Do You Know How to “Unlearn” What You You Already Know?

Have you ever tried to unlearn your expertise to make way for a new way of doing something?

Are you so stuck in your ways that you avoid or dismiss what takes you out of your comfort zone?

After years of loyal IPhone and IPad use, I decided to make the shift to a Mac laptop instead of a PC.  Having found my Apple devices to be uber-intuitive, easy to use, and incredibly powerful, I figured there would be minimal adjustment to using the new laptop.

I was in for a surprise.

After becoming crazed with frustration trying to right click or copy and paste a document with the new trackpad, I broke down and booked a one on one tutoring session at the Apple store. I explained the trouble I was having with the new trackpad, and how long it was taking me to do the simple things I once used to speed through, due to my new-found incompetence understanding all the different new uses of my fingers on the trackpad.

‘The reason it is so hard is because you are already set and wired in the ways you expect a PC to be used. ,” he explained.

“You have to unlearn what you think you know about using the trackpad with a PC and begin like you are learning it for the first time… like a beginner.”

It was true. After years of being conditioned using a PC, I had a distinct way I expected a trackpad to respond. When that way was different and uncomfortable, I immediately rebelled and assumed the discomfort was due to a flaw in the design of the trackpad. I craved my comfort zone and wanted to complain my way back to it.

It made me think of the smart leaders I work with who have years and years of experience in their area of expertise or with the company they are working with. You may be one of them. Intelligent with a zest for learning.  You are proud of all the things you know– of your expertise and competence and are eager to grow. The lesson the Mac experience brings forward though, is that sometimes your competence and expertise can work against you. They can keep you viewing things from your pre-conceived mental models that are hard to contract and expand or replace. They can prevent your ability to unlearn and flexibility to relearn.

As a beginner, you revere things from a sense of awe. You don’t have a measuring stick to compare to – you just learn as much as you can. You don’t need to unlearn.

As a competent expert, before you can replace or expand your old mental model of how something is, you must unlearn what you already know, and then relearn a new one.
Here are three principles of unlearning from my Mac transition experience:

1. You must approach the new with curiosity rather than comparative judgment

When I was trying to work the trackpad, I was comparing its functions to the mouse on the PC, which was my comfort zone and frame of reference.  Instead, I needed to put aside my comparison and judgment and be curious about the features of the new trackpad and what it could offer.

 
 2.  Be willing to feel consciously incompetent

I couldn’t use the trackpad and felt uncomfortable, impatient, and incompetent.  I was proficient with my old PC, so this new way of doing something seemed inefficient.  (It wasn’t me, of course.  I wasn’t incompetent.  It was the trackpad.)  I had to accept the fact that this was new and I needed to relearn and reframe my mental models of how trackpads were used.

 

3.  Give it time before you dismiss it

The first week with the new device, I was ready to return it and go back to my old PC.  It was more efficient, made more sense, and I didn’t have to waste time learning something that seemed counter to what I already knew.

But I hung in there, followed my own advice, and now I can’t believe that I hung onto a PC for all these years and didn’t make the change sooner.  I have more options available to me now than I even knew were possible before.

 

What about you?
Are you missing opportunities to grow because of your unwillingness to unlearn?
Is your expertise and current competence keeping you in your comfort zone?
What do you need to unlearn in order to keep learning?