“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” - Zen master Shunryo Suzuki
In Zen Buddhism, “shoshin” translates as the “beginner’s mind”, where “sho” means beginning or origin, and “shin” means spirit, soul, or attitude.
A beginner’s mind is different from being a beginner. Shoshin is about having the attitude and mindset of a novice who learns a new practice for the first time, especially after we reach expert levels in our fields.
In the beginner’s mind, there is a lack of preconceptions, a willingness to learn, to ask and try, a disposition to challenge the status quo, a Socratian intellectual humility to accept that I know that I know nothing, a sense of child-like wonder, burning to know the unknowable, an interest to notice the offbeat or the overlooked.
The beginner’s mind and a company’s mindset
Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. - Jeff Bezos
In the Curiosity Muscle book, Andy Fromm and Diana Kander state that a customer’s frustration with a company’s product or services is the secret to continuous innovation.
Customers and their perspectives can change overnight and the only way for a company to know about this change is to be curious. Easier said than done, as curiosity implies the real possibility of facing challenging or hurtful feedback from customers.
And yet, “companies die because they are not curious enough about their customers ‘changing needs. They are not curious enough to ever be wrong.”
Of course, a company will be out of business if they try to fix everything a customer asks, thus responsible decisions WHERE to focus on customer’s needs is paramount.
In the face of success, it is much more difficult to keep a curiosity mindset.
From a practical standpoint, Fromm and Kander provide the following framework:
- One, what are the blind spots to a company’s novel idea for a product or service? Blind spots are those things we are not even aware we are doing wrong. Overconfidence in our skills means we are susceptible to confirmation bias. We tend to search and interpret information that confirms our preconceived beliefs. Thus, we may ask superficial questions to our customers to confirm these beliefs. If we are not surprised, even hurt, by the customers’ feedback, we are not curious enough. We are not learning anything new.
- Two, are you focused on the right things? Another downside of seeing ourselves as experts is that we might stop being curious about our customers, our employees, our products. Why should we? Our process works and customers validated it many times before. It does look wasteful to try things that might not have a chance to succeed. That said, more curious competitors come out with fresh approaches and get a bigger slice of the pie.
- Three, what can you test? Conduct small experiments to validate an idea and reduce the risk. In the corporate world, solely finding opportunities to innovate without tried and tested solutions spirals into postponing. Curiosity applies to figure out what are the problems and finding solutions.
- Four, how can we engage others to help solve this problem? How can we find others to help us set up experiments for our experiments? Everybody in a company has their own specific set of skills that can help.
Expertise does lead to a better understanding of a business’s pitfalls. Experts do know the methods that work, and experts do accumulate lots of good knowledge that will save companies money and time.
Practice does not make it perfect. Practice makes it permanent.
If a technique is flawed, all the practice of that imperfect technique will make it a permanent imperfect technique.
It is common that once a new hire joins a company, he or she might start questioning that company’s methods. These new hires can be people in good faith or disruptive jerks, prone to the expert bias themselves.
Nonetheless, after the new hire makes inquires, co-workers’ dogmatic, off-putting remarks start to sound like: “That’s not how we do things”, “I know what our customers want”, “I have been doing this for decades”.
Experience is not expertise. With all due respect, someone’s ten years of work experience can simply mean two years of work multiplied five times.
Assuming that what happened in the past is how things will work in the future is not a foolproof way of predicting the future.
The real experts in a field are those who approach the field with the eyes of a novice, those who do not lose the lifelong learner mindset, those who never stop questioning.
True knowledge is not a badge of honour to attach to someone’s ego.
Beginner’s mind and scientific research
“Science progresses one funeral at a time.” - Plank’s principle
“An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.” - Nobel prize winner Max Planck
In her Mindshift course, Barbara Oakley notes that philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discovered that most paradigm shifts in science are brought about by either young people or people who were originally trained in a different discipline. This happens because these people are not biased towards the Einstellung effect, a negative effect of previous experience when solving new problems.
Novices, either young people or mature people who switched disciplines or careers, haven’t been yet trained or conditioned to think and act like everybody else in that specific field.
Unfortunately, science does indeed progress one death at a time. A study investigated how the premature deaths of star scientists working in the life sciences affect the respective field literature.
According to the study’s various criteria, most eminent scientists are those who attracted the most funding, received the most citations or early-career awards, registered the most patents, or were members of their national academies.
The study found out that collaborators of star researchers publish fewer papers in the fields after their prominent colleague’s death, and the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases drastically.
Most non-collaborators tend to be outsiders (not substantially active in the subfield when the star was alive) rather than existing competitors of the deceased star.
In Thomas Kuhn’s line of thought, the authors are careful to remark that these new entrants that publish more are predominantly new to that specific field of research, not necessarily novice scientists.
Also, “the conclusion of this paper is not those stars are bad,” says Pierre Azoulay, the study co-author. “It’s just that, once safely ensconced at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome.”
Beginner’s mind and personal development
“Overfamiliariazation with something (an idea, metaphor, object) is a trap. Where creativity is concerned – that is the irony of the skill – the more adept you become at something, the less likely you are to appreciate a variation.”- Denise G. Shekerjian, Uncommon genius
Especially in these divisive times, it is more important than ever to avoid the echo chamber and start appreciating variations to our mental models.
Like Alvin Toffler said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Staying inside one’s comfort zone is not a recipe for personal growth. Chances are, deep inside, we all know what we could work on but always postpone. Why not start that new hobby?
After all, science proved that beginners in a life science field bring new insights that help the whole field. Age is not a valid reason not to start something, as either young or mature people can make a difference.
Lastly, ask yourself: When was the last time you changed a deep-held belief?
The opposite of shoshin is also true
The Dunning-Kruger effect states that people less skilled in a given field think they are much better than they really are, not recognizing their own limitations. Smaller levels of experience can bring overconfidence, sometimes shown as arrogance.
The solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect? Among other solutions not in the scope of this article (growth mindset, deliberate practice, etc.), we can try to foster shoshin.
How to foster shoshin
- Fromm and Kander’s framework: 1. What are my biases, my blind spots? What am I missing? 2. Am I focused on the right thing for me? 3. Can I test some changes? Can I start x/y/z for 5-10 minutes, for 5-10 days, and see how it went? 4. Can I ask others for their advice, opinions, and insights?
- Listen and try to work on empathy to understand other people’s points of view. Focus on what was said, not who said it. We do not need to have something to say every time.
- Curiosity Undoubtedly, habits and routines are time-savers. Why change something that works well? In the ever-changing pace of the 21st century, this is a great way for businesses to stay behind the competition. From a personal development perspective, we know we should aim to improve ourselves. Why not make a habit or a routine to periodically ask if you can improve your way of doing things? What works for me is that on every 20-something of the month I review some of the new habits I try to acquire and re-evaluate. I described this process in the Live article: The year of habit stacking article.
- Become a beginner, literally, by starting a new hobby, activity, sport, language, etc. To give a personal example. In Romanian, the word for nursery school is “gradinita” or a small garden. When I learned German, I found out that the German equivalent for “gradinita” is “kindergarten” (literal English translation is “a garden of children”). That was the moment when I finally stopped and recognized that “gradinita” is meant to be a garden of children. Up until that point, I just used “gradinita” with no other special meaning, no metaphor of raising small children like flowers. Another example is the Romanian term for breakfast, we call it “mic dejun” or small lunch. The Romanian word “mic dejun” is related to the French equivalent “petit-déjeuner”. However, in English, the meaning of “breakfast” is not “small lunch”, but “breaking your fast” of the prior night. In English, breakfast is not necessarily a morning meal, but the first meal of the day that can happen around lunch or later. Thus, learning a language is an exquisite tool to get accustomed to the mindset of a different culture.
- Search for better social exposure to people of different ages, nationalities, jobs. This can be achieved either through books, movies, news outlets, or meeting people if pandemic circumstances allow it. If you do not mind some recommendations, you can check my My top stories of 2020 article.
- Undoubtedly, all Eastern concepts explained by a Western mind are subject to different interpretations. However, the way we could foster shosin is deeply personal, so find and incorporate your own techniques.
I will end with a short scene I drafted for another project of mine.
An older, wiser character talks to a young, relentless green: "Do you know what is the most important symbol?" "The cross! The bread? The book! The fist?" says the young man. "The question mark," says the older man. "Why?" asks the younger man. "Exactly."
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