Cultivate a beginner’s mind

Those who are intellectually humble, know more, possibly because they are open to learning and are not as fixed in their views

Published - March 02, 2024 10:18 pm IST

A person with a beginner’s mind is genuinely attentive and intrigued by multiple potentialities

A person with a beginner’s mind is genuinely attentive and intrigued by multiple potentialities | Photo Credit: Freepik

Though the idea of babies being born with a “tabula rasa”, or blank slate, has been discredited by psychological research, this construct — that was championed by philosopher John Locke — resonates with the Zen concept of shoshin or beginner’s mind and holds value for learners of all ages. Even as we prize knowledge and expertise, every person, no matter how educated or erudite they may be, can benefit from cultivating shoshin. Like many Zen aphorisms, the idea of a beginner’s mind is also paradoxical.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but, in the expert’s mind, there are few,” writes Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. It is this openness to various options and alternative pathways that characterises the beginner’s mind. In their book, Teaching with Compassion, sociologists Peter Kaufman and Janine Schipper aver that a beginner’s mind embodies a “child-like” curiosity that is “primed for exploration and wonder”. Instead of being hemmed in by a “right” manner of conceptualising, planning or proceeding, a person with a beginner’s mind is genuinely attentive and intrigued by multiple potentialities.

As cognitive neuroscientist, Christian Jarrett, points out in an article on the web magazine Psyche, expertise is not an unalloyed blessing, as it is often accompanied by dogmatism and hubris. The history of Science is replete with stories of theories that are now well-established but were either ignored or lampooned by so-called experts when they were first espoused. Galileo, Wegener, Tesla and Chandrasekhar are only a few examples of individuals who championed ideas that were deemed ridiculous by authorities in their respective fields but were later proven correct. Jarrett points out that “intellectual hubris” is not limited to scientific experts. In one study, college graduates overestimated their knowledge related to their fields vis-a-vis a test that actually tested their understanding.

Action points

Those who are intellectually humble, know more, possibly because they are open to learning and are not as fixed in their views. So, how can you cultivate and maintain a beginner’s mind? Jarrett offers the following tips. Most people tend to overestimate their own knowledge on varied topics from how a camera works to what factors precipitated the last recession. However, if we try to explain issues or topics to ourselves or somebody else, we may realise the lacunae in our understanding.

Next, we may play devil’s advocate with ourselves. As humans, we tend to suffer from the fallacy of “confirmation bias,” wherein we “seek out information” that corroborates our views and beliefs while ignoring or dismissing contradictory evidence. Jarrett exhorts us to acknowledge this tendency. Then, to counteract it, he coaxes us to ferret out “information and perspectives” that might oppose our views.

You may also cultivate a growth mindset that believes that people’s intelligence, including your own, can be changed with experience. According to Jarrett, those who espouse intellectual humility also tend to have a growth mindset. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset think that intelligence is largely determined by your genetic endowment. Those with a growth mindset do not necessarily feel diminished when fractures in their understanding are revealed because their believe that they can learn and fill in the chinks. But those with a fixed mindset see weaknesses in their argument as a threat to their intelligence and possibly their identities as well.

Inject awe experiences into your life, recommends Jarrett. Whether it’s admiring the variegated vibrancy of fish in a large aquarium or staring at a star-studded night sky or marvelling at the seamless synchronicity of a dance ballet, experiences of wonder tend to make people more humble and open. Finally, Jarrett reminds us that as shoshin tends to vary across situations, we cannot assume that we approach all facets of life with a beginner’s mind. Rather, we need to remind ourselves periodically to remain humble and open and gaze at the world with a childlike curiosity.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know & blogs at

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