What is unlearning and why you should care to be successful?

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Marketer Daniel Murray and I discuss on this episode of the podcast the importance of unlearning outdated strategies and tactics, how to do that and how to learn new things at the right time. On another show, with Mark Babbitt I also realized that we have to unlearn our negative experiences from toxic cultures.

It seems unnatural that we now have to focus on unlearning things just like learning new skills and honing the ones we already have. I’ve written on the importance of ongoing education, including certifications, conferences and more. And don’t stop learning, but also now is the time to think about what we should unlearn.

What is unlearning?

Unlearning is the strategy and technique to basically stop doing something you are doing. It’s getting rid of an outdated workflow. Cutting an inefficient tactic. Sometimes it’s a bad habit too. Let’s unlearn doing this accidental workflow. Move away from an outdated status quo.

Once you’ve identified the task or workflow it’s time to move toward stop doing it. That includes to a degree to unlearn the skill or a mindset. That doesn’t mean we have to completely forget about it or all pieces of it. But it means that we stop doing a particular thing.

For example, way back when I printed out scripts to edit content. That was the accepted workflow and some even claim it’s easier to see mistakes on paper. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t.

I actually edited my third book on paper. It was quite a pain to transfer all the edits!

But, this tactic used to be common but with teams working in a distributed manner and the web being a central place to publish it doesn’t make nearly as much sense to edit on paper as it used to.

Read next: When and how to use a Slack channel to communicate with people

I had to unlearn the need to want to edit on paper to get this unlearning going. Once I got that in my head, I was able to learn how to edit in Word and turn on tracked changes when editing other people’s content. Then later editing moved to Google Docs where multiple people could edit together. Now some teams edit directly in the CMS.

How do we even know what we should be unlearning?

This can indeed be hard to recognize when teams exist in the same format and makeup for a long time. If there are no fresh thoughts ever being brought in it is hard to even know what needs to be updated.

And some people fight change, which could be another barrier to overcome.

There are ways to understand what needs to be updated in any scenario:

  • Rotate people around projects and tasks. That can give you a chance to spot ineffectiveness.
  • Bring in new roles that bring in employees who have varied experiences that the current team does not have.
  • Training and virtual conferences can also be helpful, but keep in mind that you’ll still have to implement ideas.
  • Partner with strategic consultants that can help you unlearn the right things.
  • Set the right culture tone to encourage unlearning and learning.

Whatever strategy you use, make sure you set the stage that this is important.

Isn’t it hard to unlearn thing we’ve done for a while?

I think so and people seem to have the tendency to fall back into their default. That’s why it can be helpful to find pain points or obvious improvements. If a change is making an employee’s life easier they are much more likely to do it.

Culture matters, too

Some of us have worked in horrible cultures. Think backstabbing, folks taking things out of context and other not-so-nice things. Once we escape those cultures and enter new ones – better ones, hopefully – we also have to unlearn the mistrust and horrible experiences we’ve been through.

Read next: How mean bosses and teammates slow down content performance

How to learn the right things for the future

In a world where things are changing and things are changing fast it’s always good to future proof our own careers. As much as that is even possible.

So what does that even mean to future proof your career?

It means that we pick a skill or profession that can easily or somewhat easily adjust with the changing times.

For example:

  • I went to school to study journalism and then worked as a print journalist.
  • Then I took the skillset of storytelling to bank training. I learned video production here.
  • I started my own journalistic startup and learned how to publish on the web and penetrate a market.
  • Then went back into a more traditional journalism organization.
  • And helped nonprofits tell better stories.
  • The next move had me going into healthcare storytelling.
  • And Software as a Service.
  • I moved back into publishing and implementation

There has always something new to learn and something old to unlearn.

But the skill of sharing brand stories transfers and skills that carry through include:

  • Storytelling
  • Communications across channels – writing, audio, video and also internal and external
  • Ability to change
  • Coach ability (I debate like I’m right and listen like I’m wrong)
  • Competitiveness
  • Ability to live in a data-driven culture of several maturity levels

Roles change

Some of the jobs I’ve done and the jobs of the people I’ve worked with didn’t even exist when I went to college or when I went through high school.


  • App developer
  • Content marketer (in today’s sense)
  • Who knew what content engagement was in 1999?
  • Conversion-centric writers (Did I mention that writing has never been harder?)
  • Social media marketer
  • Podcaster

Roles change all the time. The late Steve Buttry blogged about how the role of editor changed at The Gazette, where I implemented topical websites in the 2010s. Certainly the way content is being created has evolved as well. Today we can:

The way to go with the flow is to figure out what that core strength and interest of yours aligns with the present and the future.

Have a core skill that transfers

Writing, design, change management are examples. Some of the basics will always matter and will be needed.

Then keep evolving that skill. The writing I do today is very different from the way I wrote in the 2000s. It’s more focused on keyword research, web readability – or skim ability – and other ways to  drive content performance.

Then there are what some may call soft skills that are also important:

  • Be collaborative
  • Always learn – even when you think you know
  • Be nice
  • Own without being overly protective
  • Communicate well
  • Don’t be married to the current state or product
  • Or even the next stage

How things change

Let’s take printed newspapers. I grew up with them, wrote for them and loved seeing my byline on the front page.

I had four papers delivered to my home at one point.

Then things changed. Digital journalism started up and I learned that.

It’s not that I don’t consume news today! I consume more than ever before and definitely when compared to the print era.

In the print era, I read news once in the morning.

Now, I read it constantly.

  • As I roll out of bed on my phone.
  • Through alerts
  • On Flipboard, Apple News, Twitter. The list goes on.

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I’m committed to the craft of journalism, storytelling and other relevant content marketing in a channel-agnostic way. Whatever channel works, use that. Life and business evolves and I try to stay relevant by evolving with it.

To achieve those goals, learning and unlearning help us stay relevant.