Dialogue around continued learning has increased significantly in the digital age as employers look to new skill sets as a means to innovate and employees seek to expand their knowledge and earnings potential. But do we always approach learning in the right way? Conferences and training tend to focus on adding knowledge, but in truth, learning doesn’t need to be a constant build. Sometimes, we need to go backward to truly move forward.

Adopting a beginner’s mind – a principle in meditation and mindfulness practices – offers that path forward. The beginner’s mind is the process of setting aside perceptions and assumptions, beginning again with a clean slate, and repeating the process over and over, and over and over, again. In this context, it means intentionally unlearning, or at least, putting what we know to the side and considering alternate perspectives and approaches. As a result, we unlock potential hidden to us otherwise.

When Unlearning Works Best

One sign that we could benefit from wiping our assumptions clean and considering an alternate view is when we have unshakeable convictions and long-honed skills. When we transition from one role to another, we need to be aware that what got us to this point of success is not going to be what helps us continue to succeed, as Marshall Goldsmith has written. In these moments, letting go of hard-held beliefs can be the key to successfully taking on new roles.

Boredom is another clear indicator, one that often leads to complacency and uninspired thinking. Knowing that boredom is a time to step back, question what we know and explore new possibilities can help break through barriers, chase new challenges and develop deeper skill sets. Not only can this process lead to self-accomplishment and pride, but it can also lead to an ability to inspire, teach and mentor others.

Another red flag indicating the need for a mindset shift is when we become aware of preconceived notions we have of another person’s knowledge, skills and abilities. This is especially dangerous for managers and leaders who want to cultivate talent and achieve exceptional results. People are full of surprises. If someone is routinely underperforming, it may be less about the person and more about the conditions in which the person is working.

Then, there are the small moments when we can challenge ourselves to unlearn – the many times each day when we misinterpret scenarios and situations, creating our own reality and overlooking the perspectives of others. It isn’t necessarily that we are wrong but more that we can open up to other interpretations of the facts and circumstances. Albert Einstein is quoted as having said, “Reality is just an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” Imagine if we could cut through the illusion and see with greater clarity?

Cultivating Beginner’s Mind at Work

There are skills we can foster as individuals and as organizations that can help us see clearly and develop creative approaches, new ideas or unexpected opportunities:

  • Question everything. Our knowledge often forms the basis of our convictions. As we question, we learn. We evolve. Our ideas shift, and new awareness develops. From that curiosity comes innovation.
  • Try a perception shift. How would someone with the opposite perspective see the issue at hand? How about a child? Or a competitor? This exercise makes it possible to see something new.
  • Challenge convictions. Find a challenge partner who will play devil’s advocate in any situation. The challenge partner is a trusted advisor, someone who will ask the hard questions and poke holes in ideas.
  • Consider a lateral approach. How has another industry solved a similar challenge? Can nature can provide inspiration? Who already does this well?
  • Find a reverse mentor. As the pace of change becomes quicker and quicker, there are people entering the workforce every day who have a fresh take on the world. Identifying a reverse mentor from time to time can offer a new view into old problems, as well as guidance in areas that come second-nature to younger people.
  • Travel the least likely path. What are the various routes to take in solving a problem or accomplishing a goal? Which is least likely and why? Ask what it would look like if that solution were “the one.” What needs to happen to make it possible? Why might it fail? Plan against the failure. Going through this process of ideation, planning, evaluating and tweaking can help an unlikely idea become foolproof.

With this toolkit in mind, the next time conviction, boredom or assumption plagues you, the remedy is clear and simple: It’s time to unlearn.

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