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It's Time To Unlearn

Written by: Alec Jiggins, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Stop reading now. I mean it.

Don’t read on looking for information or, worse, agreement. Only read on if you’re committed to curiosity.

You were born curious. You drove your parents and teachers to despair with question after question. Until we squeezed it out of you, conditioning you by rewarding your 10/10 on the spelling test rather than your creative and inquisitive impulses.

I spent over 20 years working in education. I’ve witnessed the production line, churning out sausages, link after link. As a Principal, I kept the line running, the machinery oiled. I like to think that I dedicated my life to teaching my students about life as well as geography and economics, a healthy dose of curiosity alongside perfectly labelled diagrams of volcanoes.

I was in the business of learning. But standardised tests, league tables, parental and political pressure, meant that, ultimately, I had to conform. Learning is essential to getting ahead. So is unlearning.

Unlearning is the process of creating a new mental model or paradigm, rather than simply discarding something from your memory. When you unlearn you write over outdated or false beliefs and knowledge with new learning. In some ways, it’s like updating the apps on your iPhone.

But why would you want to unlearn something? Consider how much stuff in your brain is out-of-date or based on erroneous beliefs. When you unlearn something, you can rid yourself of a bad habit or something that is holding you back. Dr Marshall Goldsmith wrote What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, about how successful people can hold themselves back by relying on what made them successful, rather than developing new behaviours.

The three steps of unlearning

  1. Choose that your current mental model is no longer relevant or effective. We may not wish to to admit this as our success, reputations and careers are built on the results of these old models. Starting over can make you feel that you’re losing status, authority, or your sense of self. I said choose, as what we resist persists. So, say to yourself, “I choose to have a mental model that’s no longer relevant or effective”. Trust me, saying that aloud will generate an energy in you to change.

  2. Create a new mental model to achieve your goals. On the other side of choice are endless possibilities. At first, this new model is seen through the lens of the old (you’ve spent years building it, after all).

  3. Embed the new mental habits. This is no different from creating a new behaviour, like exercise or reading for 30 minutes a day. You will be pulled back towards the old way of thinking (and doing) as it’s a comfort blanket. Build awareness of your intrapersonal talk (i.e. self talk, inside your head).

I’ve got lots of examples of unlearning. I’m 49. I come from a working-class family. Growing up, my parents passed on their beliefs about what was possible for them, for me, beliefs around money… it’s a long list.

You’ll have a list too. What about toxic masculinity? I must have been around 5 the first time I was told to “man up”. My older brother Dean had hit me, and I’d gone to my father to ask him to intervene. He looked at me, shook his head, told me to “man up” and go back and hit my brother and sort out my own problems.

I learned that a man hit people to demonstrate their strength. Thankfully, I unlearned that lesson at an early age.

Unlearning is vital today, both at home and at work. As Alvin Toffler wrote:

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

Five lessons CEOs, Entrepreneurs and Leaders need to unlearn:

  1. People must be in the office, or monitored online, to work effectively. My wife works for an American company. They have been WFH since the first lockdown. My wife started working for the company during this period, so has never been to the office. The company ordered people to return to the office but backtracked within 24 hours as the majority of staff said they would start looking for other jobs.

  2. Profit first, employee wellbeing second. Any organization still thinking like this is in serious trouble. According to an Agility PR Solutions report, only about 32% of U.S. employees agreed that they had leaders and managers they could trust during a crisis. Leaders must ensure that employees feel connected to their companies' overall purpose, mission and values and clearly understand the impact of their contributions on the growth and recovery of their organization.

  3. The boss is the boss (and always right). Teams with an open culture embodying psychological safety perform better than those with an autocratic boss. Leaders who try to add to much value, delegate ineffectively, or who don’t ask for feedforward will be left behind.

  4. Busy ≠ success/productivity. Schools have switched onto cognitive load, slowing lessons down so students can learn more effectively. Multi-tasking at work used to be a badge of honour, but it leaves people fatigued and cognitively exhausted. Pause, slow down, take a break, and be more productive.

  5. Messy vs Right. The rapid transformation of consumer behaviour during the pandemic brought prosperity to agile companies while overthinking, conservative leaders were left behind. Leaders need to unlearn procrastination and learn agility to change as per the market condition and quick innovation will be critical for success.

We need to unlearn to become our most authentic, confident, self-expressed selves.

We need our leaders and employees need to unlearn so they can be happier, more resilient, to move ahead, be more effective and further the organisation’s mission.

What do you need to unlearn?

  • How you lead and motivate your teams with hybrid working?

  • How you communicate to clients and employees?

  • What your brand’s value proposition is, who your target market is, what they want and value?

  • The skills you think you need to take you to the next level.

  • Your attitudes to work, life, family, yourself.

You can only intervene on what you can see. Without distinctions, you cannot see. How, then, do you distinguish? Through the questions you ask. We are hotwired with confirmation bias; so, if you want insight, you must proactively seek out information to contradict your working assumptions.

Our ability to learn is limited to the extent of the questions we ask, and that is the same for unlearning. How often do you question your ‘operating system’ of default behaviours? I invite you to consider your business, your life, your career.

  1. Start asking better questions or shift the position you’re asking the questions from – such as your future self, looking back to the present time. How are things different from 20 years in the future?

  2. What do you need to stop doing? Like, today. What should you start doing? How about those behaviours that you should do less or more of? What should stay the same?

Want help with those questions?

Reach out and I’ll send you 101 questions to kickstart your unlearning process.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Alec Jiggins, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Alec Jiggins is an award-winning executive and leadership coach, a global associate with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centred Coaching and the Global Coach Group. Alec's mission is to change the world, one leader at a time. His motto is "Love, Live, Lead" and he works with executives on leading authentically, confidently, from the heart. Alec has lived and worked in 7 countries and three continents in a range of industries and roles, taking one startup to $6 million in turnover and breakeven within 18 months.



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