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Concept of Unlearning

I read a story about a student from Japan who meets a Spiritual Guru. The student studied every religion and mastered all the different philosophies. He asked the Guru to teach him everything about Zen. The Guru did not reply anything but he simply puts an empty cup on the table and starts pouring some tea. Soon, the tea cup is full and the tea starts spilling on the table. The student yells “Master stop! What are you doing?” The Guru replies "Like this cup, your mind is also full. How can I teach you zen unless you first empty your cup?"


In today's world, there is a lot of excitement to learn a new language, a new instrument, a new technology and many more things and generally there is importance given to learning new things and being knowledgeable. Fortune 100 leaders encourage young professionals to be a life long student. Most of the social media forums are focused on sharing knowledge about different topics and there are a ton of free online courses and video tutorials to basically learn anything you want to.


There is no doubt that learning is important for success but I think there is something more important than that. It’s unlearning. Unlearning is an art of letting go of old knowledge,skills information or habits in order to make a room for new ideas and learning which might be better for success in life.The world is changing at the speed of thoughts. What’s holds true today does not necessarily hold true tomorrow. In this environment and in this spirit, when uncertainty is certain, do you think learning to unlearn makes more sense? Suzuki Roshi, monk and teacher who popularized Zen Buddhism said “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few”. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything and it is open to everything.


In the 21st century, the context around technology, leadership and socio-economic conditions has changed a lot. If you take technology for instance, there have been massive changes in this sector - from chips to systems, from products to platforms, from applications to architectures. There have also been profound changes in leadership styles, from Smart leadership style to more focus on Diversity and Inclusion, and relationship management. This means there is some degree of unlearning that needs to happen fundamentally to lead and develop organizations at scale. In the book called, Humans Are Underrated, long time Fortune columnist Geoff Colvin points out that as knowledge tasks are increasingly being automated, social skills are trumping cognitive skills and calls for a shift in emphasis from “knowledge workers” to “relationship workers.”. So the crucial skill today is to be able to do things machines cannot, namely work effectively with humans. That’s why the ability to collaborate, with humans as well as machines, is becoming the new competitive advantage. In the recent times, there has been a paradigm shift from individualism to collectivism. Global issues like Climate change, the COVID pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement, Women empowerment has brought us closer and helped us build communities at scale. So clearly we can say that unlearning becomes important when the context around us changes. Barry O’Reilly’s book talks about the cycle of unlearning and provided much clarity about discarding old beliefs or approaches and replacing them with new ones.



Like the student in the story, you have to start by looking at whats in the cup and how to empty your cup and relearn. Over time, we start accumulating a lot of knowledge and become very good at what we do and you end up not realizing how we do things and why we do things. We don’t recall why we are doing what we are doing. So try asking these three questions - What, Why, How

  • What? - What practices or habits we should change? It is important to think about breaking bad habits and practices that are not helpful anymore

  • How? - How do you do things? How do you change our underlying values and principles which are old and not relevant anymore?

  • Why? - Why you do things? This is our perspectives and they might have to change as the world evolves. Trying to fit old ideas in our minds is like like trying to fit into old clothes in our closet.

We have to continually question our assumptions about how things work, challenge our old paradigms, and ‘relearn’ what is now relevant in our job, industry, career and life. By exposing yourself to new challenges and getting outside of your comfort zone, you create an environment to unlearn and relearn. Developing qualities like adaptability, feeling comfortable and accepting new challenges and changes around you, practicing mindfulness having an open mind and staying curious can go a long way.


As futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote “the illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” So I’m going to start learning to unlearn. What are you going to learn today?


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©2020 by Pavi Theva.