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To make space for new ideas, junk the old or unused ones.
To make space for new ideas, junk the old or unused ones.

Why we need to KonMari our ideas for a long, successful career at the top

Unlearning is not easy to do since familiar ways of thinking get hardwired into our brains

I sat across a desk from the executive chairman of a renewable energy company in his large, sparse, glass-and-steel office. It had been a while since we’d met, so I asked him what he’d been up to over the past few years.

“Things are great. I’ve been busy unlearning," he replied.

He’d spent 20 years in telecom before switching fields so my next question, quite naturally, was whether it was because he was in a different industry.

“Yes, but also because the world is changing so fast; things are not the same as they were five years ago, so I unlearn. I’ve unlearnt about 50% of what I know and am likely to touch 80% by the time we meet again. When I move roles, I like to start afresh. No baggage from the past."

It is rare to meet someone who has been so successful for so long and does not want to speak of past glories. This was certainly the first time I had heard of anyone set concrete goals for unlearning. But that’s what it takes to build a long, successful career at the top: constant unlearning.

The chairperson had begun his career in manufacturing in the mid-70s in an India that looked nothing like it does today. It was a time when jobs were few, and hierarchy was paramount. For young entrants, obedience was often the first lesson learnt.

Over the past three decades, so much has changed. Years of economic growth created demand and value for good talent, which was scarce. The startup revolution of the last decade has created even bigger shifts in business environment and corporate culture. The culture in some startups, where founders are in their 20s and yet millionaires, is so different from anything in the past.

Unlearning is not the easiest thing to do. Familiar ways of thinking literally get hardwired into our brains through connections between our neurons. Over time, our familiar ideas define the ways in which we engage with the world.

Echoes of this sentiment are to be found as leaders are starting to prepare their organizations, and perhaps themselves, for a much faster changing world. It is there in Satya Nadella’s observation that it is better to be a Learn-It-All than a Know-It-All. It is there in Jeff Bezos’ philosophy that each day is Day 1 at Amazon.

To commit to keep seeing the world through fresh ideas requires work. It is work that is neither natural nor easy. Just like learning to drive, there is far too much to remember all at once.

No proof, just competing world views

Even the smartest people, or perhaps, especially the smartest people, are resistant to unlearning. After challenging the world of physics with the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein found it difficult to fully endorse quantum theory, as Adam Grant explains in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. To his credit, Einstein eventually admitted his failing and joked, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate has made me an authority myself." But it did not come easy.

In our organizational world, this is even truer. There are no experiments to conclusively prove us wrong, only an array of competing world views.

Then, there is pride. Our past successes have gotten us here. Having spent years discovering the best answers, isn’t our job now to pass this on to others? Why question what has worked in the past? Why keep making our way through the new and unfamiliar? Yet, as the world around us changes faster than ever before, it won’t take long for our familiar ways of thinking to get outdated. What feels comfortable chains us to the past.

Much like the Marie Kondo’s KonMari method for clearing out a closet, anyone who wants to play at the highest level in the future needs their own process for unlearning and clearing out the ideas that no longer serve them.

Shalini Lal is an organizational development and innovation consultant with more than 20 years of experience.

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