“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler – Rethinking the Future

The term “unlearning” is constantly used by academics to describe what needs to be done prior to learning something new but what does “unlearning” entail? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines “Unlearn” as:

  1. to put (something learned) out of mind: forget
  2. To undo the effect of; put aside the practice of

Anyone who’s ever tried to unlearn will know it is easier said than done! Allow me to elaborate on the term “unlearning.”

To enable ourselves to learn something new, we have to stop doing what we are used to; either habitually or trained. Take for example a pilot learning how to fly a glider. You will find a seasoned pilot having difficulty learning to fly a glider because he/ she is so used to the intricate controls of an aircraft and these instrumentations are not available in a glider.

When was the last time you tried driving a manual car after being accustomed to an automatic transmission? Write correspondence with a pen and paper after using a computer keyboard for as long as you can remember? We are creatures of habit and how we approach tasks is ingrained in us through years of practice and repetition. This is what makes us unique.

However, we are beginning to discover that a lot of what we already know is now “wrong!” In order to adopt new practices and improve, we are constantly required to change the way we do things or go through the process of “Unlearning.” It turns out that this learning to unlearn may be a lot trickier than a lot of us at first think.

A lot of us who are struggling in large corporations know first hand that the hardest task is to get the corporate mind to start to unlearn some of the habits and practices that have made us successful in the past but will no longer actually work in the future. Here’s what needs to happen in order for us to unlearn:

  1. Awareness – There needs to be an awareness of a need to change. What is required here is not just reading about something new or following what the industry is popularly doing but to internalize the fact that you need to change on an individual level.
  2. Humility – Are we ready to accept that all that we know and do as long as we’ve been working is wrong? Our natural reaction to this would be to resist and seek excuses. Although natural, these reactions can act as the catalysts for the changes required. To admit to ourselves the need to change requires a great degree of humility or as they say “eat humble pie.”
  3. Seek role models – “Who’s doing what right?” Do you recognize the individuals or industry participants who are practicing this change that is required? Naturally, they would have to be noticeably successful for you to notice or even want to emulate them. Embrace what they are doing and understand the core reasons for success.
  4. Seek new learnings – The simplest component of the 4, seeking these new learnings will be relatively easy. In order to internalize and actualize these changes, it is imperative the other three components above need to be in place.
Ken Ng
CEO/Senior Managing Consultant