Cultivating a Beginner's Mind
Why being considered an Expert may not actually be that great.
In Zen Buddhist philosophy there exists a belief called “Shoshin” - it refers to the concept of a “beginner's mind”.
The shoshin mindset focuses on invoking openness and curiosity when studying any discipline, even those subjects one is already well versed in. Especially those. Shoshin is to confront any given subject with the mind of a novice or beginner, free from preconceived notions or inherent bias.
In our media frenzy world, with seemingly every news show bringing forth a proclaimed expert in a certain field to reinforce an opinion, be it in “middle east politics” or “advanced economics” or whatnot – this beginner's mindset appears to be a refreshing approach. Especially when regarding the fairly recent phenomenon of fake news and the fact that our species is blindly advancing into some kind of black and white post truth reality.
To preamble this blog, I wanted to share something that happened after a football game the other day.
How does Football factor into this again?
It was a cold and windswept afternoon, our team was leading 3:1, Luke Concannon had just scored a ridiculous one on one with the keeper and our team felt settled with the win. With only 10 minutes of game time left, the other team was quite aggressive and very physical, one guy in particular, let's call him “Larry,” stood out among all others. He was quite a tall and muscular forward, who was elbowing, pushing and being overly zealous in his hard tackles – at one point he grabbed a hold of my shirt whilst we were both running for the same ball, grabbing it so hard that he tore the sponsorship label from the sleeve. I fell over and felt something twitch in my groin, I lay there for a few seconds gauging the injury, upon standing I realised I could hardly walk, let alone run, so I raised my hand to be substituted.
As I settled in on the sideline, to my horror, I saw the other team put not only one, or two, but three goals past our keeper within 5 minutes. We not only lost the game 4:3 but also our chances to win the league. Everyone was heartbroken.
As we always do, we went to the local pub to have a pint with the other team.
Assumptions Make an “Ass” out of “U” and “ME”
We sat down outside with our pints and shared friendly banter with the other team. At one point, the infamous Larry shows up and my stomach tightens, my senses become heightened and I watch him as he is talking to a couple of my team mates. At one point I hear him say:
“You gotta beat those Chin guys next week!”
My jaw dropped, I had heard “chinks” which is a super vulgar racist term for Chinese people. One of the teams in our league was exclusively made up of guys from Myanmar, whose families had been offered refugee status in NZ in the last years. Larry was of course referring to that team who we were next facing in the cup semi finals, the boys from Myanmar. My blood boiled over, I felt rage coursing through my veins.
Racist assumptions ironically fuel racist presumptions
I was thinking that I needed to speak up and put this guy in his place. There were about 15 people standing around, so I would definitely be making a scene.
I wagered my options.
Now I need to qualify what happened next as well. I have always prided myself in speaking up for minorities and countering racism when I witness it. From a young age, I would always speak out when I heard people making racist statements, even if these were said in jest, especially then. I specifically remember getting in trouble for lambasting some of my friends for saying something along the lines of “bloody Asian drivers” when I was not even a teenager yet.
A Case for the United Nations
When I was 16, I was chosen to represent Germany at the Youth United Nations Conference on the topic of “Ethnicity and Racism in the 20th century”. I had entered an essay competition and had been one of 8 German students selected to attend the conference. It was being held in New York and the UN delegate assigned to the students was none other than the great Kofi Annan (ten years before he was elected Secretary General.)
The conference lasted 4 days and we had many debates and workshops. On the last day, 5 students were selected to hold speeches in the General Assembly Hall. I was lucky to be one of them, my speech was on the rise of national socialism (so called neo nazis) in Germany and the effect this was having on the immigrant Turkish population. To this day, those 15 minutes giving that speech to a teary eyed audience were still the greatest 15 minutes of my life.
Now, what do we do with Larry?
So as you can see I have had a lot of vested interest in this racism thing since I was a kid. Now, 27 years after my grandiose words at the UN, I was in a predicament. Should I call out Larry in front of all of his peers or not? It weighed heavily on my mind, my gnawing intuition told me to bite my tongue. By this point one of my team mates had pointed out to me that Larry hadn't in fact said “chink boys” but rather “chin boys” - I was like, meh either way it sounds pretty racist. Much to the dismay of my internal moral compass, I decided to keep stumm, something didn't feel right chastising this grown man in front of everyone. Fast forward a couple of hours and my conscience wouldn't let me go. I decided to google the terms “Chin and Myanmar” - and lo and behold, The Chin State is an actual region in Myanmar and it just so happens that the guys from that team were from that region. So not only were Larry's words not in the least bit racist, but they were actually incredibly enlightened and culturally sensitive.
Phew, thank the heavens I didn't reprimand Larry, I would've made an absolute ass out of myself. I spent the rest of the night wondering about the various scenarios that could have unfolded, had I let my curated “expert” knowledge of racism get the better of me.
Adolescent Einstein vs Middle Aged Einstein: The Novice meets The Expert
Rewind 100 years to the beginning of the 20th century – the year 1905 – the year that Albert Einstein had his Annus Mirabilis (miracle year) where at the tender age of 25 he published four groundbreaking papers in physics and chemistry. Papers that were so profound, that they would shake the science world to its very core even still to this day (Einstein predicted gravitational waves, which have only just been measured in the last couple of years).
The reason I bring up Einstein is that his mind was largely considered to be the most complex and unique of all time. His ideas were so “out there” that at first people labelled him a hack and no one took him seriously. How could a lowly patent clerk without any formal education be so tuned into the world of modern science? Once his papers were published in the prestigious Annalen der Physik journal, all that changed. He became an international sensation pretty much over night.
Einstein's mind was so open at this stage, epitomising the beginner's mind – you can tell from his correspondence letters with other scientists. He was tolerant of all new insights and theories, often contributing to other people's ideas, even ones that challenged his. Back in those days, Einstein welcomed criticisms.
Now contrast this mindset to Einstein as an adult – when quantum physics upended and contradicted several significant assumptions of his theories about the universe and the physical world. He famously refused to believe that the universe was as random as the quantum world predicted it to be, framing these beliefs in the phrase: “God does not play dice” in his argument with Nils Bohr, the Danish founding father of quantum theory.
Up until the day he died, Einstein refused to accept the idea that the world was controlled by quanta – he referred to a quantum's eerie ability to influence events thousands of miles away “spooky action at a distance.” Suffice it to say that quantum theory has now largely been accepted as the most convenient theory explaining the universe, in short, Einstein's lack of openness and maintaining a beginner's mind resulted in him being wrong.
It's ironic that the very mindset that allowed Einstein to formulate revolutionary theories, was silenced in old age, where he became like the naysayers that doubted him when he was starting out.
In conclusion, even the greatest of minds succumb to the phenomenon of closed mindedness, once they reach this revered “expert” status. This is true not only historically, but even in our day and age.
… And you would not believe what happened to that most revered of brains after its body had died…
Are you even speaking English?
When I was studying Immunology, I was amazed at how complicated the terminology was, so many phrases, acronyms and abbreviations for cellular pathways, enzymes and cell receptors. I was doubly baffled when I witnessed how the terms would change every couple of years. I had a lab colleague once who was convinced “they” were doing it on purpose.
By “they” he was referring to the top 12 professors in the field, these guys had a monopoly on research grants and they wrote the textbooks – they’re a global scientific cabal that is represented in the UK, the US, Europe, Japan and Australia. My colleague believed these professors were forever changing the terms to keep other aspiring competitors from entering their inner sanctum, to make it impossible for anyone to challenge their status. I'm not sure this conspiracy theory holds any weight, but the phenomenon was certainly very strange and unsettling.
Had these professors ignored their beginner's mind? Most certainly.
How to mitigate “The Expert” from taking over?
I guess it's the same question as “how do I maintain humility in the face of tremendous success?” To cultivate a beginner's mind it can help to realise three Shoshin concepts that have a strong impact on how you perceive the world around you (all clichés aside):
treat every moment as if it is your last
the less thoughts you entertain, the better
enjoy your problems, for they will always arise
For those of you interested in reading more about the philosophy of the beginner's mind, I highly recommend Shunryu Suzuki's: “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.” It's a beautifully simple read that's very easy to digest and not condescending or “self-helpy” at all.
Thank you for reading, I hope this helps motivate you to curb your assumptions about ideas/people and work on opening your mind, accepting your beautiful beginner's mind, maintaining your innate curiosity by always questioning everything around you.
To finish off, I wanted to add something fitting that Cherie Concannon said the other day, in regards to interacting with other people. Cherie maintains that when we are in dialogue with one another, we should throw all self consciousness to the wind, instead of entertaining the persistent thought pattern of:
“What are they thinking about ME?”
Instead we should be removing our ego and reminding ourselves to hold the following thought:
“What ARE they thinking about?”
Next Week’s article:
“On Time. A review of our favourite measurement: What it is, what we do with it, how it affects us and if it even really exists at all?”
AUTHOR | Chris Von Roy
Having identified a rare and previously unknown type of salmonella whilst analysing poo samples for the German Army, Chris now spends his time thinking fondly of sharks, rapping about Shish Kebabs, and attempting to distil Cherie's unrelenting tirade of spoken words into a manageable format with which to share with the world.