Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn

The secret to learning new things is to be willing to unlearn—even if what you know previously brought success.

One summer in college I canvassed for a local non-profit. We went door to door telling people about the organization and asking them to sign various petitions. I recited my spiel a hundred times. "Hi, my name is Marcia and I'd like five minutes to tell you a little about..."

Halfway through the season my boss asked me to insert a slice of bologna in one shoe. I followed his request, but only after considering telling him where to stick the lunch meat.

At the first house we visited, I physically couldn't say my opening the same way. The bologna distracted me enough so that I needed to reflect on e-v-e-r-y word. The next day, without the bologna, my approach was still fresh, engaging, and more successful than it had been two days before. I had unlearned, and I had relearned.

Unlearning can be a one-shot (one-shoe?) deal or a daily practice. It can help you become open to new skills, experiences, behaviors, and knowledge. Although you can't physiologically unlearn anything—literally erase existing neural pathways—you can create the equivalent of a mental attic and put a sign on the door that reads, "Things I know no longer so." Then you can shift your focus to the edge of what you knew and transition from managing your knowledge to participating in the flow. Here's how.

Begin at the beginning. In order to pick up a new skill, even if it's similar to something you already can do, learn what makes it different. All of us repeat things that worked in the past, even when they don't apply to the now. Repeating isn't always a bad strategy, but when there is a significant difference, the old approach holds you back.

I'll never forget a husband-and-wife team who came to me to learn how to kayak. The guy was a canoeist and he just wouldn't set aside what he knew about canoeing in order to learn about kayaking. He spent his early lessons trying to compare the two types of boats and tried repeating canoe strokes he was certain would work. As a result, he continually found himself facing the bottom of the swimming pool where our class took place. What he knew already wasn't as useful as what he needed to learn fresh. Meanwhile, his wife, a complete novice, made significant progress from the first day.

Stay open. Unlearning doesn't require you to toss out all your accumulated experiences or presume previous know-how will keep you from success. Rather, it asks that you stay open to different ways of getting things done.

What happens when you begin a new job? You learn about the new organization and the department where you'll work while you unpeel the mindset and procedures of the groups you just left. Your refusal to unlearn old rules (for instance, comparing everything to the way it worked at the old company) leaves you out of the corporate culture and keeps you from getting a clear sense of the job. By thinking, "This is how we did it where I used to work," you miss learning opportunities and you avoid moving in. If you go in looking at how the new organization works, thereby replacing your old activities with new ones, you systematically begin to forget what's no longer useful and you begin to prepare for what's next.

Look for mirrors. Make it easy for your boss, coworkers, employees, family, and friends to give you guidance by asking for it. The more people you have in your life who help you reflect on your behaviors, the greater your chance to gain an accurate sense of how other people perceive you and which actions to unlearn.

During Friday lunch meetings with his team members, John Seely Brown (when he was still working at Xerox PARC) focused on what they did well, what they did wrong, and what they learned from it all. A primary objective was to help the team learn and unlearn. One day, team members remarked that whenever they saw John make a certain face in response to someone's idea, it was obvious that the idea didn't stand a chance. John had the next meeting videotaped. Sure enough, he saw for himself that he did sometimes wear a disapproving expression. From then on, whenever that feeling washed over him, he worked to change his facial expression and to listen more attentively to the other person's views.

Examine your beliefs. Your beliefs determine your behavior and it's difficult to act inconsistently with your beliefs for very long. When you believe you already know the right way to do things, everything else can seem wrong. Why then would you want to unlearn what you're currently doing, let alone replace it with something else?

A company I work with needed a way to ready the industry for their offerings and increase the firm's name recognition. Their research and publications team seemed suited for the task. Although widening the market and strengthening brand was far more lucrative than the sales the team brought in by selling papers, the group refused to give anything away. They believed what they were doing was right; that people wouldn't value the research as much if it was freely available, and that clients preferred paper copies to online versions. No matter how many times the CEO told them to blanket the marketplace with information, they continued to do what they'd always done. Then we sent them all to an industry event where they spent time asking questions and challenging their beliefs. Something almost magical happened. The people they met expressed their appreciation for the company's reports, asking if they could have the rights to reproduce and then distribute the research to their customers, too. Within a few days the team developed a new set of beliefs around their value to the industry. They began behaving like a team of market researchers and industry evangelists rather than a product group generating sales for one company.

So what are you going to unlearn first? Create a list of several approaches. Write it your journal or on a sticky note to post on the computer, the television, the dashboard, or your desk—then buy yourself a few slices of bologna.

[Image credit: Flickr user: Giulia Forsythe]

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