The importance of unlearning


I don’t have to stress the importance of being nimble in today’s world. Everything from science and technology, to lifestyle to fashion to social life is changing at highest ever pace. People are talking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, internet of things, virtual reality and augmented reality, and much more.

How do you keep up with these? You need to adapt to the situations, understand the new terminology, learn new things, use new products, work with new technologies, make new habits, so on and so forth. That’s how you progress and have a sense of satisfaction.

A lot of people have written about how to make new habits, get things done, be persistent, use new tools, follow new methods, etc. If you have not already read Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, I would highly recommend doing so. However, I haven’t noticed people emphasizing on the fact that every learning involves some kind of unlearning.

What is unlearning? Unlearning is about moving away from something and letting things go, rather than acquiring them. The more we can unlearn the stale and unproductive habits, the better we can learn new things.

“We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop” — Peter Drucker

I didn’t realize the importance of unlearning until I left my first job. There were lots of habits and ways of working that I learned in my first job, which I had to unlearn when I left it. The type, culture, and expectations of my second job were slightly different — not to mention the country. I often found myself doing things the old way, so I had to become conscious about unlearning.

To give an example, I was working in HFT (High Frequency Trading) domain in my first job. My job demanded long work hours, weekend on-calls, late night debugging of production issues, etc. In addition, being a fresh grad from school, I had lots of things to learn so I was also used to burn the midnight oil reading up work related stuff. Pretty soon I was used to that work culture and I wasn’t having a balanced work-life. But when I changed my job, the work was totally different. It wasn’t as demanding as my first job. I didn’t have to slog to finish the projects since there was plenty of time for projects. However, I continued to work late, read up till late nights and over weekends. It took a lot of time for me to unlearn my old habits and get a work-life balance though it was very much possible in my new work place.

Don’t forget the power of habit when you want to unlearn. You have to be conscious about it. Work hard the way you would have worked when you were learning.

Ever since I have realized the importance of unlearning, I have only started finding more things to be unlearned.

  • How to effectively communicate and collaborate with colleagues
  • Not taking people’s behavior personally
  • Defensive behaviors and protecting self image
  • My perceptions and the images I formed of people, beliefs that have caused me so much stress
  • Some teaching methods that I picked up when I started teaching other students in my college
  • Left hand side driving
  • Even some methods I use for learning new things

I’m pretty sure this list is far less than there is to be known. But the good thing is, I have made a great progress on some of these after I understood the importance of unlearning. So, I’d recommend you to introspect, check if you have to unlearn anything and then learn it better.

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any interesting thoughts on unlearning.

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