Real Leaders

Why You Must Unlearn What You Think You Know

The last year has forced all of us to adapt swiftly to a world turned upside down. Almost overnight, we had little choice but to adopt new ways of working, connecting, collaborating, and leading.

It’s why the concept of unlearning and relearning has never been more relevant. As the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

So if you’re wondering what you might need to unlearn right now, consider these approaches.  

Challenge your mental maps

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, a book title by Marshall Goldsmith, speaks to the deep need to continually upgrade the assumptions underpinning the mental maps in our heads. Sure, highly scripted memos from the CEO’s office may once have been effective ways of communicating, but that doesn’t mean they still are. Nowadays, leaders who hide behind over-curated, over-sanitized communications edited and re-edited by risk-averse handlers are considered inauthentic. In contrast, those willing to do a Facebook livestream are lauded.

Only by continually challenging your own best thinking inviting others to play devil’s advocate on your assumptions and interrogate your thinking can you do the requisite unlearning and relearning to make smarter decisions as you navigate unchartered ground ahead. Assumptions kill possibilities. So ask yourself, do you need to:

  • Unlearn how you manage, motivate and lead people remotely?
  • Unlearn how you make decisions and executive projects?
  • Unlearn how you communicate to customers about your brand? 
  • Unlearn your target market and what they value?
  • Unlearn the skills you previously thought were sufficient to advance?

Trade cleverness for curiosity

We came into the world brimming with curiosity and open to learning. Yet, rigid educational systems that rewarded test scores over creativity sucked the joy out of learning for many. More’s the pity, because in today’s world, learning isn’t an exercise we finish in school. It’s imperative for flourishing in life. It’s how we improve ourselves, expand future possibilities and improve the status quo.

Our learning is capped to the extent of our questions. Most of us live with answers to questions we’ve never thought or bothered to ask. So as you consider the problems around, start asking more questions. How do we know this is the best approach? Since we’re all wired with confirmation bias, we must proactively seek out information to contradict our assumptions. 

Be humble

Ever met someone who was too full of their own brilliance? Of course, you have. They abound. Yet IQ is not the strongest predictor of success. Likewise, the best solutions can only be found when we are brave enough to admit we don’t have a monopoly on knowledge and humble enough to listen to others whose perspectives could broaden our own.  

In recounting a conversation he had with President Eisenhower as a boy and later with President G.W. Bush, Bill Marriott, Chairman of Marriott Hotels, shared with me that leadership requires humility. “If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, pretty soon you’ll be the only guy in the room.”

So if you like to think you’d qualify for Mensa, be extra vigilant. Those who believe they are the smartest in the room risk walking through life with blinkers, unaware of their own blind spots and closed off to ideas that would improve their own. 

Consult your future self

Think of a challenge or opportunity you’re currently facing and imagine you are looking at it for the very first time. Or step into the shoes of Doc from Back to the Future to imagine it’s 2050, and you’re looking back thirty years at the situation you are in today. How do you see it differently?

In 1899, Charles Duel, Director of the US patents office, said, “Everything that can be invented already has been invented.”  Yes, it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of that comment now but ten, much less thirty years from now, we will look back on this time and see with greater clarity how we were stuck in obsolete paradigms that constricted our own approaches. 

Embrace discomfort

Given the choice to press cut+paste or moving clumsily through the learning curve, copy+paste holds appeal. It’s less mentally and emotionally taxing. At least in the short term.

We are creatures of comfort, and venturing into new unexplored territory, trying out new ideas, innovating new products, and re-engineering old systems will always meet with resistance. Conscious or unconscious.

Yet while sticking to ‘how things are done around here’ can spare psychological discomfort, it puts you at risk of losing your place in a world marching, charging, rapidly forward. All of this will ultimately put you in a lot less comfortable position down the track.

What do you need to unlearn and relearn? 

The leaders and companies seizing the opportunities that the cascading crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic holds will not be using yesterday’s rules, rubrics, or reasoning. They’ll be deeply engaged in ongoing learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Remember, unlearning and relearning is not a means to an end. It’s an end in itself. As such, the key to unlearning doesn’t lie in the teacher. It lies in the student. In you. In your openness to being challenged to letting go of what you think you know, so you can relearn what you need to know.

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