We spend a lifetime learning things, yet in today’s ever-changing economy, the amount you “unlearn” can be just as important. Learning doesn’t necessarily mean piling on new knowledge — it also calls for unlearning skills and mindsets that may have defined our careers from a different era, but now hold us back.
So, unlearning is the new learning.
That’s the word from Barry O’Reilly, co-founder and chief incubation officer at Nobody Studios and author of Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results, who observes that a significant inhibitor to advancing “is not the ability to learn, but their inability to unlearn old mindsets, behaviors, and methods that were once effective but that now limit their success.”
O’Reilly urges casting these away through “unlearning” — the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors.” Before any real breakthroughs in innovation can happen, “we need to step away from these old models, mindsets, and behaviors,” he says. “It’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s a conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively taking in new information to inform effective decision-making and action.”
Developing an ability to unlearn means “letting go of foundational knowledge and cognitive habits that made us successful in the past but now stand in the way of embracing the future,” Noel Nevshehir, director of international business services at Automation Alley, writes in an essay out of World Economic Forum. “The change includes incorporating transformative ways of seeing the world differently in response to the exponential growth of today’s increasingly complex technologies.”
Shreyas Doshi, a Silicon Valley startup advisor who has built products at Stripe, Twitter, Google, and Yahoo, recently pondered the need for lifelong unlearning in a series of tweets, noting that “some people who succeed wildly in school don’t achieve their apparent potential in the business world. Some others who do okay or worse in school manage to build an extremely successful life.”
For example, he notes, “in school, your teacher provides a rubric, you follow the rubric to a tee, you deserve an ‘A.’ In business and life, there is rarely a rubric. Even if it exists, and you follow it to a tee, you often end up with average results, not outsized returns.”
Also, he adds, “in school, education is viewed as a means to an end — need to get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job. In business and life, “there is no end to education. Curiosity, love of learning, enjoying your chosen work is vital for success in business and joy in life.”
Unlearning extends to the hard skills as well. Developers working with COBOL or even Java in recent years may have to move to languages more commonly employed in cloud settings, such as Python. Database managers need to move away from strictly relational database thinking to work with newer modes of organizing data, such as graph databases. Managers have had to move away from the dynamics of in-person meetings to facilitating efforts through virtual meeting platforms, supplemented by collaborative messaging systems. A lot of unlearning took place through the Covid crisis of 2020.
The convergence of technology shifts with attitudes toward work also means a “shift from a plodding analogue world to a digitally exponential one,” Nevshehir says. “Unlike before, we currently possess the combined power of artificial intelligence, big data, and pattern-recognizing algorithms to render previously disparate data into meaningful and actionable analysis. Equally, we must also draw from the collective, connected, and better-informed minds of 7.9 billion people worldwide.”
Unlearning means adapting to present circumstances in an agile way, says O’Reilly. “You need to develop the capability to know when to move away from outdated information, take in new information to inform your thinking, and adapt your behaviors as a result. By thinking big but starting small and choosing courage over comfort, you can go to places you never imagined possible.”