Unlearning Is an Underrated Skill

Image: The Man of Confusion (1939) by Paul Klee (German, 1879-1940)/Artvee

Six years ago, product designer Andrei Herasimchuk wrote of an earlier time when he learned the wrong lesson during his career at Adobe. Early into his career as a designer, he had built a prototype over the weekend and a few days into his workweek. One of the product managers, who had worked at Adobe for a while and were well liked by the team, stopped by Harsimchuk’s cubicle. The following conversation would change his life: 

“Well,” they continued, “while I certainly applaud your effort, I must say that you really don’t need to go to this length. You’ll have to do this all the time for all the products going forward. These screenshots you have here are plenty. It’s all we’ve ever done before, so there’s really no need to spend this kind of time on a prototype.”

Next came the mistake. Like I said, one of the biggest ones I’ve made in my career. It’s burned into my brain as if it happened five minutes ago.

I simply said, “Um… Ok. I guess. If you think so.”

I never built another prototype while working at Adobe again.

Herasimchuk takes responsibility for learning this wrong lesson, writing, “I could have easily ignored the product manager’s advice and stayed the course with my trained design process and built out my prototype. No one at Adobe ever forced me to work in one particular way, and no one would have stopped me.” 

Still, the damage was done—that conversation set him back five years of making prototypes and programming as part of his job, and also the culture change he could have made as an early member of what would become a very large team. 

Image: Nicolas Hoizey/Unsplash 

Similarly, author Mark Manson writes of a similar lesson Will Smith would need to unlearn in their collaborative project, Will. Will was working with his son Jaden on After Earth, a project intended to nurture their relationship. While it worked as intended, bringing father and son closer together in the process, the work turned out to be a commercial and critical failure. 

Mark and Will write, “Back then, I made the troubling conclusion that questing with empathy was an oxymoron, and you could either worry about how people feel, or you could win. But you had to pick one.” It wasn’t true, and it was a lesson that would cause Will a lot of pain in the coming years.

It’s natural to draw the wrong outcome from our experiences. “I did this, this is how it turned out, here’s what I learned.” Author Annie Duke calls this resulting fallacy, in which we correlate the quality of the outcome with the quality of our decision making. She summarizes to Nautilus, “You can’t use outcome quality as a perfect signal of decision quality, not with a small sample size anyway. I mean, certainly, if someone has gotten in 15 car accidents in the last year, I can certainly work backward from the outcome quality to their decision quality. But one accident doesn’t tell me much.”

Unfortunately, we are very finite human beings with finite minds and sets of experiences. We draw lessons from a data point of one all the time. One thoughtless comment, not even directed at us, could completely change the way we behave—for better or worse!—for decades. 

We tend to lend an awful lot of credibility to external sources, each with their own individual biases, experiences, and interests, as a substitute for our personal experiences. After all, the saying often attributed to Otto von Bismarck goes, “Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.” Bismarck’s point needs to be tempered, of course, with the caveat that it’s similarly foolish to learn only from other people’s experiences and not to try anything out yourself. 

These stories all resonate with me, as did this tweet from business leader and investor Ashley Mayer, “I’m finding that as I get further along in my career (and life), unlearning has become just as important as learning.” 

I plan to write a sequel to this on the wrong lessons I’d learned throughout my decade-long career. Here are just a few amongst many that I’ve observed, and certainly more I haven’t noticed yet:

  • My friends working in direct marketing telling me that direct results are the only thing that matter and the best way to measure ROI. I needed to unlearn that very short-sighted view on ROI and understand that many results in marketing will not be properly attributed. That comes with the job!
  • So many people I admire work incredibly hard. I needed to unlearn that more effort always leads to better results. In fact, sometimes, more conscious effort actually messes things up. I would notice how many projects get cancelled or frozen halfway through, not for a lack of effort but because of the quality of initial decision making or strategy evolving. 
  • Passive income has become today’s modern Nirvana, an integral part of the new American dream. Because so many marketers would write about how difficult passive income was—and price their courses accordingly!—I would need to unlearn that passive income wasn’t that difficult, and realize that I could do it. I would also need to unlearn that passive income was a panacea for active income. Rather, it’s best seen as a compliment. 

There’s a Zen koan floating around the Internet about a Japanese master in the late 1800s or early 1900s, receiving a visit from a university professor who wanted to learn more about Zen. The master pours the professor tea, to the point where the cup is practically overflowing. Alarmed, the professor exclaims, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” the master said, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Regardless of your career stage—or life stage—it’s time to practice unlearning, to let go of what we realize are misunderstandings, and to surrender to new experiences. Be open. Try the opposite. You may find yourself surprised at how much more nuance and possibility there is, and how much more you’re able to learn.

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