Learning to Unlearn

By definition, unlearning is described in part as “to discard the habit of.” To say that unlearning is hard is sort of the understatement of the year, yes? Our human struggle to change old habits is the fodder of everything from movies to self-help books to literature to dinner party conversations. And of course, it is central to the work of coaching.

I’m frequently in discussion with clients about what they need to “unlearn.” We often need to let go of something – a way of thinking or a particular pattern of behavior – to make space for something new to develop. Thus, it’s only fitting for me to share one example of something I had to unlearn in the last 12 months, as Initiate Consulting went from being a 5-year-old business to a 6-year-old one.

“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

On June 1, 2012, Initiate turned five years old. I was elated. Over the hump! One particular feeling I remember having was that I’d finally grasped the pattern of my calendar year: when business would be busy and slow, and moreso, how to mentally handle the ebb and flow of that. I had an anniversary party to thank my clients, family and friends, wrote a blog about the lessons of the first five years, and then eased into the “slow” time of summer with the confidence of knowing this was “typical.”

All was fine until September rolled around. It stayed slow. And that sluggishness continued, through October, November, December. Locally, DC felt frozen in the election and fiscal cliff frenzy. That would have been easy to blame, except other colleagues weren’t all experiencing the same slowdown as I was. What was going on?

A deeper look revealed that I’d fallen into a common trap: once we think we have something figured out, we stop looking at it. We create (and believe) stories about the way things “should” go. Then when they don’t go that way, we look outside ourselves, we beat ourselves up, we fight against it.

Guilty as charged. Damn!

 “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

– Albert Einstein

After I put down the stick I’d been using to beat myself up, I worked to shift my thinking. I realized there doesn’t need to be a “typical” year, or quarter, or month for that matter. I’d created a story about “typical” in order to feel more confident in how I was running my business, and to rationalize things when business was both ebbing and flowing. Not only did this give me loads of fodder for the self-beatings, it prevented me from taking credit where credit was due.

There of course is much more I could share about how I made these realizations and shifts. I’d be breaking loads of blogging rules about length and reader’s interest to share all that, though am glad to discuss with those who are interested.

What I want to convey most by sharing this personal challenge is how important it is to always keep looking and questioning, learning and unlearning. This is especially true when things aren’t going the way we want or expect them to go.

What areas of your job might benefit from some unlearning?

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