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Learning How to Unlearn


In order to stay relevant and competitive most of us have made a commitment to personal development and all too often that objective is only focused on learning new things.  But what about unlearning?  Is it more effective to unlearn?  If so, how do you go about unlearning?

Continuous learning is pretty standard in most professions.  If you’re an attorney or a CPA there are always new laws and regulations that you must comprehend to best serve your clients (and to keep your credentials).  If you’re a doctor or a programmer there are always new technologies and practices that allow you to do things better than before.  But unlearning is different, it means taking ideas, thoughts, concepts, rules that you learned, believed to be true and used as the basis for making decisions and managing and ultimately tossing them in the trash can.  It can leave you feeling vulnerable and cause you to stick with what you know for longer than it serves you well.   After doing something for an extended period of time the assumptions are no longer questions and become almost instinctual.

Unlearning occurs when a new idea, concept or thought comes into play that contradicts what you’ve learned in the past.  The concept of the world being round simply can’t coexist with the idea of the world being flat.  It took quite a long time for people to unlearn the idea that the world was flat and the resistance to doing so was significant.  It seemed perfectly logical that a ship would fall off the end of the earth because you can’t see past the horizon.  The curvature of the earth isn’t visible to the naked eye so it is counter intuitive to accept what you can’t physically see.  Plus you already came to believe that it was flat so there’s some risk involved in changing what you already know.  Most of what we need to unlearn isn’t quite as dramatic as that but we cling to what’s worked because, well because it’s worked.

Let’s look at a few examples.  When I was an undergraduate I majored in economics.  We focused on “rational” man, market efficiencies, pricing being tied exclusively to supply and demand and so on.  It was very analytical and there were countless formulas and models that allegedly gave us the tools to understand the past and to a lesser extent predict how markets would behave in the future. I also took a few psychology classes and the core assumptions one used when studying economics would never be accepted as fact when being applied to psychology.  Today however we have a new field, behavioral economics which takes many of the core principals from psychology and applies them to economics.  Man is not always rational and when it comes to making buying decisions, to pricing and any other measurable economic activity that is based on humans making decisions we see evidence, and have seen evidence of this for a long time. We know the benefits of compound interest but don’t get around to enrolling in a 401K.  Financing a home with a mortgage that you know you won’t be able to afford in a year or two is not the decision a “rational” man would make, yet hundreds of thousands of folks did just that.

From the tulip bubble in Holland , to the dot-com fiasco of 10 years ago to the recent real estate and banking crisis rational man obviously wasn’t anywhere to be found.  In order to have a clearer understanding of economics that is more relevant and frankly better I needed to study behavioral economics, be open minded and willing to unlearn what I was taught and reframe my thinking.  Markets may be rational in the aggregate but individuals often are not.  This is a better framework to use when attempting to understand why seemingly illogical things happen.

When it comes to the world of sales when I started my career sales was a very transactional profession.  The most successful sales folks were typically those that came up through some sort of cold-calling/boiler room operation where they could talk the one person out of 100 that they called into buying whatever they were pitching.  There was an information disadvantage and the buyer was usually the one that suffered most from the imbalance. The problem with that model was that your reward for being exceptional  at it was that you got to do it again and again, day in and day out.  Now that may still be few in some industries today but for the most part sales people today need to be consultative and understand the value of building a long term relationship with their clients. Information is much more transparent and buyers are much more sophisticated.   If someone came up the ranks “dialing for dollars” and didn’t unlearn that way of selling chances are they are either not in sales any longer or at a minimum not nearly as productive as they could be.  You can’t be transactional and consultative at the same time;  therefore you need to unlearn one in order to effectively learn the other.

Have you had to unlearn something recently?  What motivated you to do so?  Did you wait to long to do it?  I’m interested in how to be a great “unlearner” and would appreciate hearing the strategies and tactics you’ve implemented to do so effectively.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Peter,
    Unlearning though not very comfortable at the very glance of the word itself , is a powerful tool that changes people. I couldn’t agree more on how unlearning , especially when you are experienced enough to think that what you learned is right , makes your ground shaky. I recall one incident where the senior manager is very adamant when things weren’t done in his way which to him were apt, though the new method proved to be efficient. In these kind of scenarios what do you think is the best way to ingest unlearning?

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