The Art of Unlearning
This article was originally published in Residential Systems on September 1, 2023.
Have you heard of the South Indian Monkey Trap? If not, it’s an anecdote worth understanding. It goes something like this: In parts of South India, there are people who need to trap monkeys from time to time. Evidently, monkeys make for pesky neighbors. For the task at hand, the people of Southern India devised a trick so stupid that it’s hard to believe it works.
They drill a small hole into a coconut, hollow it out, chain it to a tree, and place some sweet rice inside. Hungry for a tasty treat, the unwitting monkey slides his hand into the coconut and grabs the rice. But when he goes to remove his hand from the coconut to enjoy his snack, his clenched fist will not fit back through the hole. Unwilling to simply let go of the rice, the monkey is trapped.
Reading about this trap, the monkey strikes us as pretty idiotic. But whether we realize it or not, many of us walk around in a different version of the same trap every day. Instead of having our hand jammed inside of a coconut, ours is a mental trap. We’ve got our minds wrapped tightly around a fixed set of beliefs and assumptions that are holding us back, and even if we’re aware enough to see what’s happening, we find it hard to let go.
On a recommendation from an industry friend, I recently finished reading Build by Tony Fadell, who played a key role in inventing the original iPod at Apple before moving on to become the founder and CEO of Nest. In it, Fadell shares a story about how Steve Jobs used to relentlessly emphasize the importance of “beginner’s mind” at Apple.
The idea is simple enough: learn to look at your craft — be it your business, your product, or your latest project — with fresh eyes every day. Jobs understood the natural tendency we have to put blinders on, to become shackled by unspoken assumptions, to limit our thinking to the way things have always been done before. And, like the monkey with his death grip on the sweet rice, Jobs knew that the ability to let go of these preconceived notions was often the only thing holding his teams back from the breakthroughs they were seeking.
The reality for our befuddled monkey friend is that he is not trapped by the coconut itself, but rather by his own inability to zoom out and take a fresh perspective. To see things with a beginner’s mind. To go back to square one and re-examine the situation from the ground up. The sweet rice he is gripping has become a given, a fixed assumption, an idea that he takes for granted. He must have this treat. His flailing and yanking efforts to free himself are only necessitated by the fact that he’s unaware that all he needs to do is let go and find something else to eat.
Whenever we tackle some particularly challenging business problem, it’s helpful to ask, “What am I currently holding onto?” Innovating and improving requires new ways of thinking. But learning a new approach requires unlearning an old one. And for all the time we might spend thinking about the act of learning, it’s usually this unlearning part that gets us stuck.
The biggest challenge facing us is the simple fact that our habits of mind — both at a company and a personal level — become so entrenched that we no longer even think to question them. It is these blind spots that become the blockers to the innovative solutions your business needs. Be sure to identify your assumptions. Ask questions that seem obvious, such as, “Remind me why we do it this way?” Or, “What is the purpose of this product?”
Seek a diverse set of inputs, even and especially from people who have more distance from the problem you are trying to solve. Make contact with reality by pushing your ideas out into the world, even if you don’t feel ready. The results of these simple practices can be surprisingly illuminating and can help you recognize when you’ve got your hand stuck in the proverbial coconut.