Unlearning – The importance of forgetting

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler

I’ve talked a number of times of the importance of learning from one’s experiences – of always measuring, optimizing and taking those learnings to future endeavors. But it’s also important to “unlearn” – that is to say that, often, forgetting as important as its opposite.

What do I mean, “forgetting”? Obviously I don’t mean not remembering to do things, missing a deadline, or anything like that. Remembering important details is a critical aspect of flawless execution.

But sometimes our experience leads us to remember things and know them as true. Things that can impede us in future efforts. So we need to be willing to unlearn them, and forget them – at least for the time being. That doesn’t mean tossing out all your accumulated experiences and learning – it means being open to challenge them.

Here are some examples of times you need to do some “forgetting”:

“We’ve tried that before – it doesn’t work.”
One of the most important aspects of marketing is to measure your efforts, and try to learn from each of them. To take learnings from past efforts and apply them to the future.

Having said that, it’s also important not to assume that contexts, factors and dynamics of past and current efforts are the same. Or that past results should be inferred to current situations. So, just because things worked out poorly last time doesn’t mean that the tactic used before is a failure. Try to forget that, say, “in-banner lead generation” didn’t work last time, so it won’t work this time. Instead, use your learning to adapt how you do it.

“We don’t do things that way.”
Every company, office, group, and team has policies and procedures. And well they should – you need systems and standards of practices. Those practices are in place to help back-end execution, ensure overall compliance to legal and financial policies, and, hopefully, as a way to best foster and enable excellence.

However, sometimes groups have a way of doing things that is simply “custom”. These customs help make teams “comfortable” and work-flow “easier”. In these cases, one might reasonably consider “forgetting” them – if the situation calls for it. Or, at a minimum, thoughtfully considering the custom and adapting it to the current situation. But don’t tell anyone I told you that…

“I hate that.”
This is not an easy one to forget, especially for me (as you can tell from my earlier post, there are definitely things that I hate…).  But you should not simply write things off because you hate them. And, frankly, just because you hate it, doesn’t mean whatever it is might not be right for a certain situation.  At least try to be open to something for it’s potential applicability to a problem you are trying to solve.

Saying you hate something also allows you to avoid it, never providing further opportunity for you to gain experience from it in the future. Saying, for example, that you hate electronic music would prevent you from discovering new examples of it, like SBTRKT, who are taking Electronica to a new place and new level. So it’s important to try to “forget” or unlearn your hate – at least to see if you still don’t like something. And why.

“I don’t like him/her.”
Similar to the above, it’s natural to develop an opinion about someone based on your experiences. But it’s dangerous, and unfair, to allow your learned dislike for someone to prevent you from learning new opinions and ideas about them. So try to forget your dislike, for several reasons.

First of all, people are complex. Your dislike might be only due to one aspect of someone’s personality. Give yourself a chance to experience other sides of someone.

Secondly, it’s not critical that you always like someone in order to work with them. Someone you dislike can still contribute enormously on your projects and your team. So try to forget your personal opinion and respect people for their capabilities and contributions.

“I’m not good at that.”
Life will definitely, over time, teach you what you are innately good at and what you intrinsically like. Conversely, you will no doubt develop a list of things you find you are “not good at”. Pay attention to these – and you’ll notice that you avoid them like the plague.

At a minimum, reflect on those opportunities in the future. Instead of writing them off before you even try them again, consider gaining new experience at them. You may find that you’re not as bad as you thought. Or, even better, you may find it’s worth an investment in your time to get better at them.

“I know how to do this already (based on my doing something similar before).”
As learning creatures, it’s often helpful to take learning you develop from one endeavor and apply it to a seemingly analogous one. For example, if I have developed a brand microsite before, then I will know how to develop one that involves User Generated content. Or if I play tennis, I know how to play Platform Tennis. And there is some truth to it.

But blindly accepting your knowledge gained from one task can be a real impediment to growth, progress and mastery of the new task. Do your best to unlearn your prior knowledge, in order to pick up the new skills necessary for the new task. Don’t simply repeat old behaviors.

So keep the concept of “unlearning” in mind often, especially when you hear one of the above phrases. Unlearning will keep you open to new skills, experiences, behaviors, and knowledge. And the idea that you might develop a list of things you used to know but don’t believe any more is, at least to me, pretty exciting.

Do you have some unlearning to do? What do you think?


  1. I couldn’t agree more! Add this one to the list – Company X tried that and we all saw how big of a failure that was!.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Firstly, the quality of your content, style and delivery is excellent – thanks.

    Unlearning is a brilliant concept, unfortunately, many people haven’t developed the skills to do this, in order to support your position, I have included five thinking strategies which allow a person to think differently about their thoughts – believe differently about beliefs…

    1. Intention of belief: What could be the positive intention of my belief? Often times, a seemingly destructive behaviour, take smoking for example, has a positive intention, E.G. It’s the only time the person stops working, when they smoke.
    – So, once the person knows what the positive intention is, they can then begin to break the “necessity” of the belief with questions designed to de-frame the belief.
    A. Does everyone in the world smoke to relax?
    B. I understand relaxing is important , have I always smoked? How did I manage to relax before I started smoking etc…

    2. Redefinition of belief: How can I redefine this conceptual experience by using positive, emotive language which supports me to think, feel, believe, act differently?

    3. Consequences of belief: If I continue to operate from this belief, what do I hope to achieve differently? What will the outcome of this outcome be? What needs to change and what’s stopped that happening already?

    4. Chunk down the belief: Specifically, what does “believe/ other word” actually mean? According to whom? How do I know? Essentially, this is a fragmentation strategy designed to break apart a belief frame and begin again. (Notice how we have used previous patterns to build upon and support the destruction of the belief).

    5. Chunk Up the belief: What higher level belief is operating my beliefs on this level? Then I might add, what’s the positive intention of this? How might I achieve the same/ better outcome with a healthier belief…

    Ayn Rand’s Contribution…
    Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.

    Personal Note,
    The beauty of looking for a better truth is that I don’t have to be right. This facilitates change within myself and those who would otherwise resist progress to change.

    / Robert

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