Learn To Master The Skill Of Un-Learning

If you understand the title of this post, then you’re already halfway en route to success…

Clearly, it stands to reason that if a person is attracted to the idea of learning new skills—technological, artistic, linguistic, or technical, for example—then that same person should be against the idea of unlearning them, right?

Except, it turns out that the art of unlearning skills is also a skill (make sense?).

People are constantly conditioning themselves to various behaviors. Like puppies, professionals are required to climb a steep learning curve. The faster a professional can absorb new skills, behaviors, or knowledge, the better for her employer.

“Rather than viewing change as an aberration, we need to understand it as a natural part of life and work,” writes Nilofer Merchant in “What I Learned from My TED Talk” from the HBR Blog.

“Adaptability is central to how organizations and people thrive today. Our goal today is to learn our way into the future.”

So, after your supervisor yells at you for the n-teenth time, you condition yourself to always press spell-check before “send” on the computer.

After emailing a senior associate over and over again (and realizing he will never respond), you get in the habit of dropping by his office to collect work assignments or to ask questions. And, when it becomes clear the IT system crashes at least once during an e-filing, you start to push forward all deadlines by one hour to compensate.

Sometimes, however, we pick up more than just advantageous habits. We pick up bad habits, workplace quarks, or inefficient work practices.

“Which is why one ‘rule’ of my recent book on the Social Era is: ‘Learn. Unlearn. (Repeat.),’” instructs Merchant.

But, the question remains: How can lawyers unlearn habits sometimes decades in the making?

1. Rules

Set rules for what behaviors you desire to change. For example, if you’ve conditioned yourself to send emails when, in reality, you should be circulating the office in person, write this down as a goal.

Post goals for behavior or habits in a visible place at the office. Not only will your goals be concrete, they will now also be actionable.

“And without being able to name the thing, you can’t change the thing. But by naming it, any of us can and will see it as something we can question and only then can we unlearn it,” writes Merchant.

2. Reliance

The biggest misconception about the process of unlearning something is that admitting to bad habits is embarrassing or shameful. Most people don’t want to acknowledge their inefficiencies.

Yet, success relies on change. And, a person should rely on collusion from colleagues.

“To figure out what went wrong, we often need an outside perspective,” explains Merchant.

“This is why consultants can add value. Knowing I didn’t know what went wrong, I brought in a performance expert and asked her for clear, actionable feedback.”

Ask your colleagues for assistance. If your biggest problem is unlearning to write and then read a script during presentations (*yawn*), put down pen and paper and pick up a helping hand.

Give a sneak-peak of your presentations to family members, friends, or officemates. Ask them to steal your speech notes from you, or (in a less extreme manner) ask them to remind you to rely less on written notes and more on the content’s noteworthiness.

3. Rewards

People, like pets, respond to positive reinforcement. The best (and, some would say, only) way to uncondition behavior is to recondition the opposite behavior.

Incentivize appropriate actions. And, don’t dwell on moments of accidental bad behavior.


Finally, unlearning requires rules, reliance, rewards, and—most importantly—repetition.

If you don’t get it right right away, don’t give up. Remember, it’s impossible to drop a twenty-year habit over the course of twenty-four hours.

Still, is unlearning really that important?

“Unlearning is harder than learning, but it’s crucial to do … because innovation and creativity are rarely about doing more of the same.”

There is a lot to appreciate about the consistency of law and behavior… as long as it’s just, deserved, and competent. For all those other habits, learn to unlearn.



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