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The Power of Unlearning: How to Let Go of Beliefs to Embrace Success

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 16, 2023

Intentionally refraining from old assumptions and habits is vital for learning and growth

The ability to unlearn is increasingly important to succeed in a fast-changing world. Unlearning is more than simply forgetting what you know. It’s a deliberate process to refrain from your beliefs and habits – to make room for new things.

That’s the lesson Serena Williams learned while recovering from a foot injury. She thought that regaining her game would guarantee her return to the top of women’s tennis. Unfortunately, her comeback at the French Open was anything but what she expected: Williams lost in the first round to a player ranked No.111. Rather than reaching the top, she hit rock bottom.

Down but not out, Serena was determined to make a comeback. She realized that the tennis tour had changed and so should her game. Williams intentionally decided to unlearn how to play like a champion.

Serena made radical changes to her training to get the results she wanted, including bringing in a new coach. Deliberately unlearning paid off. By the end of the 2015 season, she had won all four Grand Slam titles.

Williams’ story carries an important lesson: what got you here won’t get you there. Both individuals and organizations can benefit from consciously refraining from old habits and assumptions.

In this post, I will explain the benefits of unlearning and how letting go of past beliefs will help you succeed.

The Importance of Unlearning and Deliberate Refraining

Unlearning is a vital meta-skill to develop that allows individuals, teams, and organizations to adapt to change and improve their performance.

American futurist Alvin Toffler is often misquoted, saying, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” It was psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy who brought this idea to light.

Companies are obsessed with becoming a learning organization and adopting a growth mindset. Yet, even the most well-intended struggle to make real progress. The problem is focusing on the wrong thing. Substantial growth is not the result of learning but of unlearning.

Learning is an addition game.

We were taught that learning is about adding; the more information we accumulate, the better. That explains people’s fixation with collecting new skills and knowledge – even diplomas.

However, rather than piling up information, we must be prepared to let go of old patterns (unlearn) and adopt new ones (relearn).

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” – Lao Tzu

Unlearning is all about subtraction.

It’s much more than replacing old information with new. Unlearning is about refraining, letting go, and making room for new ideas.

It involves questioning and challenging existing assumptions, biases, or attitudes and being open to new perspectives and experiences. Unlearning can be challenging, as it often requires us to confront our limitations.

You must first unlearn what you think you know in order to relearn what you need to know.

That’s the paradox of success: your once-successful strategies can cause your downfall. High performers rely heavily on what got them here. Not everyone has Serena Williams’ self-awareness or the smarts to change their game, especially when it brought them to the top.

Unlearning is not about forgetting past information.

Multiple studies suggest that unlearning is an active process rather than simply forgetting a skill or behavior. Unlearning requires choosing an alternative mental model or paradigm. But first, you must stretch beyond your comfort zone.

Changing course requires unlearning what made us successful in the past.

Brinker International, Chili’s parent company, realized that, to succeed in the digital era, it had to unlearn just being a restaurant. After resisting the idea, it launched It’s Just Wings. This virtual brand, exclusively delivered by DoorDash, prepares the food in ghost kitchens. The results speak for themselves: annual sales have surpassed $567 million in two years.

Unlearning requires shedding outdated beliefs and practices.

Acknowledge habits that were never effective. Get rid of ideas that no longer serve you. Learning and unlearning are not mutually exclusive processes but often intertwined. To grow and succeed, you must add new habits and abandon ineffective ones.  

Why Unlearning Is So Important

Unlearning is vital for continuous performance. It enables teams to work collaboratively and build a shared future. Unlearning allows companies to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. Resisting change is like holding your breath.

Adam Grant told World Economic Forum: “I think that one of the dangers of living in a rapidly changing world is that we end up carrying around mental fossils in our heads, all opinions and assumptions that might have made sense in a previous version of the world but are no longer true.”

According to the organizational psychologist, we adopt different roles to defend mental fossils: preachers, prosecutors, or politicians.

When we're in preacher mode, we're defending our views. In prosecutor mode, we're attacking someone else's views. And when we're in politician mode, we only listen to those who agree with our views. In all three mindsets, we think we are right and others are wrong.  

Take, for example, the return-to-the-office drama. Why are so many leaders forcing people back into the office and ignoring the data? It has nothing to do with facts but views. They are making decisions based on their personal preferences and beliefs, not on what’s best for people or the organization, as I wrote here.

Illustration by Roberto Ferraro –

Assumptions kill possibilities.

Unlearning requires challenging our upbringing, education, and culture. Start by rethinking five vital areas:

Purpose: why you do what you do

Beliefs: assumptions about yourself, others, and the world.

Mindsets: the filters you use to see reality

Habits: automatic patterns of behaviors that we follow regularly

Methods: how we do what we do

Unlearning with People and Organizations

Unlearning is essential across multiple levels – personal, leadership, and culture.

Relearning at a Personal Level:

Unlearning can be crucial to overcoming limiting beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes hindering growth or success. It can help you let go of negative self-talk, destructive habits, or toxic relationships that hold you back.

Our brains are continuously creating new pathways and discarding others. When we learn something new, we create connections between our neurons. Our brains can also rewire to adapt to new circumstances. Although this happens naturally, you can also encourage and stimulate it.

We often think that our brain is hired-wired with connections – that anything we do repeatedly gets “wired” into our brain and that these well-worn patterns will become the road most traveled.

However, research on neuroplasticity shows that we can rewire our brains. A growth mindset won’t magically rewire your brain, but it could help. As this Positive Psychology article points out: “A growth mindset is simply accepting the idea of neuroplasticity on a broad level.”

Of course, taking full advantage of our brain’s amazing neuroplasticity requires commitment and method – changing one’s mindset is easier said than done.

Take, for example, a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that suggested that distractions caused by “diversity demands” might have caused Silicon Valley Bank to collapse. As the author wrote, “I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided the mess, but…” He’s using a 19th-century mindset to explain a 21st-century issue.

Relearning as a Leader:

Unlearning can be a powerful tool for leaders to improve decision-making, adapt to changing circumstances, and enhance their effectiveness. It can free them from their comfort zone, encouraging innovation and promoting agility. Unlearning can help leaders overcome cognitive biases and blind spots, allowing them to make better decisions.

Steve Jobs almost prevented Apple from creating the most profitable product in its history. His team was trying to convince him that a cell phone was a perfect fit for Apple, but Jobs thought it was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Jobs was fixated on the wrong idea of a mobile phone. He had to unlearn everything he believed about phone companies before his team could develop a new version – Apple’s unique take.

Relearning Your Workplace Culture:

The culture that got you here won’t get you there. Companies are struggling to adapt to the new reality of work and trying to return to how things used to be. To thrive in the future of work, organizations need to intentionally revisit (almost) everything about their ways of working. As I explain in my book Remote Not Distant, they must reset their culture.

When uncertainty hits businesses, some leaders fight reality while others choose to unlearn.

Business transformations often fail because leaders can’t unlearn the old way of doing things. The problem is never a lack of ideas but rather a lack of change in behavior.

When the pandemic slashed Airbnb’s business, CEO Brian Chesky immediately realized that “travel as we know it is over.” The company reprioritized its business model, scaled back ‘pet projects,’ and provided for its employees during a layoff that impacted 25% of its workforce. It also reframed its model as “Live and work anywhere on Airbnb,” capitalizing on the growing remote work trend.

Relearning has helped Airbnb return from the brink, posting a record Q4.

How to Unlearn and Relearn: A Three-Step approach

We face several obstacles when trying to unlearn and relearn based on our upbringing or biases. Resistance to change, fear of failure, and cognitive biases make abandoning old ways of doing things difficult. Most importantly, we must overcome the sunk cost fallacy – our tendency to continue investing in past choices even if they don’t bring the expected results.

In his book Unlearn, Barry O’Reilly invites us to let go of past success. To achieve positive results in life and at work, you need to abandon what helped you succeed in the past. Unlearning takes courage. You must stretch beyond your comfort zone and test out new solutions.

The author outlines the Cycle of Unlearning, a three-phase cycle to let go of what no longer serves you. This doesn’t mean dismissing wisdom you’ve gained from previous experiences. It’s about recognizing what’s obsolete and discovering fresh ideas and solutions.

Let’s review the three key phases of the unlearning process.

1. UNLEARN – recognize old mental models

Identify old mental models that no longer serve you – or maybe never did.

The first step is to become more aware of our mental models. This is a big challenge for most of us. As Dr. Tasha Eurich explains, “We’ve found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality. We estimate that only 10%–15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.”

To increase your self-awareness, you must look outside, not just inside.

Balance internal self-awareness with external. Self-aware people know themselves well and also understand how others see them. Use feedback from family members or colleagues to uncover your blind spots, including mental models that no longer serve you.

Reflect using these questions:

What are your unquestionable truths about yourself and others?

What are your limiting beliefs?

Where are you not seeing the outcomes you want?

Explore your comfort zone. What’s holding you back?

What has been your default formula for success?

Unlearning goes beyond understanding what you want to let go of – you should also know why you want to unlearn it.

2. RELEARN – identify a new model

Find or create a new model that can help you achieve your goals.

Consider the current context – not how things used to be. What are the assumptions that are getting in the way? What mental shift is necessary to thrive in the new reality?

Relearning doesn’t necessarily mean replacing; it could mean evolving or abandoning something. Relearning could mean you stop doing something that doesn’t serve you or start doing something different.

For example, many companies struggle with hybrid/ remote work because they continue to have an office-centric mindset. They haven’t made the mental shift from designing the work around the office to considering the office as just another element of the culture mix.  

Reflect using these questions:

What are you willing to do to achieve the outcomes you want?

Explore possibilities by writing several How-Might-We questions.

How could you make your relearning more intentional?

How can you build capacity, confidence, and momentum?

What would “think big but start small” look like for you?

Relearning is about intentionally rewiring our brain to explore the road less traveled.

3. BREAKTHROUGH – embed the new behaviors

Work on ingraining the new mental habits until they become natural.

The breakthrough phase represents a transformational moment in your life. It’s about moving beyond your old way of thinking and behaving. You develop a new sense of self.

This new reality may bring new challenges and opportunities, but you will be better equipped to face them.

Nelson Mandela experienced a breakthrough unlearning moment during his 27 years in prison. The former South African president unlearned his anger and bitterness toward his captors. He relearned that forgiveness and reconciliation were crucial to bringing peace and unity to his country.

Reflect using these questions:

Why do you want to embrace the new behavior?

How can you make unlearning and learning a consistent part of your daily routine?

How will you measure success?

What triggers can alert you to when you’re falling back into old habits?

How can you tie your effort to impacting others?

Engraining new mental habits requires turning experimentation. It doesn’t matter if an experiment goes wrong; you learn from the failed experiment and move on.

Learn, Unlearn, And Relearn

Learning and unlearning are both important processes for personal and professional development. To succeed in the long run, we need to challenge ourselves regularly.  Promote inquiry and experimentation – see mistakes as stepping stones, not the end of the road.

Recognize ideas and methods that are incorrect and do not work for you. Understand why you are still inclined to neuro habits. Retire the behaviors that no longer serve you. Learn alternative approaches that could work better.

As you begin the unlearning journey, be patient with yourself — it’s not a linear process.

What do you want to unlearn?

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

What do you think?



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