Social Innovation

This Japanese concept will help you see the world – and learn – in a different way

Students pose for a photo with a globe during a campaign to mark World Earth Day in a middle school in Dexing, Jiangxi province April 19, 2011. World Earth Day falls on April 22 every year. Picture taken April 19, 2011. REUTERS/China Daily (CHINA - Tags: ANNIVERSARY ENVIRONMENT EDUCATION IMAGES OF THE DAY) CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA   FOR BEST QUALITY IMAGE: ALSO SEE GM1E74L1H1701. - GM1E74K19J601

Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning 'beginner's mind'. Image: REUTERS/China Daily

Kate Whiting
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Japan will once again be in the spotlight this weekend as it hosts the final of the Rugby World Cup.

The players on the pitch in Yokohama may unconsciously adopt it each time they take on new opponents, but how many of those will know what ‘shoshin’ means?

The term comes from Zen Buddhism, one of the schools of the religion practised widely in Japan, which puts an emphasis on self-control and being mindful.

Have you read?

The Buddhist monk Shunryū Suzuki, who was the first to set up a monastery outside of Asia, summed up it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities… But in the expert's there are few".

Zen Buddhism is practised widely in Japan. Image: Statista

Beginner’s mind

The concept holds that those who approach life with few preconceptions will be open to new ideas and perspectives, while those who believe themselves experts will only see what affirms their own worldview – and may miss crucial learnings.

James Clear, New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits, explains: “Who is to say that the way you originally learned a skill is the best way? Most people think they are experts in a field, but they are really just experts in a particular style.

“In this way, we become a slave to our old beliefs without even realizing it. We adopt a philosophy or strategy based on what we have been exposed to without knowing if it's the optimal way to do things.

If rugby players took a formulaic approach to every game, expecting certain things to stay the same each time, based on their wealth of previous experience, they might miss the small windows of opportunity to score a try.

Why it matters

So why is this important for leaders and learners across the globe?

We’re in a period of vast global change, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which digitalization is disrupting how businesses, governments and organizations operate.

In a piece for the World Economic Forum, Munozovepi Gwata, the founder of Kukura Capital, which aims to tackle poverty by teaching financial literacy, says in the future, entrepreneurial types will be most successful.

People like Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, who not only have an in-depth knowledge of a specific field but also a grasp of other specialisms.

Gwata calls this a “T-shaped” person, saying: “The skills that they acquire outside their area of specialization offer complementary knowledge that enables them to also enrich their field of expertize.”

We will need to broaden our skill sets in order to succeed, and that requires adopting a beginner’s mind to each new skill we learn.


Embracing shoshin

But there are ways to cultivate that childlike state of having a mind open to learning, according to Clear.

Start by listening more and stop trying to “add value” by constantly contributing gems of wisdom from your own experience.

“High achievers have an overwhelming need to provide value to the people around them,” he says.

“But 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…’) then you kill the ownership that other people feel about their ideas.”

Similarly, he says our competitive need to “score points” and win arguments means we miss out on truly seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Use the phrase “tell me more about that” often and start from a point of ignorance – we all have a lot to learn.

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