The Better Work Project: Unlearning to learn

26 August

How can we learn to become more adaptive in a changing world? Before we can learn a new way, we often need to unlearn the old. In this podcast with special guest Stephen Dowling, we discuss the importance of unlearning to move away from old ways of working that no longer serve us into new ways that do.



  • Before we learn a new way, we need to unlearn the old.
  • The latest thinking in neuroscience says that 95% to 97% of what happens in our brain is automatic responses, based on our subconscious mind.
  • We operate on autopilot a lot of the time.
  • The mindset and beliefs we have are important.
  • As humans, we have an amazing ability to adapt.
  • Our brains are wired for two things: to keep us alive and for efficiency.
  • We are fighting against the way our brains have evolved.
  • Often, we think about learning compounding but sometimes we need to unlearn to learn.
  • Unlearning is the ability to let go of the past. The world is changing fast. Things that work in the past may no longer work in the future.
  • We need to be open and willing to unlearn when we need to. We all have a sunk cost fallacy about our knowledge and skills.
  • We have to be able to move forward and move on, shaking our opinions about what we’ve done before.
  • It’s a real survival instinct to adapt. It can, however, be confronting.
  • Our biggest limiting factor is our ability to let go of the past.
  • We see people advance their technical skills, but people struggle with less tangible skills like management. The same things that made you successful in a technical role won’t make you successful in a people-oriented role.
  • For example, what makes you a good worker doesn’t make you a good manager, what makes you a good manager doesn’t make you a good manager of managers.
  • Our underlying beliefs are hard to unravel.
  • When we look at how the world has changed and how organisations need to operate it comes back to underlying belief about how we do things – how do we organise ourselves, what do our funding models look like, how should we reward people. We have ideas on this that date back to the industrial era. We need to shift our thinking on this.
  • We can change and adapt and we can change our mindset. We need to be aware of what our beliefs are. What sits below beliefs are assumptions. We need to be open to challenging them.
  • A number of people are talking about mindset such as Carol Dweck, Simon Senek, Tom Bilyeu.
  • Once you’re clear on your values they can shape your beliefs.
  • Nothing interesting starts with knowing. Learning is outside of your comfort zone.
  • If people are frightened, they won’t learn. They need psychological safety.
  • Edgar Schein talks about survival and learning anxiety. Getting people to feel uncomfortable and push through is so important. When we re-learn we become beginners again and we’re not going to be great at it but need to improve and develop.
  • All of us can do this. Leaders need to create the right environment for learning.
  • This is a skill like a muscle. The more you do it, the more confidence you get that you can.
  • If people aren’t willing to do this it’s really scary to remain current and relevant.
  • In Garry Keller’s book – The One Thing he talks about what is the one thing that’s the most important thing to focus on.  That can be applied to learning.
  • The problem for many people is that they don’t have good systems in place for learning. We need to rethink and relearn how we learn.
  • Learning to Learn is the number one MOOC course. The book Limitless by Jim Kwik is also a good resource.
  • Relearning to learn is important to learn better and faster.
  • Consciously incompetence is a hard transition point. From learning to becoming good at a specific skill, that’s where people give up.
  • Everybody can change but there are many people being left behind.
  • Unlearning and relearning are foundational skills for the future. It starts with being open and curious and willing to do it. Once we have the foundations in place the future is really exciting. If we don’t have the foundations in place it can be worrying and frightening. It’s not something that’s easy to do it but we can do it.
  • Barry O’Reilly’s book Unlearn provides some great insight. Think Big. Start small. Learn fast.
  • Experimentation is important. You can’t talk your way into it. You have to act your way into it.
  • We have an infinite capability to learn. Through that, we’ll learn as people, as a society and this is an antidote to the issues of today.


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