“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.
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:
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.
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”.
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.
“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.”
“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 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.
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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