranging from Instructional Design, Leadership Coaching, Operations Management, and Process Transformation. More recently Keith has been leading clients on the development and execution of their global learning strategies. Regardless of the role, at the heart of everything Keith does centers around problem solving. He studied Design Thinking at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and found Design Thinking was a perfect tool to add to his problem solving "toolkit". Since then, Keith has been utilizing Design Thinking to help clients tap into understanding and resolving unmet customer needs.