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How to Learn to Unlearn

Updated on February 1, 2013

When I joined my present firm, I was told a surprising phrase by HR and Training Staff. “Unlearn Everything”. I really couldn’t understand it for 2 months. Then I realized, each firm/company has its own style and to blend with it, you have to “Unlearn” what you have learned. Though I was not shifting the industry, but I learned that there are simple ways of selling a product and to understand it, I had to unlearn certain complex sales procedures from my previous companies.

This not only applies to job/companies but also in your personal life. This article will help you to “Learn to Unlearn” for a better change.

Learning was considered as a linier or progressive path towards perfection. Learning is indeed a continuous and more importantly a natural process. We all might have thought that there can be few pauses for learning but unlearning or backward journey is impossible.

World has changed and so is our society and market. What we have learned few years ago will not be applicable in today’s world. As a child we never heard of Computers and mobile phone. But today, our children know much more about them.

So what exactly is Unlearning?

You may think that it is either forgetting what we have learned or deliberately erasing it out. The answer is “No”. Unlearning is to move out of the traditional techniques and then learning the right one to handle the situation. During this process, we may have to neglect what we have been doing for all these years. The best example that I can think of now is from a Tamil movie “Enthiran (Robot)”. In the movie a Robot saves a girl from a fire Accident. Here the Robot named Chitti has been made to learn to save life in danger. But at the same time, it was also taught to protect the modesty of women. But since he is a Robot, he failed to unlearn the important lesson and saves the naked girl whose clothes are burned and takes her out into Public. He failed to learn that in the mentioned society, modesty of a girl is prime importance.

And how do we unlearn?

It is rather easy to learn. You learn to ride your vehicle, swim etc. You even learn to master literature, mathematics with the help of a tutor. But the truth is - No one can teach you how to unlearn. It must be learned by us. Every individual has to unlearn at his/her own ways.

Another example I can think of is related to smoking. Every smoker must have learned to smoke under different circumstances and processes. So there is no specific guidelines to quit smoking or in our words “to unlearn how to smoke”. The process must vary from each individual. The common method is he/she should learn something new. A dedicated and honest approach to learn something new will eventually make you to quit (unlearn). That’s why lots of doctors recommend doing something different when you feel like smoking.

Another example is of my friend who had won several championships in Air riffle shooting. He along with another friend (who never tried shooting), went to learn Archery. My friend has learned the best methods of shooting and was nearly perfect. So there was no problem in learning Archery as he needs to replace bullets with arrows. But to his surprise, the other fellow learned Archery much quicker than him.

Reason is simple. Archery needs a fresh approach. My second friend’s mind and body was empty so he could learn it easily. But my shooter champion forgot to unlearn the techniques of guns and bullets and his mind and body were fully occupied with it. So he forgot to empty his glass of wisdom before filling fresh one.

It happens to most of us. When we start to learn something new, the old learning comes in between and thus obstructs the new learning. Hence Unlearning is very important for learning.

First step in Unlearning Process is to admit that you need to unlearn. This is very difficult for a person or companies as they have been following few traditional methods over years and has also tasted success with it.

The Second Step is to understand what to unlearn. One has to pick out exactly what part of the learning needs to be unlearned. Otherwise you may be neglecting few things which are necessary for the future.

Today manufacturing sectors and other business units have realized that “Change Management” or “Business Process Reengineering” is very important for future grown. This is Unlearning under Organizational Methods.

What we cannot unlearn?

Well, I think we can unlearn almost everything except what we have learned instinctively. The learning, with which we are born/grew with, can never be unlearned. Let me explain you this with an example.

A child, who has learned to steal while growing into his adulthood, will continue to do so and eventually become a criminal. It will be nearly impossible to unlearn what he learned during his developmental stage. But miracles do happen.

Unlearning will coexist with Learning. It is rather a cycle where learning comes after unlearning and vice versa. It will continue till we stop being creative or innovative.


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    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 5 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Interesting hub. You may enjoy reading Prochaska's book, "Changing for Good"