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Shoshin: This Zen Concept Will Help You Stop Being a Slave to Old Behaviors and Beliefs, by James Clear


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Our tendency to repeat the behavior we are exposed to extends to nearly everything we learn in life.

Here’s the hard question: Who is to say that the way you originally learned something is the best way? What if you simply learned one way of doing things, not the way of doing things?

There is a concept in Zen Buddhism known as shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.”

Shoshin refers to the idea of letting go of your preconceptions and having an attitude of openness when studying a subject.

When you are a true beginner, your mind is empty and open. You’re willing to learn and consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time. As you develop knowledge and expertise, however, your mind naturally becomes more closed. You tend to think, “I already know how to do this” and you become less open to new information.

There is a danger that comes with expertise. We tend to block the information that disagrees with we learned previously and yield to the information that confirms our current approach. We think we are learning, but in reality we are steamrolling through information and conversations, waiting until we hear something that matches up with our current philosophy or previous experience, and cherry-picking information to justify our current behaviors and beliefs. Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.

The problem is that when you are an expert you actually need to pay more attention, not less. Why? Because when you are already familiar with 98 percent of the information on a topic, you need to listen very carefully to pick up on the remaining 2 percent.

As adults our prior knowledge blocks us from seeing things anew. To quote zen master Shunryo Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Here are a few practical ways to rediscover your beginner’s mind and embrace the concept of shoshin.

Let go of the need to add value. Many people, especially high achievers, have an overwhelming need to provide value to the people around them. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing. But in practice, it can handicap your success because you never have a conversation where you just shut up and listen. If you’re constantly adding value (“You should try this…” or “Let me share something that worked well for me…”) then you kill the ownership that other people feel about their ideas. At the same time, it’s impossible for you to listen to someone else when you’re talking. So, step one is to let go of the need to always contribute. Step back every now and then and just observe and listen. For more on this, read Marshall Goldsmith’s excellent book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (audiobook).

Let go of the need to win every argument. A few years ago, I read a smart post by Ben Casnocha about becoming less competitive as time goes on. In Ben’s words, “Others don’t need to lose for me to win.” This is a philosophy that fits well with the idea of shoshin. If you’re having a conversation and someone makes a statement that you disagree with, try releasing the urge to correct them. They don’t need to lose the argument for you to win. Letting go of the need to prove a point opens up the possibility for you to learn something new. Approach it from a place of curiosity: Isn’t that interesting. They look at this in a totally different way. Even if you are right and they are wrong, it doesn’t matter. You can walk away satisfied even if you don’t have the last word in every conversation. 

Tell me more about that. I have a tendency to talk a lot (see “Providing Too Much Value” above). Every now and then, I’ll challenge myself to stay quiet and pour all of my energy into listening to someone else. My favorite strategy is to ask someone to, “Tell me more about that.” It doesn’t matter what the topic is, I’m simply trying to figure out how things work and open my mind to hearing about the world through someone else’s perspective.

Assume that you are an idiot. In his fantastic book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb writes, “I try to remind my group each week that we are all idiots and know nothing, but we have the good fortune of knowing it.” The flaws discussed in this article are simply a product of being human. We all have to learn information from someone and somewhere, so we all have a mentor or a system that guides our thoughts. The key is to realize this influence.

We are all idiots, but if you have the privilege of knowing that, then you can start to let go of your preconceptions and approach life with the openness of a beginner.

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