Thinking together requires making ideas visible to everyone. Engaging bodies as well as minds and laptops expands awareness and wakes up senses. Photo by Cheryl Heller.

The power of unlearning

Because we can’t see our own mental models, it is difficult to change them. Unlearning requires a deeper level of awareness than learning does. It requires self-discovery, discipline, confidence, curiosity, and courage.

A mental model is a representation of the world, made in our minds. We form them based on our environment, experiences, beliefs, values, memories, expectations, and cultural influences (e.g., news, op-eds, advertising, social media, literature, art). And, of course, we form them based on what we are taught in school.

Mental models are formed in our minds, then influence how and what we think.

We use them to explain or predict how life works and what our place is in it. Mental models “decide what we think is true” and what we believe to be possible. They are, in short, the narrative track of our journey, helping us navigate the complicated and (so often lately) alarming events we witness all around us. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” to quote a famous author’s famous essay.

Mental models help us learn. Supply and demand, for example, is a mental model used to explain how the economy works. Positive-sum thinking versus zero-sum thinking is another.

Mental models are dangerous, too. They work invisibly, at a structural level. We are rarely aware of them, yet they are the film editors of our reality, with full control of what we see on screen. Prejudice, discrimination, homophobia, gender bias are all mental models, as is entitlement. Another example of a dangerous mental model is confirmation bias: the human tendency to see and interpret new information in a way that confirms what we already believe. Like so many quirks and habits, it is easier to observe mental models in others than in ourselves.

Because we can’t see our own mental models, it is difficult to change them. Unlearning requires a deeper level of awareness than learning does. It requires self-discovery, discipline, confidence, curiosity, and courage. But it’s worth it. Unlearning is liberating. It opens new windows and doors.

A lifelong learner is defined as someone who continues to grow, typically in ways that make them better and happier people (meaning life-learning, as opposed to spending more time in a classroom). I would like to propose that, given our current anxious, disenfranchised, and fractious culture, lifelong unlearning is a more accurate—and inspiring—term for what we need.

I spent the better part of August in Columbia, S.C., teaching a 10-day intensive design course to 30 graduate students from eight countries, in the top-ranked international business school in the country (and the first major business school to be named after a woman). For its just-over-6,000 students, the Darla Moore School’s graduate job placement rate is 96 percent. Clearly, students there learn how to succeed in international business.

What mattered to them—and to me—in our 10 days together, is what they unlearned:

Creating your own vision and metrics for success is about a billion times more valuable than getting a good grade. The moment the syllabus was published, before class began, I started getting questions from students about assignments and grades. What did it mean that 40 percent of the grade would be based on participation in class if that class was a studio and not a typical lecture? Could I be more precise about what it would take to succeed? How could they prepare for it in advance? Before we met in person, I asked students to write a brief “story” of why they signed up for this course and what they wanted to gain from it. On the first day, we discussed their goals and I shared mine: that we aim to make the work we were about to do together not just successful by classroom standards, but the most fulfilling work they had ever done, work that transformed the client’s business and also transformed them. Together, we took responsibility for where we were going and established the milestones we needed to meet along the way. Good grades—or any institutional standards—are never the measures that matter. They can only motivate you to be like everyone else.

Collaborating is not the same as sitting nearby with your face buried in your laptop. When we first organized in teams, members chose tables, sat down together, and immediately ignored each other to stare into their individual laptops. Becoming confident enough to communicate half-formed thoughts, being vulnerable enough to think together rather than striving independently, and recognizing the inadequacy of search engines for solving unstructured challenges were some of the most important new capacities and unlearnings.

The best thinking doesn’t happen in your head. It requires unlearning for students to become aware of and pay attention to their senses. Business students, in particular, are taught to rely on data and logic, avoiding anything remotely emotional. In doing that, we shut out some of our most important sources of learning. Our senses always tell us things worth listening to. Energy, boredom, anxiety, annoyance—in yourself, colleagues, and clients—are always signals of tacit dynamics that are often as important as what is being said. Becoming curious about what is behind them is more profitable than ignoring them. The way to wake up the sense is to live in your body. Move it, stand up, walk around. Pay attention.

Thinking together requires making ideas visible to everyone. Engaging bodies as well as minds and laptops expands awareness and wakes up senses. Photo by Cheryl Heller.

Only plain words are powerful. Jargon may help someone fit into a specific culture or industry or profession, but, like cliches, jargon leads to generalities. Generalities become worn and stripped of meaning from overuse. (I recommend reading Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” at least once a year). Plus, it is impossible to act on generalities: Witness all the talk of solving the climate crisis that never goes anywhere because it never reaches the level of concrete, actionable language. Alfred Edward Kahn, a beloved economics professor and the man known as the father of airline deregulation, said, “If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.” When you want to move people, pay attention to the particular. Use plain, unworn words. Paradoxically, the right simple words are harder to find, but worth it.

No amount of data leads to wisdom. I warned students in advance that navigating a new, ambiguous process would be frustrating and that it was OK to take it out on me. It happened. One student was convinced that a complete understanding of how the client used Salesforce would yield the systems-level creative idea he was seeking. Unlike scientific research, systems-level innovation is inspired by understanding and questioning the system, finding connections and seeing patterns at a high level. It is more often lost than facilitated by minutiae, and the more minutiae, the deeper the big idea gets buried. Conclusions come from immersing in granular detail at the onset of the creative process, but conclusions should not be confused with ideas. There is plenty of time to “geek out” “in the weeds” (to use two worn business cliches) to confirm an idea’s validity after the inspiration comes from interrogating the larger context.

Every tool is also a potential trap. Powerpoint is a crutch that makes every business presentation look like every other business presentation, adding endless bullet points and stripping it of meaning and interest. Use programs that make capturing ideas easier, but be suspicious of them as well. Thinking can’t be outsourced or templated. Start with a pencil or pen, then find the right program rather than letting the program dictate how big your thoughts can be. Ideas should be movable, expandable, combinable, fungible.

Looking smart is always a limiting idea. About once an hour for the first four days of class, a student would almost unconsciously start presenting ideas and solutions to the challenge that we had not fully defined yet. Each moved from pride to deflation to resignation as first I and then all their classmates would say, “Don’t try to solve it yet, we haven’t asked or answered all the deep questions.” Racing to clever ideas or easy solutions doesn’t mean you are smart. It prevents any meaningful thinking from emerging. There are so many ways this has been said (embrace not knowing, etc.), but it is human nature and the hardest thing to change. We want to solve things. We want to be clever. We want to end the discomfort of not having an answer yet. Andy Stefanovich, someone I admire, who spends his life teaching leaders to be creative, says we should embrace “more input than output.” The answer is not knowing.

Epiphanies are overrated. Breakthrough ideas do come in the shower, in dreams, during runs or walks, or while washing dishes. More often than not, though, they are the result of disciplined, collaborative efforts and requisite investment of time, to transform small and ordinary observations into insights that open new worlds of possibilities. It is never a good idea to wait for lightening to strike when an investment in real thinking will have the same or better effect.

In the end, the students at the Moore School were brilliant. They were courageous, curious, creative, collaborative, and a joy to unlearn with. What they got in return for the discomfort they tolerated and the process they trusted was a taste of their own creative agency, comfort with ambiguity, and experience living in the world of ideas as well as skills and expertise.

Business students are not the only people who need to unlearn. It is true for all of us, and for most of the frameworks and mental models that prescribe the way we live our lives and treat our fellow planetary inhabitants. Solving complex, human-driven problems cannot be done in theory. Most of the time, theories only get in the way because they predispose us to see what we think we will see rather than what is there. Unlearning is a lived experience, requiring that we let go of much of what we think we know.

If you know something you think I should know, or if you just want to talk about ideas and education, I would like that. Please get in touch here.