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What Do You Need to Unlearn to Be Successful?

What Do You Need to Unlearn to Be Successful?

A mentor said to me one day, “Developing your mindset is actually about unlearning behaviors.” That really stuck with me.

And if there’s one thing I learned from talking with dozens of people for my book is that all of us go through quite a bit of UNlearning as we take our lives and careers to the next level. When we focus only on life hacks, learning new skills and certifications, and to-do lists our brains get too filled and we forget to let go of what no longer serves us.

Without a specific intention, I’d been focusing on unlearning lots of behaviors since becoming an adult. Many of the behaviors had been coping mechanisms that protected me as I went through so much as a kid and young adult. Before doing this work, I often focused too much on the negatives in life. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to learn everything on my own because it was a sign of weakness to ask for help.

It got me thinking, what are some key things we can spend time un-learning to put us in a better mindset to accomplish our dreams?

Asking for Help ≠ Weakness

In The Resiliency Effect, I interviewed an entrepreneurial-minded woman named Vanessa Mason. She has a background in public health and even co-founded a venture capital firm that invests in up-and-coming companies changing the public health landscape. Before she landed her current job at the Institute for the Future, she owned a small consulting business for five years.

Rather than staying in corporate jobs that weren’t meeting her needs, she decided to start a consulting business on her own in 2013. Vanessa said to herself at the time, “You learn by doing, not just thinking or analyzing what it would take to do something big.” Since she had been successful picking up contracting projects in some of her other professional roles, she thought she had enough experience to go out on her own.

She knew she needed to give it at least 18 months to start because it would take at least that long to become profitable. Managing to pick up some big-name projects in the public health and tech sectors, Vanessa enjoyed the freedom of being on her own. However, as she continued in her entrepreneurship journey, she found herself focused on cash management and the bottom line, which took away from her ability to think strategically and get help in areas she was weak in. Those old habits of needing to do everything on her own were creeping back in.

Things came to a head when she found herself depressed, and unable to give the business the full attention it deserved with less revenue coming in than she wanted. What Vanessa learned from the experience was that you have to ask for help and take it. If she were to do it again, she said, “All of my resources should have been protecting my time rather than trying to do things all on my own. I thought how much I was doing was a measure of success, not what I was building.” Basically, she would focus on un-learning this coping mechanism of feeling like she has to do everything on her own.

Achievement ≠ Self Esteem

A big theme throughout my book has been about how achievement and over-functioning is the enemy of us. It works against our physical and mental health and creates the hamster wheel that’s hard to remove ourselves from unless or until we completely burnout.

In my own life — it took burnout to finally listen and I realized that my need for achievement was what helped me feel like I was worth something. Leaving my job and taking a sabbatical helped reset this expectation in me so I could focus more on a being a human being instead of a “human doing”. It also helped me to reset my expectations for myself and for my business — which was a new creative endeavor that I found space for only after getting off the hamster wheel of full-time corporate work.

Risk ≠ Always Unsafe

Another woman I interviewed in my book shared about how launching her entrepreneurial journey required her to let go of the fear of risk. Dr. Annemarie Spadafore was taught all her life to find a “safe job” that would suit her well. He grandfather had been an entrepreneur and an early death created trauma for her father’s family. The message to seek safety and security first was passed down to her.

She had a long career in government service before sitting down with a coach to take a career assessment. The results showed that “financial security” ranked lower for her than freedom in her life and career. She realized, “I’d rather move to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and scrape by while working for myself than work for someone else. I’m willing to make huge lifestyle changes just to keep the independence of working for myself.”

In fact, taking this coaching assessment is what opened her eyes to getting her own coaching certification. At first this was an add-on that helped her in her government role, but later became what allowed her to launch her own coaching business.

She describes her unlearning journey as one that has many layers. She often tested the waters before making big leaps.

Thankfully, she hasn’t had to make big lifestyle cuts in order to grow her business, called Powerlab, while maintaining her freedom. When she looks back on it, she never really wanted those government jobs because the bureaucracy bothered her. Yet, she was more than willing to endure the frustration of bureaucracy because she wasn’t ready to give up on that need for “safety.” Now the desire for freedom and flexibility has fully eclipsed the fear of risk and desire to seek out safety and stability. This reframing is what allowed to her to unlearn that risk is not always unsafe.

There’s No Such Thing as Negative Emotions

Keeping feelings deep down inside — especially anger is both societally reinforced and likely something that was modeled in our families. For instance, I viewed all anger as bad growing up, I didn’t even feel like I could express frustration with a work issue. I wasn’t a doormat, but rather if things got bad enough I would “cut and run.” Emotions would finally boil over and I would end the relationship or quit the job. There was no middle ground.

I had to unlearn that anger was a “bad” thing. I had to find ways of tapping into my anger and releasing it appropriately. A book called, Facing the Fire, by John Lee was instrumental in giving me tools like wringing a towel, punching a pillow, or screaming in the car. These activities which once seemed overly violent, scary or unnecessary to me, helped me understand that I was harboring much more anger than I could’ve imagined. These “safe” ways of expressing anger don’t hurt others, so I was able to use these tools to discharge all the energy associated with my anger. Keeping all these feelings locked away for years was affecting me in all sorts of ways and prevented me from discovering my true potential.  

I came to appreciate that all emotions are human emotions — none are good or bad. They exist for a reason, especially as indicators of what is happening to us or around us. However, they don’t have to rule us.  

Exploring some of the “negative” emotions and unlearning that they were bad made a huge difference in my interpersonal relationships and my ability to find contentment in my work and with myself. This tool even helped with accepting and relating to my anxiety – which I can now often “say hello” to whenever it pops up, kind of like an old friend, and then ask myself, “What’s this feeling related to?” Before unlearning that anxiety was a bad thing, feeling it would send me into a huge worry-storm which would only reinforce and make the anxiety, and the inability to breath, worse.  

To find success, it’s more important to unlearn coping mechanisms. Most of the time, our initial instincts such as pushing down our feelings, pursuing security over passion, or a fear of sharing our dreams with those around us are there to protect our old selves from getting hurt again.  

It’s important to appreciate those protective instincts for what they are — coping mechanisms that kept us safe in the past. Then, we can actively choose to unlearn them since they often create roadblocks to us achieving our biggest dreams.

Questions for Reflection

What are some coping mechanisms you may have picked up because of adversity you experienced?
How did these coping mechanisms protect you?
Are any of these habits creating obstacles for you in your life or your career?