The (ultimate) Guide to Open-mindedness

An idea can change the world but… A new idea often meets rejection. In that regard, late Steve Jobs said:

They begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.
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Of course, most of us think we are an exception and that we deal properly with novelty.


Our brain is organized in circuits. Many tasks we perform daily are hardwired. For instance, we have a specific circuit for suppression (brushing aside unimportant staff), for enhancement (diving deep into one focus area), to deal with predators, another for hunting and even one for cursing!!!

I have a question for you. Which brain circuit do you think we use to deal with novelty?

  1. Hunting.
  2. Escaping predators.

To me, the answer was obvious, hunting! Hunting is going after things, it’s exploring untapped territories! Dealing with predators is the exact opposite. It’s about avoidance.

Well, according to Professor Jordan Peterson, and to my surprise, we use the “escaping predators” circuit! You may say, well as long as it triggers curiosity who cares? The problem is, it comes with two significant downsides:

  1. We seek information so that we never get to meet the predator again.
  2. It triggers stress.

In net, it’s an “avoidance curiosity”, not our best exploration companion so to speak.

Are you pretending that humans are not explorers?

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

It all depends on how you define exploration.

Exploration is embedded in us. When all our needs are satiated our natural state is not idleness but exploration. Yet each of us does it her/his way depending on her/his personality. Some go for social exploration (i.e. meeting new people), others explore ideas…

Only a minority are fearless explorers who are ready to shake their belief system. 

This article focuses on what characterizes most humans. Hence increasing odds of success of the proposed solutions.


Idriss Aberkane says that any breakthrough idea is perceived roughly in 3 steps:

Ridiculous => Dangerous => Normal

Imagine if we had told NASA in the ’60s that each of us will have in his pocket a device (smartphone) that has more computation power than the infrastructure used to land Apollo on the moon. At first, they would have thought it’s ridiculous. Then getting a grasp of its feasibility, they would have thought it is dangerous. In effect,a smartphone is smart enough to threaten national security (e.g. serving as ballistic missiles guidance among others…). At last, today, nobody cares, it’s normal.

There is a biological reason for that. I guess most of us heard the story of our 2 brain hemispheres. Well, here is the latest one from Professor Iain McGilchrist author of The master and his emissary.

McGlichrist reestablishes the idea of specialization of the two hemispheres. Roughly, the right part is responsible for 1. detecting predators and 2. exploration (unknown), the left part takes care of 1. going after preys and 2. focus on known stuff.

  1. When new information hits the brain, the subconscious needs to decide whether it is meaningful. If it isn’t, it’ll never reach consciousness, if it is, it is sent to the right hemisphere.
  2. The right hemisphere opens a large number of possibilities (mental exploration).
  3. The left hemisphere negotiates relevance, then…
  4. Sorts out the shortlist.

The “negotiation” process is activated because the left hemisphere doesn’t like newness and prefers steadiness. It adopts a defensive mindset. The most common strategies, that usually happen in a sequence are:

  1. Undermine importance => ridiculous.
  2. Pretend the new idea is a predator that will kill us => dangerous.

Those living in the Valley, know how costly such thinking patterns can be. Imagine being pitched the following: Invest in a social network with no users. The limited number of users had to throw in the void 140 characters… and nobody is listening! The business model is yet to be qualified.

Would you invest?

Twitter is not the only singularity…

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening. — Tom Goodwin


THE ORIGIN OF RESISTANCE

Photo by Sandeep Singh on Unsplash

It seems like when talking about adopting and adapting to change, our subconscious brain is not our best friend.

The subconscious brain prefers a known discomfort to an unknown comfort. — NLP
Click to tweet

Here is why…

a. Survival Mechanisms inherited from the caveman

Photo by Nate Greno on Unsplash

Our ancestors lived in a hostile environment. Food was not always handy and predators were waiting around the corner. Our brain’s primary wiring was related to survival. For example:

  1. Our social nature nests in our need of being stronger together in front of a prey or a predator.
  2. In that sense, to avoid being shunned by peers and finding ourselves head to head solo with a hungry lion, conformism is a no-brainer.
  3. Our habits are an astute manner to save scarce energy.

We are not designed to be Open-Minded creatures. Unknowingly we are highly conformist. Yet…

If we had to gauge our thinking based on what the majority thinks… genius would not exist – K
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Our survival mechanisms do not help openness and neither does our language.

b. A not so precise language

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

We often misuse language and it goes unnoticed. Over the long run, we tend to believe what we say repeatedly. No wonder repetition is a key component of a billion dollars industry like advertising. Part of having an Open Mind is watching our language. Here are 3 occurrences where language influences openness:

  • “Opinion” vs. “feedback”: at best people have an opinion about a new idea, but feedback cannot form at the discussion phase in the absence of real-life testing. The latter is more specific, actionable and relevant than a simple opinion based on “imagining” the idea at work. So take it for what it is and do not overrate it. Which links to the next point.
  • “Watch out” vs. “no go”: try this, ask any expert what s/he thinks of a breakthrough idea in her/his field of expertise. Most often they’ll explain why it won’t work: no-go. Rather, ask them what they specifically think will jeopardize success; those are the valuable watch-outs to deal with.
  • Learning curve: breakthrough ideas are often compared to existing ones. The latter benefited from years of refinement. Usually, the new idea is raw and needs perfecting. This is the learning curve effect. Keep it in mind to put any opinion in context. Jason Fried, Basecamp CEO, makes sure that any idea is put in writing. This has the double benefit of 1. not interrupting the author, hence reaching a more comprehensive understanding before any reaction is possible and 2. “sleep on it” before stating an opinion.

When you have a breakthrough idea:
. friends doubt (opinion vs. feedback)
. experts discourage (watch out vs. no go)
. you act (learning curve)
. market decides
-K
Click to tweet

c. Fears

Fear is one of the strongest human behavior drivers. In today’s world, the myth of the superhero we are all supposed to be shadows this reality. Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the ability to manage it.

Not being aware of one’s fears either puts us at risk or prevents us from living a meaningful life.

Just keep in mind that this system is somehow outdated since we left the primitive jungle. We seldom meet snakes in the streets or at work. It’s true some humans have taken this role. But reacting to human reptiles as we would for snakes has repeatedly proven unsuccessful.

d. Disgust

In its primordial form, disgust is a sort of a defense mechanism that prevents from going towards harmful things. It doesn’t stop us from exploring, but it puts boundaries on our bursts. It allows testing the limits without doing totally stupid things.

As life has become more complex, this circuit has been leveraged to manage “psychological situations”. You wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that it serves as the infrastructure for the surge in current “identity confinement”.

e. Education

If your parents (or teachers) filled your brain with affirmations about what is right/true rather than questions… well you’ll most probably be close-minded by adulthood.

To sum up, our brain is not wired for openness but rather to help us survive in an unfriendly environment. The question becomes…


HOW TO HAVE AN OPEN MIND?

That’s a tough question, especially that nobody has the absolute measure of what an open mind is. Still, it deserves giving it a try.

It boils down to adapt to your natural operating mode by:

Hijacking your subconscious brain + Putting in place new habits + Adopting a more open belief system

a. Hijack your subconscious brain

When reacting to an event, our brain searches the existing database of possible responses. This means, however conscious our decisions are, they are directly dependent on information and experiences that are already stored (i.e. known) in our subconscious brain.

The only way to maintain a true open posture is to hijack our subconscious brain to be able to integrate new options in our response. This is not an easy matter but is feasible. Read more if interested: How to Hijack Your Subconscious Brain? — On Openmindedness

b. Putting in place new habits

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Here is a list of recommendations that can help in that regard:

  • Train your brain to try new things. It doesn’t really matter what. Just make sure you try new stuff regularly: discuss new ideas, learn, go horse riding (if not used to), visit museums and unusual places, play with kids… Just do anything that will allow your mind to feel at ease with newness, to be comfortable with discomfort, soon it will become second nature.
  • Start with Why as Simon SINEK would say. Grasp the rationale behind ideas; it is usually more valuable than the idea itself. Sincerely ask why. I insist on “sincerely” as in many cases, “why” questions express emotions like 1. Blaming: “Why did you do that?”, 2. Surprise: “Why on earth?”, 3. Rejection: “Why change proven successful models?”. When asking Why, connect to the curious kid in you, stop talking, stop thinking of your next argument and… LISTEN.
  • Seek nuance in every situation. The information inside our brain is organized in boxes. The whole process of understanding revolves around getting a grasp of commonalities and differences between things and concepts. The more you know, the more nuance you need.
  • When in disagreement, try to paraphrase your interlocutor’s words and ask for validation. If you still disagree, at least you know why. ☺
  • Make it a habit to stimulate your neuroregeneration and neuroplasticity by 1. regularly practicing sport, 2. meditation, 3. breathing, 4. learning…
  • See each situation from different angles. For example, in dealing with stress you can understand the systemic reasons; social setting, psychological dynamics, biological drivers…
  • Make it a habit to seek different points of views. Understand why detractors are against and why supporters are for.

Hopefully, the above habits will gradually help reinforce an open mind.

On to the final step…

c. Adapt new beliefs

  • There is a famous story of an Asian farmer who lost his horse. Relatives passed by to express their sympathy. His answer was short and enigmatic: “Maybe”. The next day, his teen-aged son captured a wild horse. The farmer got congratulations messages to which he, again, replied “Maybe”. Whilst taming the horse, the son fell and broke a bone. Once more, visitors expressed their sympathy to which he responded “Maybe”. The next day, the emperor organized a recruitment campaign for the army. Being fractured, the farmer’s son wasn’t enrolled. One more time, relatives celebrated the safe child to which our friend answered “Maybe”. The moral of the story is nothing in life is final. So, when you make a “final decision”, make sure it is “temporarily final” ☺.
  • Be aware of “tribal-like” behaviors. Do you usually defend what you think is right or do you rather defend, your family, company, department, country…? This is called tribalism. Favoring a group over another. If loving our country means harming another, even what looks like noble patriotism needs refinement. These tribal-like behaviors do not help openness and need to be replaced by a broader view of the world by discussing principles (e.g. fairness) rather than defending our tribe. Sadhguru advises you to adopt an identity as broad as the universe… Worth considering!
  • Embrace the AND vs. the OR culture. In our modern societies, choice is overrated.
    In strategy, yesterday’s choices are today’s competitive advantages and tomorrow’s strategic traps. — K
    It has been repeatedly proven in business history that industries that are able to combine what seemed contradictory could build disruptive competitive advantages. The most visible example from our everyday life is smartphones taking over the photography industry.

We, human see opposition where there is complementarity – K


A CONCRETE PROCESS THAT SUMS IT ALL

To avoid missing once in a lifetime opportunities, whenever shocked by an idea and feeling an overwhelming urge to reject it, I suggest trying the following process.

More than the exact sequence, what matters most is the mindset behind as shown by the subsequent example.

  1. Take a deep breath. Your prefrontal cortex badly needs it ☺.
  2. Ask a curious “why” i.e. shut up and listen ☺. Then probe for more arguments keeping in mind that a newly born idea cannot be as polished as an established one. Remember, Steve Jobs advises being tender ☺!
  3. Introspect: Understanding your inner dynamic at that exact moment will help find a path to openness. What is bugging you? Your current belief system? Social image? Leaving your comfort zone? Your incompetence in a new area? Fear?
  4. Trigger hindsight: Take some time to consider the idea from different angles: sleep on it, ask somebody you trust, do your homework (read, watch videos…), seek nuance… and remember maybe both what you think to be true and what the person in front you is stating can coexist. Consider the AND vs. the OR.
  5. Be an ACTIVE skeptic: it’s your right to be skeptical. It does not mean it will always serve you. If the size of the prize justifies it, test the idea yourself and see how it goes. I know no better teacher than experience.
  6. Take the final temporary decision ☺. Nothing in life is eternal and so should opinions. Decide what your position is, but remember to keep a small opening for new info and experiences. Maybe you’ll change your mind quicker than you initially thought ☺.
Open Mind — Process to deal with new ideas

The Mindset

Curiosity is about asking the right questions and giving them enough time to take ground. It’s how soil reacts to a seed. Soil doesn’t see the insignificant quantity of matter a seed represents but rather the potential tree it can yield.

That’s exactly what the above process tries to do… Now let’s see a real life…

…Example

I once had a discussion with an ex-colleague on how to gauge recruitment criteria. He was convinced there was no way we can fathom candidates’ true values asking questions. I had a different opinion. Here is how our discussion went. The keywords related to the above process are written in uppercase.

Me: I believe we can fathom candidates’ true values by asking questions.
Him: What you are saying is quite surprising to me (FEELING). I’ve tried it in the past and it didn’t work; candidates will anyway give you an answer they think is satisfactory rather than state what they deeply believe (BELIEFS). WHY do you think it would work?

Me: I agree that direct questions about candidates’ values are not efficient. I’m referring to indirect questions (NUANCE).
Him: Hum… Indirect questions… Can you give me an example (PROBE FOR MORE ARGUMENTS)?

Me: One of the first questions I ask in job interviews is “what is the one thing you did you are most proud of?” I pay close attention to the impetus behind the answer. I once had 2 candidates shortlisted. One of them answered “I’m proud of having been promoted twice in the same job”; no focus on what value she brought to the company, colleagues or community and a clear focus on self-importance. That’s exactly what I don’t want inside the company. The second candidate answer was more in line with how I see the world. It was related to helping disadvantaged couples organize their wedding party. You know wedding parties are not my cup of tea but guess which one I hired ☺?
Him: Um… The second I’m sure…

Me: Yes. Just make sure you do not focus on the example but rather the motivation behind it.
Him: This question looks powerful, do you have others to share (SKILLS)?

Me: Yes there are a few. I’ve summarized them in an article I can share with you. But here is another one right away: “Tell me about a time you broke the rules”. Breaking the rules is often a characteristic of successful people, yet they have to take special care of respecting others in the process. Usually, the candidate is so excited and proud about proving s/he does not bind to conformism that s/he reveals insightful information about which values are sacrificed first in the race to greatness.
Him: Looks nice. But I really need to give it a second thought (HINDSIGHT) and maybe also give it a try (TEST)…


See how the above ingredients can yield significant gain of trust and time. My colleague could have gone on for years interviewing like he always did. There is no apparent miracle happening, it’s all about gaining time and reacting faster than most others. And over time, the cumulative effect of delaying adoption is huge. Here is a self-explanatory equation I love!


Quick Side-note on what an Open Mind is not

Coming back to the definition:

Open Mind = ability to welcome what is not usual; be it habits, believes or values.

Welcoming is not accepting… Accepting requires validation. Having an Open Mind does not dictate we must adopt any new idea. We need to give it a chance, dig a little bit through questioning and action before rejecting or adopting it.


Final thought

Each time we resist new ideas. Each time we resist change. What we are actually doing is giving more importance to our habits than anything else including business, personal growth, family, well being… Click to tweet

Final Question

Final Tweet

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one – Malcolm FORBES
Click to tweet

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

And remember to see the tree in the seed… ☺

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