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Unlearning - An Unexpected Business Ingredient

We all accept that learning is a part of life, and expend a lot of energy in learning new skills, whether they're on the job or through more formal training. Certainly in setting up a new business, I’ve been through a huge learning curve both formally and on the job. But it’s only recently that I’ve realised how much time and energy I’ve spent since I started Halo in an unexpected activity - unlearning.

Learning is all about progression; building on current knowledge and views, or starting from a point of no knowledge or beliefs. Unlearning on the other hand, involves letting go of long-held ideas, beliefs, and even skills and replacing them with new ones. It’s about moving into a different model of thinking and processing data. It’s so much more than simply forgetting.

Unlearning is far more difficult, but every bit as vital as learning when it comes to business. There are three areas where I’m going through a significant unlearning process, and today I’m going to chat about one of them – My Money Story.

Nobody ever sat me down with a textbook and taught me about money. That would be relatively easy to unlearn, since it would involve mostly forgetting. But no. Most of us learn about money through our environment and experiences, and things absorbed in that way are much more difficult to unlearn. In the environment that I was brought up, money was scarce, and I learned from my environment that money isn’t everything. Money isn’t important. We don’t do things just for money.

In my corporate life, my money story didn’t serve me particularly well, since I never negotiated the best salary I could have done, but it didn’t mean that my career was going to come to an end either.

But now, the narrative of my money story not only doesn’t serve me well, it could well be the undoing of my business. Because the crucial difference is that I now have sole responsibility for Halo’s revenues. With that hat on, imagine what would happen if I continued to tell myself the same money story. To keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll just unpick just one of the statements I’ve made above.

Money isn’t important; in a business context, that simply can’t be true. Any serious business, even a charity, exists to make money. A charity simply does different things with the money it generates. Of course there are things that are more important than money – health, family and ethics to name just a few. But the importance of those things doesn’t diminish the importance of money to a business.

Unlearning my money story doesn’t mean that I don’t want to create high quality jewellery or don’t want to give great customer service. It simply means that I can’t be doing either of those things at the expense of long term revenues and hope to create a successful, financially sustainable business.

In fact I would argue that having a financially sustainable business is what enables me to design and create beautiful, high quality jewellery and give great customer service. Halo is self-funded, and if I don’t have a financially healthy business, once the initial funding starts running out, I have a few unsavoury choices:

  • Compromise on quality and/or service, which is certainly not a route I would like to explore.

  • Add more funds – in which case what I would need to have is a bottomless pit for an expensive hobby pretending to be a business. There’s nothing wrong with having an expensive hobby. The issue I have is with the pretence that it’s a business.

  • Accept that the way the business is being run isn’t financially viable, and close it down.

When put in these stark terms, it becomes obvious that for me, the most desirable way forward would be to put in the effort to unlearn my money story. It’s not going to be easy. I now understand that for most of us, our money stories are so deep-rooted that we don’t even realise that they are stories which could be open to interpretation, and can therefore be unlearned. To us they are reality. And we all know how difficult it is to shake off our version of reality.

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PS - for a short but interesting Ted talk on the importance of unlearning, listen to this one.

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