Change is happening at an exponential rate. VUCA, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, has become our status quo. The way humans work is changed at a fundamental level by a shift in demographics within the labor market, rapid urbanization in developing countries, economic power shifts, technological evolution, the push for globalization, and now covid-19.
We are products of our parents, first jobs, and first work environments. We have been conditioned with a way of thinking, an understanding of what is ‘right’. Unlearning gives us the skills necessary to continuously adapt to changing circumstances, whether it be responding to uncertainty, to opportunity, or to unplanned situations. Being able to adapt during a crisis, such as covid-19, will create a divergence between professionals into two distinct categories: those who will thrive and those who will fail.
As a professional, now is the time to adapt your talent strategy (on-demand and freelance) and ways of working (remote) to meet needs and thrive. Professionals will need to be able to loosen and rework their previous paradigms, now more than ever.
Life as we knew it shifted overnight. From work, school, socialization and shopping — our ‘in-person reality’ changed to a ‘virtual reality’. Our economy has shifted, and business models have pivoted to survival mode. Amid the confusion, chaos, and to adapt to the change, we are having to quickly relearn much of what is common and familiar to us both personally and professionally. We are experiencing agility and adaptability in its truest and most beautiful form, much of which can be attributed to our ability to learn and relearn. Yet in order to successfully relearn, we must be willing to unlearn what is no longer relevant or existent. So, what is unlearning and how does it happen?
The most easy definition of unlearning is to overwrite something from our mind. Unlearning involves the giving up of knowledge, actions, or behaviors. Unlearning is not about forgetting, it is about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. As professionals, this is an important mindset to embrace and embody not only for ourselves but also for our students.
When we learn we add new competences, capabilities, skills or knowledge to what we already know and do. Most likely you have experienced unlearning without realizing it. Each time you start a new job, you will need to unlearn the dynamics and environment of your former job and relearn them in the context of your new organization. When you travel to a foreign country, you are quickly unlearning and relearning local customs, laws and cultures. Or think about every time you get a new smartphone, there is always an unlearning curve and relearning curve as you navigate the new device or upgrade an existing function or feature. You adapt to the situation and establish a new mental model in accordance with the need.
unlearning for organizations
Unlearning isn’t just for us. Organizations go through the process of unlearning as business models shift. Like car manufacturers producing mobility concepts and the transition in higher education from delivering degrees towards becoming knowledge centers. During the covid-19 crisis you see similar things. Beer manufacturers producing hand sanitizer.
unlearning becomes the foundation of lifelong learning
Harnessing the ability to unlearn is the foundation of lifelong learning. According to Ernst & Young, around 40% of existing degrees will soon be obsolete. Change in the business environment is continuous, and the ability of people to be agile and respond accordingly is the optimum solution. Encouraging professionals and students to be lifelong learners will set them up for success to navigate change.
Modern careers are more like treadmills—you need to keep moving and learning no matter what. Being content is a mindset that puts us and our talent at risk. Considering how quickly industry, business, and technology evolve—this is how professionals get left behind and our organizations stall. Instilling the concepts of lifelong learning ensures our professionals remains agile, adaptable, and ready to fill the next (organizational) gap.
facilitate becoming a learner
Too often, education isn’t much considered beyond institutional education. You graduate high school, get a university degree, and consider yourself done with education. In the past, this may have been sufficient to land and keep a great job until you retire. The concept of being a learner has shifted. The concept of ‘learn, do, retire’ ceased to exist years ago. To be agile and adaptable, you need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. This is the cycle of a lifelong learner. In our current situation, unlearning paves the way for current and future success.
process of unlearning
The process of unlearning has three steps:
- Acknowledge irrelevant or outdated mental models;
- Identify a plan of action for unlearning old models;
- Ingrain the new habit(s).
acknowledge irrelevant mental models
First, you need to acknowledge that the old mental model has become obsolete or is no longer relevant. This step is the most difficult of all, especially in your current environment. The acknowledgment of change can trigger grief for what is no longer or maybe anxiety for what to come. Much of what we knew will require unlearning, from travel to socialization to the way we work. Many businesses are also recognizing their operating models are no longer relevant and need to pivot.
As we establish habits and behaviors, we start acting involuntarily and it makes us unconscious of our mental models. Moreover, people tend to ignore the fact that their habit, skill, or knowledge has become irrelevant. Acknowledging lapses in mental models can even trigger fear of losing jobs, reputation, and career. To overcome this fear, stay open to new ideas and have a growth-oriented mindset. Our mindset is a set of assumptions and it varies from person to person. Having a growth-oriented mindset is necessary for unlearning, relearning, and learning.
plan of action
Second, identify or create a new model or plan of action that helps you achieve the unlearning goal. Remember that this process of unlearning and then identifying an alternative will lead you to self-actualization. People undergoing this process usually end up realizing their true potential. Realization of one’s true self helps people embrace the unknown and find motivation in their growth. Helping our talent find motivation in growth should, after all, be an inherent underpinning for every professional and leader.
Once you’ve identified the ‘problem’ and the ‘solution’, focus on the last and most important step: ingraining the new habits. You might find it easier to fall back to your old habits, but if you focus on creating milestones you will see your habits changing. Focusing on the new model and flooding your routine with newly designed actions, the process of learning something new overwrites the old actions you wanted to unlearn. Practicing unlearning will make it easier for you to be adaptable, and your brain will become tuned to adjust with the changes. The ability of the brain to change continuously throughout our life is referred to as neuroplasticity by doctors and psychologists. As we learn how to unlearn, our brain becomes elastic. It develops new neurotic connections, recognizes new stimuli, and starts acting accordingly.
As we are seeing today with the global response to the covid-19 crisis, our ability to adapt to change is imperative for survival. The most successful companies and employees will be the ones who learn, unlearn, and relearn.