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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Why the Ability to Rethink & Unlearn Is So Important

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

A terrific book I finished last year (in 2021) is Think Again by Adam Grant. Grant says the ability to rethink (or think again) and unlearn habits is as important as the ability to think and learn. We should spend as much time rethinking our problems and our assumptions as we do thinking about them. Successful people adopt a mental flexibility that allows them to be skilled rethinkers. Rethinkers embrace being wrong and failing, while also updating their views.

Here’s a great, but tragic example:

In 1994, on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, high winds caused a fire to explode across a gulch. Running uphill on rocky ground with safety in view just 200 feet away, fourteen smokejumpers (firefighters who parachute in to the site of a forest fire) and wildland firefighters—four women, ten men—lost their lives. When extinguishing the fire or even containing it isn’t feasible, these firefighters need to shift from fight to flight. Instead of dropping their heavy equipments and tools and running as fast as they could to safety, they clung onto (as they’ve been taught and trained to do) their heavy tools and equipments (e.g., axes, chainsaws, shovels, and other heavy gears).

Later, investigators calculated that without their tools and backpacks, the crew could have moved 15 to 20 percent faster. “Most would have lived had they simply dropped their gear and run for safety,” one expert wrote. Had they “dropped their packs and tools,” the U.S. Forest Service concurred, “the firefighters would have reached the top of the ridge before the fire.” -Adam Grant (Think Again)

As Grant explains: If you’re running for your life, it might seem obvious that your first move would be to drop anything that might slow you down. For firefighters, though, tools are essential to doing their jobs. Carrying and taking care of equipment is deeply ingrained in their training and experience, and under extreme stress, these firefighters reverted to their automatic, well-learned responses.

“If you’re a firefighter, dropping your tools doesn’t just require you to unlearn habits and disregard instincts. Discarding your equipment means admitting failure and shedding part of your identity” (2021, p. 7).

Thinking again can help us to generate new solutions to old problems, and also revisit old solutions to new problems. It’s a path to learning more from those around us. We need to let go of knowledge and opinions that aren’t serving us well anymore, and anchor our sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency. If we can master the art of rethinking, we’ll be better positioned for success at work and happiness in life (Grant, 2021).

“Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise, and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having conviction in our ideas. The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.” -Adam Grant (Think Again)

“Rethinking is a skill set, but it’s also a mindset. We already have many of the mental tools we need. We just have to remember to get them out of the shed and remove the rust.” -Adam Grant (Think Again)

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


Grant, A. (2021). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Viking.



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