Shoshin: The power of beginner’s mindset

Learning
15 July, 2019

Break free of the expertise trap and unlock new inspiration with the Zen concept of Shoshin

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ~ Shunryo Suzuki, Zen master

As we get more experienced and more senior in our jobs, many of us become reticent to try new approaches. We become slaves to the old way of doing things. We start questioning less, prefer to stick to the status quo and look for ways to justify our behaviours.

This is not surprising. Your expertise is shaped by your prior experiences. The way you approach data, the importance you give to certain aspects of the subject, the tools you favour – these can be traced back to the system in which you were trained, and the teachers and mentors you had along the way. In his article, This Zen Concept Will Help You Stop Being a Slave to Old Beliefs, James Clear puts it well:

At some point, we all learned to think from someone else. That’s how knowledge is passed down… Most people think they are experts in a field, but they are really just experts in a particular style.

This may surprise you, but increasing expertise could actually cause concern:

  • Your point of view becomes narrow, limiting fresh ideas and possibilities
  • You become resistant to new ways of doing things because you think you already know it all – even if your current approach is less than optimal
  • You cherry-pick information that validates your own views, disregarding everything else. This puts an end to learning

There are repercussions for the organisation as well. In How The Shoshin Approach To Business Can Spur Innovative Solutions, Sanjay Jalona (CEO of Larsen & Toubro Infotech) notes the inverse relationship between experience and innovation.

As careers lengthens and expertise grows, creativity takes a hit. The vast collective experience of leadership can take on the role of “baggage”, slowing down the business’s ability to innovate and respond to disruption.

With markets and technologies changing at a moment’s notice, we need fresh thinking to seize new opportunities. At the same time, expertise is indispensable – its value can’t be overlooked or sacrificed. The question is: how can we retain the benefits of experience, without letting it limit our potential to improve and innovate? 

So, this week, my message focuses on using Shoshin, a Zen concept, to break free of the expertise trap and spark fresh inspiration. 

What is “Shoshin”? 

Shoshin belongs to a family of Buddhist Zen concepts that have gained immense traction in the business world over the previous few decades. Steve Jobs was a fan. It even finds a place in Creativity Inc., a book by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull that reveals the philosophy and methods behind the company’s incredibly profitable innovation. 

“Shoshin” translates as the “beginner’s mind”. This concept, drawn from Zen philosophy, means having an open, empty mind, uncluttered by preconceived notions and judgments. With the Shoshin mindset, you consider all information with a fresh set of eyes – just like a child discovering something for the first time. You enter a state of genuine, active learning. With a willingness to look beyond what you already know, a whole new range of methods, possibilities and sources of inspiration opens up. Your mind views things from different angles and makes new connections, becoming fertile ground for creativity. This helps you design new ways to solve problems and unearth promising opportunities.

An additional benefit of Shoshin is that it curbs the negative influence of ego. In How Embracing “Shoshin”(Beginner’s Mind) Gives Our Lives More Meaning, Mo Issa explains how ego can keep us stuck in a rut:

It doesn’t want us to have new thoughts that differ from our existing beliefs. Our ego wants us to use our old methods to focus on its validation through winning, perfectionism, and superiority. 

The beginner’s mind…uses novelty to get us out of our comfort zone and thus out from under ego’s control, which could lead to us to contentment, compassion, and peace.

Individual learning

Here are three ways in which you can embrace the Shoshin mindset:

1. Get comfortable not contributing

Many senior leaders feel duty-bound to “contribute” in every conversation. While it’s good to bring value to the people around you, this doesn’t need to happen all the time. Sometimes, we all need to be quiet and pay attention to what other people are saying, allowing their views and expertise to take centre stage. Empty your mind of thoughts and just listen, without feeling the need to respond with a “What would make this even better…” or “You should try…”. Instead, ask questions to encourage the speaker to dive deeper into the subject, so you can understand their perspective.

By motivating you to be a better listener, Shoshin also fosters healthier relationships. As Issa notes in the article mentioned above:

When we focus our energy on listening instead of talking, and on understanding rather than lecturing, we learn so much that others wanted to share but couldn’t before. We start to discover who they truly are.

2. Overcome the need to “win” every argument

In the previously mentioned article, Clear explains that being less competitive creates space for learning:

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.

3. Practice mindfulness

If you find it difficult to take a step back and empty your mind, try a mindfulness-building technique like meditation. Meditation teaches you to let go of unnecessary thoughts and bring your focus to the present moment. With some practice, this will help you enter the right frame of mind for Shoshin. In turn, utilising the Shoshin approach regularly increases mindfulness by releasing you from judgment and allowing you to access fresh perspectives.

Organisational learning

Elements of Shoshin can also be incorporated into the organisation. Under Jalona’s leadership, this Zen concept has become the key to transforming LTI into a “learning company”. In the above-mentioned article, Jalona shares how his company trying to achieve this goal. As we, too, are on a similar quest, here are four steps worth considering:

1. Prioritise curiosity

To facilitate ongoing learning, curiosity is crucial. A college education at a great university is valuable – but no longer enough. When assessing potential candidates, look for inquisitiveness and the willingness to learn. Jalona also recommends making curiosity and imagination a formal part of performance management.

2. Harness job rotation

Along with job rotation for middle management, LTI has also introduced this initiative at senior levels. When implemented in the right way, this allows leaders to access unfamiliar perspectives and return to their functions with a fresh approach.

3. Challenge the norm

Buck the trend by questioning long-held assumptions. For example, says Jalona, is bigger necessarily better? Take a similar approach to brainstorming, mixing up people with different capabilities – such as beginners and experts. Encourage them to talk, really talk (i.e., no need to add value or “win”), and watch the ideas flow.

4. Get radical

Jalona mentions that LTI applies Shoshin thinking to create game-changing solutions for their clients. In fact, the company uses this approach as early as the pitching stage:

We even use Shoshin in our RFP proposals, often engineering a completely different approach than one the potential client has suggested, just like a way a startup would. This way, we consistently surprise our clients with approaches they were not considering possible.

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