How to Unlearn Anything

You can’t pour tea into a full cup

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn”,

— Gloria Steinem

We start learning the day we are born. Before we even get close to a school class, we are already shaped in so many ways. Children learn by observing others and encoding their behavior. This is called “observational learning” and it shows that kids learn from the “models” around them, from parents to extended family, peers, or even characters on children TV.

People are social animals. From a very young age, we learn how to behave in groups. A 2016 study from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, revealed that “three-year-olds not only learn social norms from direct instruction and prohibition — as traditionally assumed, but also seek norms themselves — even inferring them where adults see none”.

The same study goes on to state that “Preschool children commit the fallacy originally pointed out by the Scottish philosopher David Hume to derive what ought to be from what is”.

While this is essential for our growth as humans and our ability to interact with others, we also end up learning many things that are not necessarily true. Or useful. Or maybe they were at some point, but the world evolved and they became old knowledge we cling on to that hinders our ability to progress.

The 5 Monkeys Experiment is a perfect example of this. While the new monkeys in the cage followed the same ways as the old monkeys, their behavior was not the most beneficial for them. But they wouldn’t know this because they didn’t even consider an alternative. They were monkeys. But we are not.

Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

While modern society puts an emphasis on learning, it is fundamental that we learn to unlearn. This Zen story shows us why.

“An Emperor asks a Zen Monk how he can improve in life. The Monk listens politely to the story and the question of the Emperor. Then he asks if the Emperor wants a cup of tea. The Monk pours the tea into the cup, even when it is already full. The Emperor watches the scene, and at the end, he can’t help intervening. He yells: ‘what are you doing, you see that the cup has been full for a while and you continue pouring tea…’. ‘Exactly’, says the Monk. ‘And it is the same with you. You are already full with your own ideas and conceptions. And you ask me to add more? First empty your cup and then it will be possible to pour some more.’”

Unlearning is essential in all the areas of our lives: personal, professional, social… We can question everything we do.

  • Personal: why do we want children? Why are we afraid of change?
  • Professional: why do we follow these processes? Why do we do what we do?
  • Social: why do we work? Why do we eat animals? Why does racism exist?

How to Unlearn

Unlearn: to make an effort to forget your usual way of doing something so that you can learn a new and sometimes better way. (Cambridge Dictionary)

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Unlearning is uncomfortable

It requires you to get out of your comfort zone, and we all know how hard and unsafe that feels.

It forces you to let go of your past assumptions and beliefs which, in many cases, have been with you throughout your whole life. Questioning this feels like questioning your whole being. It’s a personal attack. Worse: it’s a personal attack done by you to yourself.

We focus more on what we have to lose than what we might gain by letting go of old knowledge. If something isn’t true anymore, is there anything to replace it? Or is there just void?

On many occasions, unlearning is uncomfortable also because it means you’re leaving home. You are breaking apart from a group. You are questioning but others are not. You see life from a new perspective but others carry on with their old ways. Suddenly, you are alone, and, what’s worse, you might have become the enemy of those around you. They are not going through the uncomfortable path of unlearning, but they feel threatened by your uncomfortable new views. The personal attack on yourself? As soon as you start discussing it with them, they will feel it as a personal attack on themselves too.

But the only way is forward. After you start asking the right questions, there is no going back. So how can you come out on the other side without losing yourself in the process?

Be Open

The first step to unlearn is to be open to it. As we have seen, much of our knowledge is deeply rooted within ourselves, and it manifests through automatic behavior. If you want to break this process, you need to be aware in order to identify the old knowledge and assimilate the new one. Let go of old ideas. Try to cultivate a blank page approach to life. Be a child again.

Chase the Unfamiliar

Repeating the same thought patterns is more likely if you keep repeating life itself. But if you put yourself in new situations regularly, you will see the world from a new perspective. Ditch the comfort, put yourself out there and watch it happen.

Traveling is a magnificent way to put this into practice. Surrounding yourself with new places, new people, new cultures is eye-opening and even more valuable if you keep the exploration attitude once you return back home.

Flow Triggers

If you are familiar with the work of Steven Kotler, you might have heard about his flow triggers, which release dopamine in the body and get you to a state of “flow”, allowing you to achieve a peak performance. But I find these flow triggers to be just as efficient in creating an unlearning attitude:

  • Take risks
  • Encounter novelty
  • Deal with complexity
  • Face unpredictability
  • Train pattern recognition

Foster Curiosity

When we are kids, we question everything. Any answer we get is just the starting point for a new question. Everything around us is new, and we want to know more about it. But as we grow older, we stop questioning. We accept things as we learned them, and don’t force our brains to think differently.

But we can. Tim Ferriss has built his career by asking questions, many times unconventional ones. Here is a list of odd questions he came up with that can shine a new light in several aspects of your life:

  • What if I did the opposite for 48 hours?
  • If I could only work 2 hours per week on my business, what would I do?
  • What if I could only subtract to solve problems?
  • What would this look like if it were easy?

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”

— Alvin Toffler


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