Obama on the Beginner's Mind

Fight biased thinking and cast a wide learning net. The wider the net, the more knowledge you gain.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

The beginner's mind is an attitude of mental nakedness: eager and open, lacking in any preconceptions. Even when dealing with a familiar subject, a beginner's mind remains receptive. You know what you know, but you don't know what you don't. The aim of the beginner's mind is to fill that gap.

Education is the acquiring of new information; this takes listening and thinking. "How do I feel about this information?" "Does this change anything I already believe?" "If I disagree, how and why do I disagree?" The beginner's mind is essential to democracy, a system where parties can and are allowed to disagree. The opposite is authoritarianism.

In a town hall, President Barack Obama said this of higher education:

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either.

To put this into perspective, we must look to Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Obama writes:

The underlying struggle — between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us...

The struggle is to dismiss those who are not like us: do not think like us or look like us.

On being well-rounded, Obama said:

The purpose of college is not just … to transmit skills. It’s also to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen, to help you to evaluate information, to help you make your way through the world, to help you be more creative.
A young Barack Obama at Harvard Law School

A young Barack Obama at Harvard Law School

On broadening horizons, Obama said:

Because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn’t agree with you and had different backgrounds from you … I started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind. Sometimes I realized, maybe I’ve been too narrow-minded; maybe I didn’t take this into account; maybe I should see this person’s perspective. That’s what college, in part, is all about.

The beginner's mind, shoshin (初心), is a Zen Buddhist concept. When we take age-old wisdom, it becomes abstract over time because we lose context. For it to be useful, we must define it in contemporary terms. President Obama's explanation of education is the beginner's mind in modern language. The essence remains true: fight biased thinking and cast a wide learning net. The wider the net, the more knowledge you gain. The tendency will be to head out with a small hoop net, and since it is convenient to carry and easy to fill, we will think it should be easy, and that there isn't much fish to catch. If we catch just one fish, we will be convinced we caught the only fish in the sea. We will think we are a genius when we are only just a fool.

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