The Need for Reversed Learning, 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 149

Kevin Novak
8 min readFeb 29, 2024

Issue 149, February 29, 2024

Is it really true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? If you’re an old dog in a digital marketplace, you don’t have a choice. Let’s say you are an editor. You used to work with writers to create provocative, well-researched, surprising articles. Today, you have to write titles, headlines, and content to optimize search and game the online systems. Or let’s say you are a marketer. You used common sense, judgment, and intuition to develop strategic marketing campaigns. Now, you use data, analytics, algorithms, and AI to optimize and measure your messaging. Leaders who used to monitor the progress of teams in weekly in-person meetings have had to learn how to manage individuals who work remotely and relearn on-screen physical cues instead of reading the room.

What we have been doing, probably without realizing it, is reversed learning.

Unlearning Consequences

Reversed learning is a potentially anxiety-producing shift that challenges our concepts and beliefs. It affects who we are, what we do and how we self-conceptualize our contributions and value in our professional and personal lives.

We have often written about transitions and spent considerable time in our book, The Truth About Transformation, exploring how we move psychologically and emotionally through professional and personal stages, experiencing fear, anger, loss, eventual acceptance, adaptation and ultimately a redefinition of self.

When we are confronted with the necessity to change, whether self-inflicted or imposed, we become increasingly uncomfortable. In reaction, our innate programming is to limit the energy required to unlearn a skill, solve a problem, or evaluate a situation.

When we repeat a task, it leads to a sense of self-confidence. We attach ourselves subjectively to our expertise. To unlearn we need to separate ourselves from our expertise to achieve an objective viewpoint. And that is not easy for anyone.

Rethinking Ourselves

Unlearning is counterintuitive. Our mindset is ingrained from when we are taught at an early age that practice makes perfect. This is amplified by the pressure to keep at it to achieve higher competence leading to notable expertise. We’re told from the get-go to hone our skills, refine our talents, and just get better and better over the course of our professional careers. Repetition results in increasing our competence, as each iteration improves the execution to repeatable, ever-improving results. In an industrial sense, task repetition, whether human, machine, or a combination of both results in an increasing quantity of product and higher production. The more products, the better able to meet market demand and unlock more potential profit.

The New Learning

Reversed learning is a shift that at first can feel extremely uncomfortable. Everything we hold onto and hold close becomes game for unlearning if we need to adapt to new market conditions. It’s one thing for digital-native next gens to excel in our marketplace, but what if they had to unlearn dependence on technology and newly learn analog communications and skills?

Let’s face it, unlearning could be considered the new learning. LogicEarth states, “Unlearning is the process of discarding something from your memory. When you unlearn something, you forget it, put it aside, and you lose knowledge of it.” So, practically speaking, “if a person changes jobs, they need to unlearn the steps and techniques they used to follow in their old position to better fit their new role. If they stick to their old habits, their work will potentially cause turbulence with how the rest of the team and company work.”

Unlearning is vital in today’s workplace. Why? Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that nearly monthly (although it seems like daily) there is a new practice, application, system, or artificial intelligence that offers a better advantage, time savings or increased effectiveness. Also, our society operates at an unprecedented level of connectedness where word of mouth, opinion and backlash reach the collective consciousness in minutes if not seconds. A market can become fickle overnight. Algorithms, even influencers, can change a company’s reputation positively or negatively in a flash. This speed compels, if not commands, each of us to constantly unlearn, adapt, and change.

From an organizational perspective, employees may find themselves required to unlearn to move forward. And reversed learning can happen simultaneously within an organization as it responds to market dynamics or seeks to redefine itself and its shared purpose. This unlearning can be the result of forced change or sheer necessity to remain viable. To dramatize the point, Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Another way of thinking about reversed learning is that “Unlearning is the act of eliminating a previously regular practice from habit. That which we can do with our eyes closed, that which we know like the back of our hand. We live in continually changing times. Unlearning is a tool that allows us to learn from a previous experience or pattern while making room for new learning. If we are to keep up with the transformations occurring in all spheres of life, it is necessary to let go of older operating systems and practices to make room for new ones. That is, to adapt to new means and methods, it is important to unlearn the older ones,” explains Ramakrishnan.

There’s a business case for unlearning. “Organizations need a highly skilled workforce to be able to operate smoothly; 79% of CEOs believe that the lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening their organization’s future growth (Talent LMS). Pew Research Center found that 87% of workers believe they will need to learn new skills throughout their careers to keep up with changes in the workplace.

An accessible way to think about reversed learning is the flipside notion of viewing it as lifelong learning and the need for a workforce to be able to adapt and embrace new experiences. We explored the necessity of lifelong learning in this newsletter as a pathway to success.

Mastering Reversed Learning

The initial step to unlearning is acceptance. In any transition, acceptance is the next process after moving beyond the initial shock, anger and grief unleashed by the necessity to let go of what was, in order to move forward to what is or will be.

So, first things first: Conduct a forensics exercise to identify what personal or organizational habits and behaviors are embedded based on rote repetition. According to Manasa Ramakrishnan writing in Emeritus, recognizing what models, systems, and processes that have worked in the past that no longer achieve the same results is a tipoff. “The sooner we learn to accept that something isn’t working, the faster we can move forward from it. Learning to unlearn requires admitting that what we once knew and followed, is no longer effective or useful. It is an indication to start the process of learning anew if we want to get ahead in the game.”

Your mission in unlearning is to be honest and transparent about where you or your organization is stuck. A few tips: Seek objective feedback from current employees and ask new hires who haven’t yet been indoctrinated into a “this is how we do it” mentality.

Recognition of the environment of constant change is the most important part of acceptance There is no status quo in a dynamically changing world. Every factor and variable are now constantly changing, conflicting, realigning, or connecting. How something was done is nearly irrelevant the moment it becomes an organizational competency.


To make cognitive and behavioral shifts, you have to want to. You need to be curious and open to change. In a work situation, managers need to nurture a willingness among co-workers to unlearn and relearn. Change happens more smoothly in a safe space where there is permission for individuals to move through the transition. So, setting a realistic time frame helps remove the anxiety and fear of change. Role modeling is key. You can’t change in a vacuum, so practical examples are essential. What blocks reversed learning is the natural instinct to hold onto what has always worked. The unfamiliar is uncomfortable. So, make the unfamiliar become familiar. Keeping workers slightly off balance is real-time training to unlearn dependence on comfort zones. Try changing the location and setting.

Most organizational cultures are like-minded communities. We have written about the unconscious bias of leaders and managers hiring “mini-me’s.” Inclusive teams with diverse thinkers tap into reversed learning. The outliers in an organization may be the most useful as unlearning thinkers.

Although it sounds basic, unlearning can only be sustainable if clear goals are set, there are realistic timelines, and rewards for mind shifts are authentic. When you think about the effectiveness of any workforce in a disruptive marketplace, individuals need to embrace continuous learning in order to move forward. Employees must continue to unlearn, learn, and relearn to stay relevant in today’s modern, digital workforce (TalentLMS). And celebrate failure. We learn from our mistakes, not our successes. Embrace frustration and discouragement. Share the pain points and roadblocks.

The Road to Unlearning

Unlearning lets go of old habits, beliefs, and ideas that no longer serve us. This process can be challenging, as it requires individuals to confront their biases and preconceptions. Unlearning involves questioning our assumptions, challenging our beliefs, and being open to new perspectives, according to Khalid Turk, Chief Healthcare Info Tech Officer, County of Santa Clara. In fact, unlearning can lead to new and sometimes better ways of thinking. Through unlearning, people undergo a process of questioning and challenging existing assumptions, biases, habits, or attitudes leading to creating new perspectives and experiences Talent LMS).

Mariana Plata writes in Psychology Today that some interesting things can happen when we start to unlearn.

· You spark your creativity. When we start to unlearn and — by consequence–connect with who we really are, our most authentic self, creativity emerges.

· You can start to see new perspectives. Things are no longer white or black, mental rigidity minimizes, and we discover new ways to solve the problems that may arise, and develop resilience and flexibility.

· You are able to grow. Unlearning also means shying away from a fixed mindset and embracing a growth mindset.

· You can connect in a more authentic way. Unlearning and, therefore, relearning automatically reveal our true selves and our relationships become more authentic.

· You become more curious. Curiosity is a predecessor and successor of unlearning. Curiosity replaces judgment with such a shift in dynamic that we learn to live healthier and more peaceful lives.

Mind Shift

So, give yourself and those around you permission to unlearn any competence and expertise that no longer serves you. Letting go releases a new objective viewpoint on redefining how you, a team, and an organization can unlearn newly irrelevant skills and strategies. Relish the opportunity to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems with different learnings. Embrace creativity as the pathway to evolving and adapting to our highly dynamic ever-changing market. Reversed learning can reveal the untapped talent in an organization and cohese a workforce to think differently about how to become a high-performance, high-gain culture.

Explore this issue and all past issues on 2040’s Website or via our Substack Newsletter.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (, IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut