On unlearning and rethinking

From a young age, many of us are taught that conviction and confidence are indisputable virtues.

In school, we’re rewarded for being right and punished for being wrong, even on topics that don’t have black-or-white answers. With friends, we play status games by attempting to prove each other wrong or show off when we’ve gained some new knowledge. At home, we learn to mimic our parents’ strongly held beliefs and opinions without questioning them.

The net effect is that we find it increasingly difficult and uncomfortable to change our minds as we get older, which is a tragedy. In a world where our collective knowledge is growing faster than ever, I’ve come to believe that unlearning and rethinking are as important as learning and thinking.

Our convictions can lock us in prisons of our own making. The solution is not to decelerate our thinking—it’s to accelerate our rethinking. - Adam Grant

There are many advantages of unlearning and rethinking our views and opinions, but in a rapidly changing world, it can make us especially adaptable and effective.

When we revise our views, we’re able to improve our decision-making because we’re more likely to consider a variety of perspectives and alternatives. For similar reasons, rethinking ingrained beliefs can lead to fresh insights and new ideas, enabling innovation and creative problem-solving.

The rethinking mindset also helps us grow and develop personally because it allows us to shed outdated beliefs and form a more accurate and sophisticated understanding of the world without getting too attached to specific ideas.

This has been particularly useful for me lately. As a consequence of spending time reflecting during my sabbatical, I’ve actively challenged several scripts and beliefs that I had (and still have) about traditional markers of success like career achievement, money, recognition, and material possessions. I’m still at the beginning of my journey but I already feel much more aligned with my core values rather than letting extrinsic motivations dictate my decisions and behaviors.

I’m also unlearning a narrative I had created for myself related to work. For a long time, I had convinced myself that the only way for me to feel satisfied with work was to immerse myself fully in it. But after experiencing burnout and recognizing that I had ignored many other parts of myself as a result of this all-or-nothing attitude, I can see that there are many different ways to define one’s relationship to work that are healthy yet productive.

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve realized that the way one engages with work can change over time, and that's okay. I prefer to embrace flexibility and intellectual humility over being mindlessly consistent.

What’s something you’ve been rethinking lately? Is there something you’re hoping to unlearn but have found challenging to do so in practice?

P.S. If you’re interested in the research behind the skills of rethinking and unlearning, check out Adam Grant’s book Think Again.