How Unlearning Makes You Smarter

Unlearning: We could all use a bit more of it.

  • By Anna Akbari, PhD
  • February 16, 2017

groupthinkI spent the first 30 years of my life in school. That’s a lot of learning.

I had so much formal schooling that after those three decades, I could only conceive of my life in semesters. And yet, many of the most important and effective decisions I make in both my personal and professional life require something rarely taught in school: I have to actively unlearn.

Unlearning. We could all use a bit more of it. We spend so much time obsessed with acquiring new knowledge that we don’t realize a lot of not-so-useful knowledge also finds its way into our heads.

Mark Twain once said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” That piece of advice is particularly valuable in today’s professional environment where large, too-big-to-fail organizations are regularly disrupted by scrappy, think-outside-the-box startups.

Large companies often have a prevailing mindset that directs many of the decisions they make. Many workplaces are currently obsessed with collaboration, but it takes a very healthy culture to ensure that collaboration doesn’t devolve into groupthink. Employees who disagree with the larger group may self-silence to avoid rocking the boat or risking their jobs.

That’s where groupthink creeps in. Groupthink is a rationally justified consensus that rewards conformity. It can stop you from thinking critically and considering other possible scenarios.

In other words, many organizations institutionalize lazy thinking.

Any time diverse opinions aren’t aired and acknowledged, the outcome suffers. And thinking there’s just one way of doing something breeds complacency, which is the most dangerous trap of all.

Perhaps you’ve experienced an environment where groupthink has stifled originality. Whether it’s a corporation or your own startup, groupthink situations are marked by their failure to encourage challenges to the status quo. It’s a liability. Interrogating assumptions—both your own and those of others—ensures you’re not taking anything for granted. This is the point at which real innovation starts to sprout.

How do you think Uber overtook the taxi industry? Or Netflix beat out Blockbuster? They dismantled all the assumptions and practices that previously anchored those industries and imagined, “What if we did it differently?” They experimented and built a plan of action to support their findings, rather than simply conducting business as usual. They unlearned their way to the top.

Even if you think you’re savvy enough to avoid groupthink, everyone has occasionally fallen for its cousin: conventional wisdom. Despite having “wisdom” in the name, conventional wisdom is not so wise. Why? It lacks nuance and ignores context. For instance, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Money can’t buy happiness.” And while that certainly can be true, we can also make the case that some purchases do significantly boost happiness. Plus, having enough money to diminish stress is a major factor when it comes to enhancing overall well-being.

Here’s another one: “Just be yourself.” Sure, you don’t want to be someone else and authenticity is important, but “just being yourself” suggests disregard for your audience, and operating without a filter doesn't often end well.

So why are we so susceptible to this way of thinking? Surely we’re smarter than that, right?

Yes and no. We’re social animals, and the approval of those around us has its own value. Groupthink and conventional wisdom are ways of thinking that feel pre-approved. But progress doesn’t flourish by keeping to the safe and comfortable, and eventually, something or someone who has unlearned those habits of mind will catch up and overtake you.

So how can you actively become an unlearner? Start by training yourself to look critically at your own behavior and to reverse-analyze your decisions. What are you taking for granted? Which assumptions are no longer valid? How can you look at each situation or decision with fresh eyes?

It’s not just the major life decisions, like choosing a profession or a partner, that can benefit from an unlearning approach. Rethinking the small stuff—the little choices you make each day, from what you eat for breakfast to how you dress for a first date—may seem insignificant, but it’s the cumulative effect of those micro-decisions that leads to large-scale paradigm shifts.

So defog your assumption goggles, buck conventional wisdom, and make each day a day for unlearning. Actively ask yourself (and others) how a conclusion or decision was reached. Interrogate your thought process. Challenge what you think you know. You can’t always control the outcome, but you can keep yourself from getting stuck in a rut and lay a foundation for growth.

Not sure the timing is right? Don’t allow yourself to settle for the “someday” delay tactic. I promise: Today is the perfect day to unlearn.


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