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Learning How to Unlearn

There’s a famous quote by Rumi that goes something like this- “Recognize that unlearning is the highest form of learning”.

We have all grown up listening to our elders tell us day in and day out, how learning is incredibly important to become successful in life and learning never stops. But seldom have we been told it is equally important to unlearn thinking patterns, beliefs and facts that we take for granted, among a myriad other things, to grow in the actual sense.

Often the first thing that pops in our heads, when we talk about “unlearning” something is forgetting and moving on; when in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is much more about gaining a fresh perspective on what you think you already know. The process is an amalgamation of many different steps: Self-questioning your knowledge on a topic, making efforts to identify assumptions and facts that you might have taken for granted, and eventually progressing to building a fresh perspective by revisiting these topics.

Every other day, we read in the newspaper how a scientific discovery has gotten disproved by a team of researchers. This is a classic example of unlearning, contributing to the growth of humanity. But this is not something limited to academia; the process of unlearning is essential in all spheres of our lives. An arduous task for sure, but if we get down to it, we can very well question everything we do- from the way we do them to why things are the way they are.

The elephant in the room, however, that needs to be addressed is, what exactly is unlearning? The Cambridge dictionary defines unlearning as making an effort to forget your usual way of doing something so that you can learn a new and sometimes better way.

Continuing the same line of thought, it is the process of realising that something which we learnt earlier is incorrect, ineffective, or obsolete, admitting it and deciding to erase such bad conditioning and misconceptions from our mind for good. If we imagine ourselves to be walking-talking computers, it is akin to the process of exploring what we have stored in our system and deleting all the unnecessary data. It is the process of willingly undergoing a paradigm shift and embracing a newer way of thinking, a newer way of looking at things, with open arms.

Without an iota of doubt, this is not an easy journey. Unlearning is not a cakewalk by any means. It is uncomfortable. It pushes you outside your comfort zone, and we all know how hard and unsafe that feels.

One of the hardest things about the process is how there isn’t a definite path that one can follow. The ambiguities and lack of direction add to the incline of this uphill journey. A good chunk of us finds it difficult to stick to a workout routine when we know exactly how many crunches or deadlifts we need to do. This parallel goes on to elucidate how challenging the unlearning process might just be, when there exist no fixed marker signs flagging our journey.

All of this understandably sounds disheartening, but the bright side of things is that the gains from charting this unfamiliar territory, make the journey worth it. More importantly, what in life isn’t hard? Giving colour to fixed patterns, feeling stifled and as though caught in a rut is hard. So is pushing yourself and attempting to view things from a different lens. It all comes down to choosing your hard.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; and the first step one can take before embarking on this journey is to keep our minds open. If we want to break free from knowledge that we find deeply rooted within our brains, often manifesting through automatic behaviour, this is a vital step we need to adopt. We have to be willing to let go of old ideas and make space for newer ones. It really isn’t rocket science and can be something as simple as being like a child starting from the blank page in his notebook.

When we are kids, we question everything around us, but this sense of wonderment sadly diminishes as we grow older. We are told to simply to do as we are directed under the guise of being “pragmatic” and before we know it, we start pondering about this this feeling of being a cog in the wheel called-world and the very feeling of questioning we tried to suppress, now bounces back like a boomerang. We have grown so accustomed to simply accepting things as we learned them, that don’t even try to make our brains think differently. But we can. It all boils down to wanting to. They don’t have to be deep intellectual questions, encompassing all possible tangents of a matter at hand. It can be as simple as asking “What would my strategy look like if it were an easy task?” or perhaps “If money wasn’t a consideration, what job would I have taken up?”.

“What would my strategy look like if it were an easy task?” or perhaps “If money wasn’t a consideration, what job would I have taken up?”.

One of the best ways to foster curiosity is ditching the sense of familiarity we have gotten so used to, and simply putting ourselves out there. Letting go of the control we exert in different aspects of our day to day lives and allowing things to unfold, while we watch that happen can also be very therapeutic, apart from being a vital step in learning how to unlearn. Travelling can be a magnificent way of putting this into practice. Surrounding yourself with new places, new people, new cultures would undoubtedly be eye-opening and make it easier to develop this exploration attitude. The challenge lies in keeping the same alive once you're back in the setting of your home and daily routine.

When we talk about exploring, we cannot gloss over dealing with complexities and facing hurdles. It is but human, to dread facing such roadblocks but this feeling of despondency (eventually translating into procrastination) is precisely what we have to master. We must learn how to stop identifying with our feelings, and instead of internalising them, realise that simply dwelling on them would not lead to the favourable outcome we desire so desperately. It is our actions, what we choose to do with our feelings that will come to define the results we see. We have to be okay with taking risks, and even more okay with things not turning out the way we had planned them in our head. It feels like the right moment to quote Edison who very famously said “I have not failed, not once. I've discovered ten thousand ways that don't work.” Leave apart trying out thousands of ideas, if we can be willing to discover even a few tens of ways that don’t work, we are already ahead of the curve, when it comes to breaking the invisible shackles we place on our minds and ourselves.

“I have not failed, not once. I've discovered ten thousand ways that don't work.”

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