The process of unlearning
What if I told you that a fundamental component of our success is the ability to “unlearn” many of the things that we’ve already learned? I know. I know. You’d probably say I was crazy, right? Let me explain.
Most of you are probably familiar with the work of Michaelangelo, considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of all time. Each year millions of tourists flock to the Italian city of Florence to see Michaelangelo’s greatest masterpiece, the Statue of David. Upon its completion in 1504, this 17 ft. tall statue, with its incredible precision and overall beauty, generated an immediate buzz amongst the townspeople. Many were left wondering how Michaelangelo was able to create a sculpture of this magnitude, and with so much detail, out of what was once a huge slab of marble. When asked this question, Michaelangelo would smile and humbly reply by saying, “Actually, it was quite simple. I didn’t create David, you see. David already existed concealed within the stone. All I had to do was chip away at what wasn’t David.” His response serves as a perfect metaphor for the process of “unlearning” that I mentioned earlier.
When I look into the eyes of my seventeen-month old daughter, I see a world of infinite possibility and an unbridled curiosity for the world around her. You see, there is no such thing as doubt, suffering, guilt, or any other limiting beliefs that exist in her mind. This is certainly evident in the countless attempts she has made to climb over our protective gate, still exhibiting that “I can do this” smile that is a fixture of her being. The fact of the matter is that she hasn’t “learned” the concept of doubt yet and therefore can’t even comprehend “not” being able to do something.
Let’s fast forward 10-15 years to the age of most of the students I work with as a leadership coach. Why is it that many of these students exhibit behaviors that are consistent with low self-esteem? Why don’t they possess that same resiliency and absolute belief that my daughter now has? The answer is simple. Throughout their childhood, they were educated about their limitations. Whether it’s a television show that sends a message of inferiority or a friend telling them that they won’t amount to anything, these messages serve as “learning” experiences that generate limiting beliefs such as “I can’t do anything right.” While there is clearly no truth in this statement for any human being, we begin to accept it as the truth and it ultimately shapes our choices.
Now let’s apply the metaphor in the story of Michaelangelo’s response to the creation of David. It’s clear that the finished product was a thing of absolute beauty and brilliance. However, let me remind you that Michaelangelo referred to this magnificent sculpture as something that already existed concealed in the stone. His job was to chip away at everything that wasn’t David. Just as Michaelangelo was able to chip away at the various layers of marble that represented who David wasn’t, we too can chip away, or unlearn, the various layers that prevent us from achieving our true potential. We are NOT doubt, fear, guilt, discouragement, or suffering. These all originated in the mind as a response to outside stimulus; we learned them. The “unlearning” process begins with a commitment to self-discovery and willingness to change a set of beliefs that quite honestly have been running on auto-pilot for years.