Over 2,000 years ago, the seed of a civilization—startup with you will—sprang into being on seven hills in central Europe. And that startup would go on to scale and sustain itself for over 500 years as one of the greatest economic, and cultural powers the earth had ever seen. At its prime, the Roman Empire occupied more than 2 million square miles and included approximately 20 percent of the world’s population. And for centuries, scholars have mused over what it was that brought Rome such tremendous success. Was it the empire’s visionary leaders? Its prime location on the Tiber River? It’s engineering feets of roads and aqueducts? Or simply it’s laws of governance?
In fact, it was none of these. As philosopher Baron de Montesquieu explained the Roman Empire’s success could in great part be traced having fought successively against all peoples, they always gave up their own practices as soon as they found better ones. And this unique ability… to adapt to new circumstances in the environment by unlearning what had brought it success in the past… to succeed in the future… enabled this civilization to startup, scale and sustain itself by letting go of the past to achieve extraordinary results—until it didn’t
Why Learn To Unlearn?
My inspiration to create the Unlearn podcast came from what I frequently find to be a significant inhibitor when helping high-performance individuals get better—not the ability to learn new things but the inability to unlearn mindsets, behaviors, and methods that were once effective but now limit their success. There comes a time in the life of every individual when doing the things that brought you success in the past no longer delivers the same results. You wake up, walk into your office, and sit at your desk just as you always have. But suddenly you’re stuck, stagnating, unsatisfied, or struggling with what was once your secret to success.
How Do I Know I Need To Unlearn?
You might find yourself asking: Why am I not living up to my expectations? Why can’t I solve this problem? Why do I constantly avoid taking on this particular challenge? The world evolves, conditions change, and new norms emerge. Instead of adapting, people find themselves stuck in their patterns of thinking and behaving. Most don’t realize the new situational reality until it bites. This is the paradox of success. One of the first references to the idea of organizational unlearning was in an article by Bo Hedberg in 1981. According to Hedberg, “Knowledge grows, and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes. Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge.” You see, the truth is disruption does not actually apply to organizations. The truth is it applies to individuals. Consider what great leaders and the great companies they lead have in common. They have cultivated a capability within themselves to innovate, adapt, and anticipate the future. They invest in experiences that enable them to grow; they seek situations that are uncomfortable, uncertain, and the results unknown. They create mechanisms to experiment quickly and safely gather new information to evolve into something better. They succeed over the long term by not holding on to what once brought them success.
How Leaders Succeed Isn’t Magical; It’s Methodical
It’s not down to serendipity or luck—they have intentional systems. In my own experience working all around the world with executives and teams—from disruptive start-ups to the globally renowned behemoths of the Fortune 500—I’ve seen firsthand the struggle both great and growing leaders face as they seek to lead innovation in their markets. It prompted me to co-author my first book, the international bestseller Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale, for the Eric Ries Lean Series. It gave me the opportunity to interview, work with, advise, and coach hundreds of business and technology leaders and to research thousands of companies and case studies to discover what leads to higher performance and outstanding accomplishments. I’ve seen what enables certain leaders to accelerate and what makes others stop in their tracks. In times past, an individual’s knowledge would last a lifetime. Indeed, knowledge would be passed down for many generations and still be highly useful. Yet, as the pace of innovation increases, once-useful knowledge now becomes rapidly obsolete—hence the need to consider a system of unlearning. Exceptional leaders have discovered it’s not how smart they are, how much they know, how long they’ve been in the industry, or what they have learned. It’s the ability to recognize when to unlearn and when to let go of past success and their outdated thinking and behaviors and innovate new mindsets and methods to achieve extraordinary results. Yes, learning is one part, but the answer is not only to learn. We struggle even more to know what to let go of, move away from, and unlearn.
What Is Unlearning?
I define Unlearning as the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past, but now limit our success. It’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding knowledge or experience; it’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and actively engaging in taking in new information to inform effective decision making and action. In this podcast, we’ll dig deep into the practice of unlearning—what it is, why you should adopt it, and how you can leverage its tremendous power for yourself, your teams, and your organization. If you already feel you’ve unlearned before, great—I’ll teach you how to do it intentionally. If not, I’ll teach you to practice it deliberately. I’ll show you how to think big but start small, and why choosing courage over comfort can take you to places you never imagined possible. You’ll see how tackling uncertainty can lead you to exponential growth and impact, and I will provide you with a proven system for unlearning which I’ve use to coach hundreds of business leaders to extraordinary results by recognizing what brought you success in the past (but no longer does), and then relearn what you need to achieve endless breakthroughs in your future.
Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results by Barry O’Reilly