learn to unlearn

Learn to Unlearn to Discover New Opportunities

For new ideas and opportunities to reveal themselves, you have to move beyond learnings from the past. You have to learn to unlearn.

“Unlearning is not about forgetting,” Mark Bonchek writes in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.”

Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization notes, “When we unlearn, we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff. Creativity and innovation bubble up during the process of unlearning.”

“Once we remove our blinders, the world becomes quite different, with new possibilities and innovative approaches to situations that previously seemed stale or difficult.”

If the word “unlearning” doesn’t work for you, use a different one: discovering, reimagining, reinterpreting, whatever you want. The label doesn’t matter—expanding your perception of the world and its untapped possibilities is the important thing. Because what you already know can be a barrier to what you want to learn.

As Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa once said, “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.”

Increasing creativity by unlearning has been at the forefront of business thinking for some time.

In 1956, Louis R. Mobley was asked to create a school for IBM’s business executives. Writing in Forbes Magazine, August Turak, who cites Mobley as a mentor, reflects on Mobley’s discoveries about creativity while running the IBM Executive School:

“Becoming creative is an unlearning rather than a learning process. The goal of the IBM Executive School was not to add more assumptions but to upend existing assumptions … that, ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way before!’ reaction that is the birth pang of creativity.”

Think of a time when you were so certain of a way of process or piece of information you knew there was only one path to follow: yours. The certainty you felt wasn’t a product of the current moment, it was a remnant from the past—something previously learned.

Then a new piece of information was presented, and you changed course. The new information was a product of the present and you grew because of it.

Many remain blind to new discoveries because they are stuck in previous certainties and identities. It is difficult to be truly innovative when cut off from the numerous channels of possibility and opportunity that are obscured by previous layers of assumption.