How Unlearning Changed My Life
“The most valuable skill we can learn in our lives is to unlearn what is untrue.” ― Antisthenes
The word ‘unlearning’ might come across as alien to some. The first time I came across the concept, I was appalled (a few years ago now). By this point, my life had centered around the idea of acquiring knowledge, being a knowledge-sponge soaking up as much information as I could. It wasn’t that the information I was learning was useful, just that it would add to my mental library. People I talked to would tell me how much they admired how I seemed to know “something about everything.” Others would say to me that my being a “know-it-all” was their least desired characteristic in me.
However, everything changed when I came across ‘unlearning.’
The quote that I placed as my subtitle by Antisthenes…
“The most valuable skill we can learn in our lives is to unlearn what is untrue.”
…hit me like a freight train. It spoke to me on a level that — at the time — I didn’t even realize was there. It made me question everything I thought I knew, naturally. The concept seemed so foreign to me at first, but then I realized it’s something I believe we all do in our lives, we just don’t observe it as ‘unlearning.’
Think about it: what did you learn in childhood that you later discovered to be untrue? Say, the existence of Santa or the Tooth Fairy?
Or something a bit darker, like learning how the phrase “blood is thicker than water” doesn’t apply when you come across an abusive family member.
Or something more positive, like how women can do things that previous generations thought they couldn’t (or shouldn’t).
There are so many moments of this kind of learning in our lives on a practical level. Still, I’ve not come across many people that use that process to examine meta-subjects like personal belief systems or more specific topics like, say, writing or another topic of particular interest.
That made me think that there is a real distinction between acquiring knowledge and genuinely learning.
Unlearning then is an essential component of authentic learning experiences. At the heart of it, is the proposition that something you have already learned may not be the whole truth; it might even be outright false.
For the unlearning to take place, you must first acknowledge that your understanding of something might not be the full picture, and you must let go of that to make room for an elevated understanding. For a lot of people, that is too uncomfortable to bear.
Most of the time, when we come across a piece of information that confronts our understanding of something, we like to dismiss it. Or we use confirmation bias to prove how real our beliefs are versus the one in front of us, but this halts our ability to really learn.
It seems that the easiest way to go about this type of learning is communicating with someone that shares a different or even opposite perspective to life than you do. That would confront your beliefs enough to rework on your own view.
So how did I apply this principle of unlearning in my life?
Professionally, this concept took my academic research to a new level. In research, we know that the real purpose of it is not always trying to find new and imaginative theories to explain human behaviour or the world around us, but rather about either proving or disproving theories that already exist.
So unlearning in academia is already a central theme, but a lot of the time this goes unnoticed because we tend not to question our own beliefs or findings to the level we do others.
Doubting my knowledge then leaves room for that elevated understanding to take shape as I explained earlier. Which then leads to a more well-rounded learning experience about my speciality.
Though you can also apply this process to skills in the job market. Say you know a lot about personal finance, and you get a job as a financial advisor, you’ll inevitably come across information that changes your understanding of the way something in that field works that helps to deepen your learning around the subject.
That’s all well and good. However, it has had the most profound influence on the way I learn things in my personal life.
More practically, it has helped me begin to shape my views on politics, by breaking down what I thought was fundamentally right about society and questioning those beliefs. This way, I’m able to use multiple perspectives to reform my understanding of how the political system works then vote accordingly (in the UK at least).
As well as that, it has also helped me to better understand the way my body works. We all have habits that we stick to just because “that’s the way it is” but if we can each unlearn something about our bodies then that leaves room for a lot of growth.
For example, I’ve been an animal lover for a long time, the thought of hurting or killing animals intentionally is wrong to me. However, that wasn’t reflected in my actions because I ate meat, and paying someone else to do the dirty work of killing them didn’t sit well with me when I thought about it. I was confronted with the concept of vegan/vegetarianism.
In that process, I underwent unlearning the idea that I needed animal products to survive, which left room for elevating my understanding of the way my body works (note: MY body, other people work differently). I’ve also begun to question my beliefs on the way life works altogether as you can see in the article below:
Beyond all that, I fell in love with the cyclical process of learning versus just acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowing something. I believe by doing that I’ve become a much more well-rounded person.
My challenge to you today is to question something that you believe to be true, ‘unlearn’ what you thought you knew and grow from there.
Alexander Boswell is an aspiring transgender writer that wants to help make the world a better place. He has a Master’s Degree in Marketing that specialized in Consumer Behaviour but writes about a range of topics with personal perspectives.