Learn, unlearn, relearn: the cycle of success

For thousands of years, every civilization has valued learning. Now, learning alone is not enough. To be successful you must master the learn, unlearn, relearn cycle of success.

Why? Because in a rapidly changing world, unlearning and relearning are just as important as learning. It’s no longer about continuous, acquisitive learning.

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

More unlearning quotes.

What should you learn?

More than ever, there is a need to learn and keep learning. But in our ‘always on’ world it’s a challenge to know what to learn.

To help you focus, explore your medium and long-term goals. To achieve those goals, do you need to improve your performance in your current role, prepare for future roles, develop your current expertise, or broaden your expertise into other fields?

Identify the mindset, knowledge and skills that you and your team need to develop. For more, explore creating a learning culture.

The learn, unlearn, relearn cycle

You also need to know what to give up.

Unlearning is giving up what is no longer true, or relevant, or helpful.

We learn, then the world changes. We need to unlearn what is holding us back, and we need to relearn what will help us move forwards towards success.

Four types of unlearning

There are many types of unlearning and relearning, some come easier than others. It’s relatively easy to give up out-of-date knowledge, much harder to give up unhelpful habits and behaviors. It’s perhaps most challenging to unlearn and relearn our sense of identity.

1. Knowledge and assumptions

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Thomas Watson, president of IBM, 1943

You may have seen this quote already. It’s a classic example of thinking based on out-of-date knowledge and assumptions. It’s a great example of the need to learn, unlearn, relearn!

The business world is littered with these spectacular failures. Entire businesses disappear because they hit a strategic inflection point and their leaders fail to unlearn what has made them successful.

2. Unlearning and relearning skills

I enjoy driving and I used to pride myself on my skills, particularly my ability to park my car. But these days my car is so smart it virtually parks itself! An old skill, a source of pride, is no longer needed. For me that’s not a big issue (I don’t make a living out of parking cars). But for many people they’re seeing their employment skills become less valuable, or even completely replaced. We need to be able to continuously learn, unlearn and relearn to stay relevant in a changing workforce.

All kinds of skills have a limited shelf-life. If we assume we have ‘life-long’ skills that don’t need to be relearnt we’re in serious danger of becoming irrelevant.

Whether it’s learning to use new technology, or learning to manage a new generation of employees, we need to continuously learn, unlearn, relearn skills.

3. Habits & behaviors

Recent insights into neuroplasticity highlight the ability of our brain to unlearn and relearn: by creating new and strengthened pathways through the neurons of the brain.

Neuroplasticity is the scientific basis for the growth mindset.

We can choose to either have a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset. If we choose the later, we embrace the opportunity for creating new and more productive habits and behaviors.  We can take on new lifestyles that boost health, knowledge, self-awareness, work-life-balance, any aspect of our life that creates value for us.

4. Self-identity

I have always thought of myself as quite ‘self-aware’, quite understanding of my own motivations, moods and mindset. This was something that I felt quite proud about, it shaped my sense of who I am.

However, I recently had to re-evaluate that perception of myself.

I was overloaded at work, and not responding positively to the pressure. I realized that I was making decisions driven by my ego and an ‘I know better than them’ mentality. In times of stress I wasn’t listening or recognizing the needs of others. This was a revelation for me and I’m trying to be more aware of this weakness.

We can all continue to learn, unlearn and relearn about ourselves.

And there is an entire industry built around helping us, as managers and leaders, to do just that. There are many free and paid self-assessment tools (you may be familiar with DiSC, Strengthsfinder, etc). They’re all designed to help us gain insights into ourselves. Insights that will reshape our self-identity.

The process of unlearning and relearning

There’s no magic to this. We need to be open to change. This involves:

  • Willingness to accept the challenge
  • Perseverance in the face of adversity
  • The desire to embrace a ‘new you’

For an amusing example, look at this learning to unlearn: backwards brain bicycle video.

Embrace the learn, unlearn, relearn cycle of success

Here are some of the things that you can do to embrace the learn, unlearn, relearn cycle of success:

  1. Explore the idea of unlearning and relearning (set yourself some challenges based on the 4 types of unlearning, above)
  2. Request feedback, to give yourself fresh perspectives on your behavior
  3. Make sure that you’re staying up-to-date with the knowledge that is relevant to your success
  4. Spend time ‘trend watching’ and practice foresight
  5. Reevaluate your skills and ensure that they are ‘future-proofed’
  6. Explore the idea of the growth mindset
  7. Find a mentor to support and challenge you
  8. Use self-assessment tools to develop your self-awareness

Remember to learn, unlearn and relearn as a cycle for your success!

Dive Deeper

Explore growth mindset activities for adults.

Colin Bates

Colin Bates

I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and succeed. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog!