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The Works

Unlearn this!

Channeling my inner-McEnroe, 1982.

The most important thing to unlearn

(In the last newsletter, I wrote about the curse of competence. Today, I’m musing on the gift of incompetence …)

This spring/summer, I’ve been on the tennis court, and I’m happy to say I’ve improved.

To be fair, the bar was low. It would have been almost impossible not to have gotten a little bit better.

Now, I can hit a forehand such that some of the time, it lands on the side of the court I was aiming for.

I can also hit a backhand that will, at least 40% of the time, make it over the net.

(Yes, my backhand is my most obvious weakness. Should we ever find ourselves playing together, my suggestion would be to exploit it.)

But the biggest change has been how I serve.

It turns out that everything I was taught as a six-year-old is now wrong.

So, I’m throwing the ball up in the wrong place, moving my feet too soon, foot-faulting, holding the racquet with the wrong grip, and swiping through the ball on the wrong arc.

Other than that, I’m crushing it.

Consciously incompetent

Rebooting my serve starts with learning a different grip. I now use the hammer grip, aka “the continental” (which I was hoping would also involve a freshly baked croissant, like the breakfast, but I had no such luck).

This feels very wrong and awkward. I’m very aware of how weird it is (the process) and how my serve, measured by “balls in,” has deteriorated (the outcome). It feels like failure right now.

I’m saved by the knowledge that unlearning is the necessary and difficult part of learning.

You stew in the place of being aware that you suck—consciously incompetent. This is the place where you make progress, where new neural pathways get created, and where you literally become smarter.

It just doesn’t feel like that.

Your feelings about incompetence are the hardest but most essential things to unlearn: The need to not feel foolish. The desire to always feel competent. The unwillingness to struggle.

Unlearn that, and a new world opens. Or at least, a new tennis serve.

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Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.