The more one leans towards ego, the further one is from mastery.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Shoshin (初心) is the beginner's mind. Derived from Zen Buddhism, it is the quintessential mindset for learning. It is openness, eagerness, and the lack of preconceptions, no matter the level of study.
The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Left to its own devices, it gets distracted and cluttered. To discard the clutter, one must surrender their ego and their fixed identity and become formless. (In education, this is known as growth vs. fixed.) Surrendering of oneself does not mean the loss of autonomy, it means being challenged to grow — growing through humility, learning through service, becoming a student and figuratively (and sometimes literally) bowing to another. To keep the clutter (心猿 "monkey mind") at bay, one must replace it with shoshin, the devoted student. Removing the clutter brings focus, but the beginner's mind maintains it.
Becoming a student is a skill in the same way resilience is a skill; it grows stronger the more you are challenged. For leadership to be democratic, one must voluntarily allow another to lead. This challenges one's ego, but this ability to pull back is not weakness but quiet strength, it is the same quality an award-winning actor uses in a supporting role. Pushing ahead to be heard when one's knowledge is lacking, or when inappropriate, is the false facade of insecurity. To give up one's control is frightening, but also liberating — this is the duality of learning.
In the Mind of a Child Is Freedom
Nearly everyone is a master to a child. The "monkey" has yet to hijack their minds with confusion and arrogance. One can compare the monkey mind to the behavior of a child, restless and confused. Yet how is the behavior of a model student also like a child?
A child is raw and formless; it can be many things, used in many different contexts. It is the classical analogy, much like water is the perfect metaphor. However, whatever the child is, is yet to be deeply rooted. In the West, one would say they have no "baggage." A child does not have the luxury of a textured past to get in the way of their learning. They are children: they play, learn, move, and think. There are few obstacles for a child. A child wants to hear, the adult wants to speak. A child wants to learn, while the adult has already made up his mind — leading to the same repetitive mistakes. A child acts like a monkey but her mind is serene; an adult may act calm but his mind is like a monkey. The monkey mind is a disease of adolescence — where monkey behavior becomes monkey thinking. If growing up and experience were enough, there would be no bad adult drivers, and we would only become kinder as we grew older. Yet that is not the case, it is not about the age but about the mindset, and we made the most forward leaps as beginners.
Discipline requires humility. Change happens through adaption from imposed demands. Do not cherry-pick the learning process, yield to it. In the example of diet, the classical response is, "I already know what to do, I just need to do it" — this is the rejection of learning and the embracing of anti-knowledge. Through the service economy, there are no more students, just customers — never giving up control, the priority on being right rather than making beneficial changes. Then the "customer" must continuously look for a service provider who can not only do it the way they want, but still create different results than what they have gotten. This behavior is not exclusive to diet/ exercise; it is an observation of a greater system of thinking (or the avoidance of thinking). But many refined diners have learned, sometimes their experience is best when it is omakase (お任せ) "chef's choice."
One can learn martial arts from a book, but the effectiveness of the book won't nearly be that of a good teacher's. One's ego will sabotage one's happiness, one's personal life, one's educational life, one's financial life, one's professional life, one's spiritual life, and the legacy one leaves behind. It's not rational, it doesn't care about the best outcome or the most return for time and energy. Ego and mastery exist on opposite ends of the same continuum. The more one leans towards ego, the further one is from mastery.
The Value of a Teacher
There are those who believe the closest relationship and bond outside of family is that of friendship, and consider the relationship between student and teacher to be a distant relationship — transactional. Teacher-student, yin-yang, it is a bond of mutual respect rather than blind loyalty. Unlike the relationships we are accustomed to, this is not a relationship of companionship, but a relationship of influence. We go to the weddings of our friends, but when recognized for our achievements, it is most often that we thank our teachers above even our friends. We curate our friends, we decide who we allow in; but our teachers curate us and help mold us into the people we become. The archaic term for teacher is master, the one who aids in mastery.
How many of our relationships exist on a hollow level? But a teacher's bond cannot be hollow, since it is not a necessity for work or living, there must be a greater benefit. Teachers tell us the things we do not want to hear. When we write a story or draw a picture and give it to friends, asking what they think, we are unconsciously asking for approval and compliment. When we give this same work to teachers, they will tell us how to improve it. Initially, this can create an adversarial relationship if we do not put into context what we are trying to get out of this exchange. Teachers are not our enablers or accomplices, they promise us objectivity (a valuable tool for improvement). They are not our therapist, quite the opposite; they talk, we listen. They aren't afraid of losing our friendship because they are not our friends — it's a collaboration. The teacher's ability to shape and influence is what makes them so invaluable. Teachers encourage and sadly we have forgotten what that means, to push into courage. That's the beauty of the teacher-student bond.
Authentic teachers (beyond just the scope of classrooms) will not teach arbitrarily, it is up to us to solicit them for their knowledge. When looking within ourselves, how frequently do we try to teach others or offer advice without permission? Attempting to influence others when they do not wish to be controlled is not just a struggle, it is also a violation. Asking for help, the consent, makes all the difference — but once you ask, give in and listen.
The only words many Asian masters learn in English is, "Shut the mouth." It may be the only words they need. Close your mouth and open your heart. It is a universal idea.
We need teachers but if we believe they owe us something, why would they help us? They are autonomous, sentient beings with lives of their own, just like us. They do not need us, yet we often need them. When one calls strangers in positions of power and ask for favors, few will say yes. When you build a relationship first, show them you value their time, that you only want to learn and are seeking their expertise, more will say yes than you think. Trying to extract what you want without consideration for others makes you a user of people, and that arrogance will be burn bridges for a lifetime.
Play the Student
A famous actor once explained to a room full of aspiring drama students, his role as a supporting actor: make the best possible movie. He cannot allow his ego to interfere, he must pull back and allow the lead actor to shine. If he outshines the star, he may steal the scene, but the movie itself will suffer for it. When it is his turn to lead, he knows to step forward — as he has spent his time supporting from behind. This skill has served his career well.
I have played student more often than I have played master, and my life has been richer for it. Even an insect has something to teach, it may be minute, but it may add texture to our understanding, challenge our perspective, or it may just confirm our suspicions. Sometimes the lesson comes in less apparent ways, as a cautionary tale of what not to do and how not to behave. Maybe the lesson is in how someone presents the information; their information could be wrong but they are a great teacher, or speaker, or manipulator. Maybe allowing them to teach gives them the confidence they need to prepare more, to teach better.
A teacher can save you from self-inflicted pain, save you time, and guide you away from the dangerous paths.
To achieve mastery without a guide is futility. You will learn to do it the wrong way perfectly. All graduate students have an adviser, all martial artists have a sensei (sifu, kru, sabunim, etc.), and even masters have masters. Elite CEO's surround themselves with masterminds; it can be an organization or a board. Every study done on practice has concluded that the quantity of practice is subservient to mindset and having the right teacher. Would Magnus Carlsen be one of the youngest world chess champions without Garry Kasparov? Would Mozart be Mozart if his father wasn't one of the most renowned teachers of music of his day? The formula is beginner's mind + the right master + hours of practice + genetic aptitude and luck. (Genetic aptitude we can't control, yet, but luck we can increase with increased attempts.)
Don't look to see who can help you, look to see who you can help. Have more people owe you favors than you owe them. There will come times when that leverage is necessary. (Jon Morrow is a guy who can't move anything other than his face. He wrote for other people's websites for years without pay. When he was ready to start his own business, he cashed in all the favors people owed him. Within a few years he had a million-dollar consulting business.)
I was having lunch with the head writer of a popular network TV show. Since he works with a crop of established writers, I was curious if he could groom them to be even better writers. He said, "Some of them, but most of them already think they know everything, or they give me something they wrote and tell me to make it better. Instead of listening, they're already defending themselves and trying to convince me that I'm the one who needs to change, that the show needs to change. That's not the position we're in, and they've grossly misread the situation. So we have to fire them; there's nothing they can do for us, and nothing I can do for them. Their ego goes against their best interest. Maybe they don't want to work?" The beginner knows how to receive feedback.
In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen writes:
The question many professional sports coaches ask themselves and their coaching staff is, "Is this individual coachable?" And if the answer is no, no matter how talented they are, they have no future with the team. (The motto of coaches: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”) A player's time with the franchise will be temporary, but the legacy they leave behind can last generations. Coaches must be careful whether the legacy is one of achievement or infamy.
Teachers surround us, but we can never see them until we develop the mind of the beginner. If our noses are in the air, we will never see the teachers who pass below our noses. It's hard to see the value of those who are already close, but humbleness brings awareness. Teachers come in all forms, from the prestigious to the seemingly ordinary. They can never impact us for the better until we embrace their experience and knowledge. Guides give us the directions to the places we want to go, but if we never stop teaching, how will we know where to go? (Shut the mouth or learn to do it wrong perfectly.) All of us come from different backgrounds, our opportunities will vary — that is the stark reality of living. Then it is in our best interest to open our eyes to all the opportunities that are already available and to open our ears to all the possibilities that surround us. It is not about how smart we are, but how we are smart. There will always be people smarter than us in certain aspects. It's not a slight against your ego, it's not even to reaffirm your unique intelligence. It is to say, seek out those who know more than you and ask them for help in your development. The beginner's mind is the embodiment of collective wisdom.
Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki addressed his students on zazen (坐禅), the insight into the nature of existence:
When the right student meets the right teacher, amazing things happen. A genuine teacher will not hold you back or be jealous of your success, your success becomes the impact they've left behind, you become part of their legacy. They want you to succeed; in helping you they've done something significant and meaningful for themselves.
Pick My Brain
I have been invited to lunch on numerous occasions by people asking to "pick my brain." In each situation, my time was spent listening to the supposed mentee brag about themselves and their accomplishments and what they are already doing, their best practices. They only pause for me to stop and nod or to tell them, "Nice job." When the lunch is over, they feel good about it, feeling like I've validated everything they've already been doing when I was merely being polite. There was never any interest in my opinion. I am sure they will remember it differently, as we all do when we do this ourselves. All we must do is recount the transcript in our heads and see what new information we were given, what new information we left with. And you may find all you left with is confirmation bias. We think we want advice, we may only be seeking a pat on the shoulder. I no longer accept meals where the only offer is to have my brain picked. And when I type it out, having my brain "picked," sounds pretty awful.
In a 1929 interview for The New York Times, a reader, S.J. Woolf, asked Albert Einstein what he considered “the best formula for success in life.” Einstein responded:
Everyone Believes They Are the Hero
Asking for someone's advice just to bait them into an argument, some would consider that disrespectful, some would consider that an ambush, and for some that's their modus operandi. In their minds, they're the main characters of their mental movie, the underdog heroes, and the world is against them. In everyone else's movie, they're the villains.
We hear the word "mindset" being thrown around, but what they're getting at is the beginner's mind. The mind to start the day as a new challenge with many lessons. The keys to success will never be in textbooks, they are passed down to those who are worthy, to those who are teachable. Not everyone will develop shoshin. For those that attain it, the world will be a wealth of knowledge with more guides than enemies. Sometimes praise and a pat on the head are necessary for motivation, but ultimately fleeting. Information is power because it lasts.
I'm always fascinated when I meet a white belt, who is already a black belt instructor in another discipline. Many will refuse to put on the "white belt" in any situation, whether it's the training hall, a new job, asking for advice, or picking someone's brain. Never be the smartest person in the room, hang out with those above your level. Also recognize how little you know. In doing this, you will increase your worth. Recognize the white belt for what it is, a sign of hope. The only tools a white belt has is time and imagination, which is the secret to their great learning strides. Lose this mindset, and you will stagnate and decay. (Like a seasoned shitty driver.)
The Beginning Is the Most Enjoyable
The most fun we have are those formative years of learning. Everything was new, the excitement was in the newness, that is the nature of experience. There is a joy in cultivating new skills, being able to do something one could not do prior. And there is the camaraderie of going through the learning curve together, a bond beyond mere achievements. There is a kinship in going through the grind, the boring parts, and all the magic moments of the beginning. Not just the people whom you are experiencing this with, but with all of those who have gone before you. Why not continue in this way? Seems a rather dull, unpleasant, and depressing existence if all we deal with is the middle and the end.
If not, there is a dark place waiting for you. Where you ask the world to listen, but you will never feel significant enough. You saved your ego, but you killed the master. Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
There are no other beginners, no causes, and no teachers. In this place, you are alone.
The beginner's mind is open, eager, and lacks preconceptions — no matter the level of study. It is at its heart the mind of a child. A child does not have the luxury of a textured past to get in the way of their learning. They are children: they play, learn, move, and think. They want to hear; the adult wants to speak — leading the adult to the same ends over and over again.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
- Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu
- The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell - Bertrand Russell
- Ideas and Opinions – Albert Einstein
- The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats – William Butler Yeats
- The essential book on growth vs fixed thinking is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. It has been one of the most useful books I've ever read.
- The authoritative book on performance is Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Ericsson is the researcher cited in every book about talent, but he is often taken out of context. In Peak, you will get information that is direct from the research.
- If you're curious about the role of genes and how much you can't control, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein is the most useful
- If you want to increase your ability to receive feedback (an area we are all lacking in), read Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
- The often misquoted "God is dead" quote comes from The Gay Science by the often misunderstood Friedrich Nietzsche