Polymaths embody the beginner mindset, which is actually far more useful than the expert mindset. When you’re a beginner, you have ten times more questions than answers. And that’s a good thing. It makes you listen and question and dig deeper.
Experts all too often fall into the trap of assuming they know too much, which inevitably causes blind spots. The beginner mindset should be applied in combination with critical thinking, and together they create a worthy line of inquiry.
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The mindset of a beginner—even to the point of considering yourself a novice or amateur in something you’ve been familiar with for years—is extremely beneficial in helping you view the world as a learning grounds to continually develop your self and embrace the need for mental flexibility.
By definition, any beginner is experimenting with something new and is also attempting to be open-minded, no matter the motivation.
Polymaths might seem to be multifaceted experts, but there’s a problem with that perspective.
A common misconception 54 about being an “expert”—even among experts—is that it implies you don’t have to learn anything anymore.
You’ve reached the fullest extent of knowledge possible in a given situation, and any suggestion that you could still learn more is almost insulting.
You think—or feel—that you’ve already transcended all limitations and that there’s nowhere to go but down.
However, ideally, there’s not much difference between a beginner’s mindset and an expert’s.
That’s because when someone decides they want to become an expert on any subject, the first thing they have to accept is that they will never stop learning about that subject.
Long after they’ve established themselves as an authority, they will still be learning and discovering just how much they still don’t know.
A true expert never stops wanting to fill in those gaps.
The expert and the beginner therefore share an openness to new knowledge and insight.
The beginner’s mindset is drawn from the Zen Buddhist concept Shoshin, described as “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, 55 and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.” Every time you come across a new or even a familiar situation, no matter how shopworn or streetwise you think you are, reorient yourself to experiencing it as a beginner.
Release all of your preconceived notions or expectations about the experience.
Treat it with curiosity and a sense of wonder, as if you were seeing it for the first time.
As a quick illustration, imagine you see a herd of zebras outside of your bedroom window—hopefully a novel situation for you.
Once you get over your initial shock, what are your initial observations and questions? Does this situation remind you of something you’re already familiar with or have seen in a movie, perhaps? You’d try to make sense of it all and construct a narrative to understand it.
What happened beforehand, and what will happen after? What details are surprising or downright 56 odd when you think beyond first glance? You’d certainly focus on questions of “why” and “how.” You would probably also be overwhelmed with sensation and stimuli.
You’d have many more questions than answers, and you’d be fixated on trying to figure out the logistics and probabilities of such an occasion.
In other words, you’re approaching this herd of zebras with a sense of wonder and openness.
On the other hand, looking outside and seeing an errant bird or squirrel certainly won’t evoke the same sense of interest or curiosity.
Now let’s take another example of learning how to play a new instrument.
What questions would you ask? Where would you even start? You wouldn’t know what is and isn’t important, so everything would seem significant at first.
You’d probably be curious as to the limits of the instrument— first in how to not break it, and then in its overall capabilities.
You’d be filled with wonder and also caution for fear of making an error or breaking it.
Again, you’d have so many questions, and the answers you 57 receive wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface.
You won’t forget the immediate impression the instrument makes on you for a very long time.
Those are the underpinnings of the beginner mindset.
When you reprogram your mind to a blank slate and act as if you truly have no knowledge about something, you’ll engage in extensive, curious questioning, and knowledge will come far easier than in acting like you already have the answers.
It should be emphasized that the polymath beginner’s mindset empowers the ability to ask dumb questions.
So-called experts rely on assumptions and their own experiences, often without further investigation.
When you feel comfortable asking dumb questions, nothing is left up to assumptions and chance, and everything is out in the open and clarified.
Experts and polymaths can sometimes have blind spots because of patterns they’re familiar with from other fields, but those may not always apply in novel situations.
58 You can approach both new and familiar situations with this same principle.
Next time you’re driving a car, try noticing the things you would automatically do otherwise and say them out loud to yourself.
Along with that, focus on what you sense when you’re behind the wheel but have long since stopped paying attention to: the ridges in the steering wheel, the glow of the dashboard odometer, or the sound of the air-conditioner.
Even these crushingly insignificant details could unlock and reveal some new element or impression that you’ve never experienced before.
Overall, the beginner’s mindset requires slowing down, setting aside preconceived notions, and paying attention to what you’ve ignored for a long time.