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The Beginner’s Mind

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

– Shunryu Suzuki

In the discussion on habits, I mentioned how a significant percentage of our decisions are rarely thought about. A disturbing corollary to that is that how we think and what we believe is also subject to the same shortcuts, called cognitive biases. In the next section, I will discuss how we observe processes, examine our current reality, and search for truth. Therefore, it is important to first understand and recognize how our experience, perspective, and bias can distort our observations.

One of the core concepts of Zen is shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” This is a perspective that is free of preconceived ideas and opinions, and is open to new thought. I discussed earlier how some Lean concepts can be counterintuitive. Embracing shoshin requires “unlearning” what you thought you already knew—in effect, creating a beginner’s mind. As we become older and supposedly wiser, creating a beginner’s mind can become increasingly difficult. It becomes even more so when an entire team or organization needs to unlearn and develop a beginner’s perspective.

Begin by focusing on questions, not answers. When observing a process, especially one you’ve seen many times, try to avoid jumping ahead to conclusions. Take one step (one question) at a time. Similarly, be aware that what seems like common sense may not be. Avoid using the word “should” as it implies a predetermined or expected outcome. Be careful with experience. What you already know should be an input, not a perspective. Be comfortable with saying “I don’t know”—it shows a desire to learn and is a component of humility.

Being biased is a result of not having a beginner’s mind. The most common and well-known bias is confirmation bias. This is our desire to believe what we want to believe, to the extent that we consciously or subconsciously distort or interpret information to fit our preconceptions. We can also seek out sources of information that align with our biases, while ignoring non-confirming data.

You can see an example of confirmation bias in the politics of the United States. It is the reason the two major parties in the U.S. are moving away from the center and more toward the extremes. Even though the number of information sources has exploded over the last couple decades, people on the right of the spectrum consume news geared toward them, because they feel it is correct. In other words, it fits their biases. The same happens on the left. This has occurred to such an extent that heroes of each party—Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, for example—probably wouldn’t be welcome in their parties today.

A second form of bias is loss aversion. Researchers such as psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have found that we’re twice as likely to try to avoid a loss than go after a gain. In effect, we are risk averse, which may be great for our survival as a species, but it hinders us as we try to create organizational change and improvement.

A third form of bias is conformity bias, also known as groupthink (e.g., “When in Rome…”). By nature, most of us don’t like to stand out in a crowd and will be willing to agree with a group, even if we know the information is incorrect.

A fourth type is survivorship bias, where we focus on the tiny fraction of people that are successful, ignoring the far greater numbers that have failed. An example of this is our fascination with and attraction to get-rich-quick gurus. We also look at highly successful people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and think that could be us. We then try to model ourselves after them. We find it easy to ignore, or not even understand, that every path is unique and what works for one person may not for another, for a multitude of reasons.

Finally—and this one is very common in the business world—is anchoring, or first impression bias. This form of bias occurs because we subconsciously give the first piece of information we receive on a topic more relevance and weight than followup information. This is why public relations companies find it very important to get their story out first, and why it is so difficult to change minds after the fact—even if the subsequent information is more accurate.

Once we know that we’re susceptible to these biases, what can we do? The most important thing to do is to be mindful and present. Observe your thoughts and ask validating questions. Why do you think this way? What are the arguments against your opinion? Review the forms of bias and honestly try to determine if they might be in play. Taking steps to neutralize your biases will help you make smarter, more rational decisions. Observe like a beginner.