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The Importance of Unlearning
By Harrison Barnes  Follow Me on Twitter


We perceive life as being constantly in motion and in a forward state of progress.

Further, as humans, we are all designed for growth and for movement. As long as each of us is growing and progressing, we experience a sense of satisfaction and a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives. Once we stop growing, we start feeling a sense of stagnation and our lives become much less satisfying to us. In nature, when something stops moving, it’s typically getting ready to die.

In order to experience success in our lives, we must focus on personal growth, as an incredibly important activity, and a process that bears many rewards. The sort of growth I have in mind, however, is different from what many people may instinctively think upon hearing the word ‘growth’. When most of us think about growing, we think about perhaps reading more books to help us improve, meeting new people, and taking up new hobbies. There are, of course, many forms of growth, most of which involve learning. We have a sense that if we’re learning more, we’re growing.

However, I believe one of the most important forms of growth we can undertake is unlearning. All the learning we do, in a sense, involves unlearning. The more we can unlearn, the more likely we are to experience the sense of growth and progress we so desire. Mostly unlearning means letting go of false beliefs and assumptions that we’ve formerly used to govern our existence. Letting go is unlearning. For example, you may believe someone else is responsible for your own unhappiness; therefore, you believe this other person must change. Oftentimes when we are unhappy, we become obsessed with changing another individual who we believe is responsible for our condition.

At some point, through learning, we may discover we’re suffering due to our beliefs or our perceptions about the other person. For example, if you see someone at the mall, you may have an image of him or her that relates to someone you imagine doesn’t like you. If you choose to hold this image, you will experience insecurity. Similarly, you may choose to let go of this image and unlearn it. When you unlearn a feeling of insecurity or anger, you will no longer have that negative reaction each time you see that person. That person actually hasn’t changed–only your perception of him or her has.

As you grow by unlearning, you flower into joy. When you’re joyful, you’re a much happier person. Imagine how much more productive your life would be if you could unlearn many of the beliefs and behaviors that have caused you so much stress. You and your life would be utterly and completely transformed. This would result in an incredible sea change in the way you approach and live your life. In fact, if you can make a concerted effort to unlearn, your life will probably undergo a dramatic and welcome change.

I would like to share with you some things I’ve worked hard to unlearn in my own life, just in the past few months:

  • I used to get extremely uncomfortable if the bed in my room wasn’t made within a few minutes of my waking up. I learned this behavior somewhere along the way. I have now unlearned it.
  • I used to get extremely upset when someone tried to take advantage of me in business. Now, I just accept that certain people are like this and I don’t take it personally.
  • I used to get very annoyed when people licked their fingers while eating….Who knows where I got that one. Now if I witness somebody doing this, I simply don’t care.
  • I used to be extremely self-deprecating when I would make typographical errors. Now, if I make a mistake, I fix it and move on without flying off the handle.
  • There are so many things I have unlearned in the past few months alone, I can’t possibly recount all of them.
My newfound ability and choice to unlearn various behaviors and beliefs has made a notable difference in my quality of life. Largely, I’ve been able to eliminate the “charge” and sense of discomfort I feel with various people, places, and things.  Instead of putting my energy into feeling uncomfortable, I can now put my energy into feeling good and into more productive pursuits.

Your life is going to change when you learn how to channel energy that was formerly being consumed with unproductive anger and tension, into something productive. Nowhere will this change be as effective as when you apply it to your job search and career.

In our job searches and careers, most of us are continually feeling one tension after another. We have all sorts of defensive behaviors we’ve learned. In many cases, we spend more time protecting an image of ourselves than we do simply being. In so doing we waste a ton of energy on being defensive and staking various positions. This can harm us and keep us from achieving our goals.

Several years ago, I had an employee in rural Utah who was 19 years old. She started working for us at minimum wage. Because our company was so busy, within a few weeks of our hiring this person, she was given an increasing level of responsibility. And within a few months, she was earning over $8,000 a month working for one of our student loan companies. I didn’t know this girl’s age at the time, all I knew was that she was a model of hard work, productivity, and dedication. Interestingly enough, from what I recall, this employee didn’t even have a high school diploma.

A friend of mine happens to be an internationally famous consultant and best-selling author who spends a good portion of his time consulting with companies about how to hire. He once came to visit me and spent time with me in our Pasadena offices. After meeting over 100 of our employees, and observing several of them over a course of a few days, he knew very little about what this particular young woman did. One evening,  a couple of weeks later, I was speaking with him on the phone and he said something to me I will never forget:

“The best person in your company is that 19 year old girl. She is absolutely incredible,” he told me.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I couldn’t believe this. At the time, I had graduates of the best law schools and colleges in the United States working for the company. Moreover, this girl could barely put together a proper sentence. Also, work ethic aside, her temperament was quite out of control. A week or so earlier, she had gotten kicked out of a restaurant where we were all having dinner–for getting drunk and lighting up a cigarette in the middle of the restaurant. Smoking is a big “no no” in restaurants in California. To my astonishment, this girl also fought with the people in the restaurant after she was kicked out. I didn’t interfere with the young woman’s behavior, and have admittedly never run such a “tight ship” as to reprimand her for the incident, but I must admit the event was notable.

“She doesn’t care what people think. She’s like steel. Everyone out there is posturing and this holds them back. This girl says and does what she feels. She will be unstoppable in sales.  I would hire her in a second from you.  She has the exact same temperament I look for and spend months trying to find for the companies I consult for. She is the rarest but absolute best sort of person to get working for you.”

I didn’t think much about it at the time; however, in pondering this girl’s remarkable success later in life, I’m confident that this apparent tenacity was the secret to her incredible success. Basically, she felt no fear in situations where most others surely would. Fearing something is a response or behavior that many of us should analyze more deeply in ourselves and in some cases unlearn because it can keep us from moving forward towards our goals.

Most people are “positioners.” In any given conversation you have, you will likely take a “position” and the person with whom you’re conversing will also take a position. Unlearning “positioning” is something that can make a drastic difference in your career and life, as this position is usually related to how you feel about yourself and how you expect others to feel about you as well. It’s as if you have an identity that you’re striving to defend in some way. Once you take a position, all you care about is defending it to prove you’re right. This belief comes from the Ego Self, which can be characterized as follows:

  • Statements or beliefs such as “I’m right, you’re wrong”
  • Dominating others
  • Making others feel guilty
  • Covering up facts
  • Never admitting the truth
  • Giving constant justification to others for your opinions
When the ego becomes too forceful, learning ceases. It becomes more important to be right than to learn.

How do you become free of the ego? The best way is to pay attention to those around you. When people start relating to a label or classification, and you find them falling into the categories mentioned above, they are primarily using the ego to make decisions.

We like relating to our closest friends because they typically love and support us as we are. In contrast, the ego is a perception and not necessarily who someone really is. The ego is a sense of existence, and a game played by the mind. The mind wants a sense of certainty and security, and it seeks this security through the perception it creates.

In relationships, it often becomes important to win. Our winning becomes more important than our partner–or even ourselves, or our relationship. The ego is trying to rush you away. When we play ego games, we become concerned with things like “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and refusing to be dominated. We also use guilt in an attempt to dominate the other person. Ego games are fun to watch, but not always constructive for those at play.

For many people, every time there’s a conversation they want to prove they’re right. If you can’t feel right, you then may try and make the other person feel guilty. Why does the ego play all of these games? Simply to survive. The need to become someone is why we try and prove we’re right all of the time. When the ego is involved people become positional.

However, the ego makes us self-centered, which often leads to a failure of intelligence. Instead of doing things for the correct reasons, you may do something just to prove you’re right, and you will do this even if you know the decision you’re making may mean a loss to you, for example, a financial loss. All for simply trying to prove you’re right.

What does the ego need for itself? The ego is constantly becoming. By trying to become free of the ego, you can never lose it. However, when you become aware of the ego, it can no longer make use of you. In trying to become free of the ego, you end up strengthening it. Awareness of the ego gives you the choice to dominate or not dominate using the ego. You may choose to become positional in a conversation or not.

All learning is unlearning. Today I’m focusing on unlearning the various assumptions that cause suffering. Often we think we’re being truthful, but being truthful isn’t necessarily authentic. Being authentic helps us move forward and embrace who we are. The greatest threat to our happiness and lives is failing to properly integrate our own inadequacies. Instead of dealing with our own inadequacies, we try and overthrow others. This may seem like an easier solution, but in reality it’s not. Being authentic means being able to confront our own shortcomings. When we embrace our shortcomings, something beautiful happens. Embracing the real issue gives us freedom.

Learning and unlearning can bring you true joy, as long as you pay attention to the “here.” Learning is the ability to laugh at yourself.

Click here to read more of such interesting articles from our CEO A. Harrison Barnes.

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