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The Power of Unlearning

Updated: Apr 2

I used to go to bookstores all the time. A memory of drinking hot chocolate with whipped cream on top (which I haven’t had for decades) at a coffee shop inside the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Bloomington (IN) is such a nostalgic scene for me. Not to mention, in my vivid recollection, the view outside the window was often covered in snow. I would grab a stack of new books that piqued my interest and read through them while sipping a hot chocolate. It was always my solo downtime activity that I looked forward to whenever I needed mental space.

Sadly, nowadays, my book purchases are mostly made online. Every transaction is quick and efficient. While I doubt if I can ever go back to buying books in a bookstore regularly, still, I miss browsing new books in the aisle—making that random discovery. For a change, I would walk to a category I didn’t usually go to. Holding the new book close to my nose, I would sniff it like some fancy perfume. I would read them through for hours. I don’t recall buying those stacks of books back then, as I couldn’t justify the price for my small budget. Yet, I still felt it was just as much fun as it was.

Ironically, nowadays, one of the last bookstores I still regularly visit is at the airport. Five minutes before boarding. Ten minutes before transferring to another gate. Unlike my student years, I now have little time for browsing. Rather, I glance quickly, get whatever seems interesting on first impression, and run to my destination, clutching a new book.

That happened a couple of weeks ago at San Diego Airport. I grabbed a copy of Think Again by Adam Grant. Knowing the author fairly well from his other amazing books, such as Originals and Give and Take, I knew it would be good. However, I was surprised by how insightful this book was! I let out, “Wow . . .” aloud multiple times on that plane ride. I could feel a curiosity from the passenger beside me with his side glance. With a record decision time (perhaps it took 30 seconds) to make the purchase, this book surely delivered much more than my expectations.

Adam Grant commented:

“When people reflect on what it takes to be mentally fit, the first idea that comes to mind is usually intelligence. The smarter you are, the more complex the problems you can solve—and the faster you can solve them. Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet, in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

The book is about the value of rethinking. It is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that no longer serve you well and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency. With COVID-19, we all had a huge nudge of rethinking and unlearning. What had worked in the past didn’t work anymore. For a while, we held onto the assumption that it wouldn’t affect our lives to the degree that it did and then were forced to reprogram our thinking on what to do about it.

According to the book, people often fall into the habit of thinking in three different modes. These are: 1. preacher (I am right), 2. prosecutor (They are wrong!), or 3. politician (We are right! They are wrong.)

Adam’s favorite bias is “I’m not biased,” in which people believe they’re more objective than others. It turns out that smart people are more likely to fall into this trap. The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations. Being good at thinking can make you worse at rethinking. Isn’t that interesting?

Adam suggests that while there are situations in which it might make sense to preach, prosecute, and politick, we can all benefit by more often making the effort to think like a scientist. Being a scientist is not just a profession but a frame of mind, searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge. The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.

He also said:

“We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles. We don’t preach from intuition; we teach from evidence. We don’t just have healthy skepticism about other people’s arguments; we dare to disagree with our own arguments. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons we might be wrong—not for reasons we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”

Here are three more insights from the book that made me think:

1. Embrace the joy of being wrong. Whenever you realize that you made a mistake, that is a sign that you have just discovered something new. How exciting! It helps you focus less on proving yourself—and more on improving yourself.

2. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. I’ve learned that disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable. Don’t take it personally; rather, approach what is probably a task conflict as a debate. If this debate were televised, how would you support your arguments using what kind of evidence? A debate is like a dance, not a war. Admitting the other person’s views doesn’t make you weaker but shows your willingness to rethink and be flexible, which motivates others to consider their views as well. It’s helpful to have cheerleaders encouraging you in your life, but you also need people who can challenge you and invite you to rethink with freedom of choice and love.

3. Question how rather than why. When people have a strong view of something, they often attach the view to their identity, creating a wall of not listening. Instead of asking why they hold that view, ask how they could make their views reality. The same applies when we ask ourselves questions. Make a habit of asking how you formed an opinion in the first place and what evidence would make you change your mind.

When was the last time you had to rethink and change your point of view?

Research suggests that the more frequently we make fun of ourselves, the happier we tend to be. Instead of beating ourselves up about our mistakes, we can turn some of our past misconceptions into sources of present amusement.

I resonated with what Brené Brown said in a review of the book:

“Yes, learning requires focus. But unlearning and relearning require much more—it requires choosing courage over comfort. This helps us build the intellectual and emotional muscle that we need to stay curious enough about the world to actually change it.

I’ve never felt so hopeful about what I don’t know.”

Have a wonderful week!



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