Expertise and the Zen of Raisin Eating

By Noah Polsky, Jump Associates

Jump puts new employees through some unconventional training.

One of the highlights is a guided activity in which each trainee takes 10 minutes to eat one raisin, mindfully observing it, holding it, chewing, and, finally, swallowing. In the first 30 seconds, people typically glance around, trying to work out if they’re the subject of a joke. After a minute, people begin to fidget. Boredom sets in. But then something happens. Eyes light up, smirks form. People start to discover things that they never knew about raisins.

After 5 minutes, raisin-related revelations abound. You might realize that the skin has a totally different flavor than the flesh, or that you salivate when thinking about moving the raisin from one side of my mouth to the other.

“After 5 minutes, raisin-related revelations abound.”

The lesson is clear: by pushing yourself to observe and think about something deeply–by pushing through boredom–you can discover things you could never see before. And just because you are familiar with something, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to learn from it.

Expertise–even in something as simple as eating a raisin–can be a hinderance unless we take care.

Recent social science demonstrates how feeling like an expert impacts people’s behavior. In a series of studies, Professor Victor Ottati devised a number of ways to make some research participants feel smarter and more knowledgeable than others. In one study, for example, some people were given an easy test and told they performed better than average, while others were given a hard test and told they performed poorly. These same people then took a test to determine their open-mindedness.

“The mere feeling of being an expert made people exhibit more close-minded behavior.”

The results were frightening. Those that were given the easy test were less likely to listen to others, say “I don’t know,” or consider alternative viewpoints. The mere feeling of being an expert made people exhibit more close-minded behavior.

Ottati calls this the Earned Dogmatism Effect, in which people think that their expertise earns them the right to be dogmatic about their views. This presents a challenge for organizations that value both knowledge and open-mindedness. How can we encourage employees to grow their expertise, and, at the same time, shun the dogmatism that is often a byproduct of deep knowledge?

“By consciously approaching everyday activities and problems as if we were doing them for the first time, we open ourselves up to new opportunities.”

The Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind, offers an antidote. It urges us to approach life as a beginner does–with openness, curiosity, and a lack of preconceptions. By consciously approaching everyday activities and problems as if we were doing them for the first time, we open ourselves up to new opportunities. As Shunryu Suzuki famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

But simply discussing this concept is not enough. Followers of Zen Buddhism practice regularly, building positive habits over time. In their own ways, the best organizations and teams do the same.

In my time so far at Jump, I’ve felt my own Beginner’s Mind come alive thanks to a number of small but powerful activities and norms that form our culture. Here are three that I hope will serve as thought-starters for teams that want to encourage their own Beginner’s Minds:

  1. Put Curiosity on a Pedestal

Curiosity and wonder is a core tenet of a Beginner’s Mind. Curiosity makes us notice more, take less for granted, and find fresh ideas. But it’s easy for curiosity to fade even in the most varied of jobs.

“Applaud curiosity for curiosity’s sake.”

One simple way to fight this is to applaud curiosity for curiosity’s sake. At Jump, for instance, we carve 20 minutes out of our weekly company-wide meeting to share learnings. Any Jumpster can speak up and share something interesting that they learned in the past week. Learnings can be project-related, but more often they’re not. Topics range from Japanese sword-making, to cryogenics, to the origins of eggplant parmesan. The only goal is to make the group say, “oh, really? That’s interesting!” These weekly bits prime our curious minds, and, perhaps more importantly, remind us that remaining curious is part of what it means to be a Jumpster.

2. Start with “I Don’t Know”

In a culture that values learning, it’s important to track and celebrate new-found knowledge. However, it’s equally important for team members to freely admit when they don’t know something. This can be difficult for high-achieving individuals and teams that often feel pressure to have all the answers. Successful teams actively fight this tendency. They explicitly track what is not known throughout a project, and their senior leaders openly discuss when they don’t yet know the answer to tough questions. The effort to highlight and confront gaps in knowledge, even by resident experts, frames unknowns as exciting challenges rather than embarrassing deficiencies.

3. Seek First-Hand, Real-World Experience

To think like a beginner, we need to set aside our pre-conceived mental models and see things for how they really are. First-hand experience, even of something familiar, can often help. In Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull’s book about leading Pixar, he recounts how his team spent weeks in Paris researching Ratatouille, a film about a Parisian rat who wants to become a chef. They ate in fine dining restaurants, talked to chefs, and explored rat-filled sewers. The team had surely eaten in countless restaurants and cooked many meals before starting their research. But, real-world experience–combined with heightened curiosity and careful observation–helped them capture details and nuance they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Clearly, organizations should celebrate learning and knowledge. But, at the same time, it’s critical to avoid the trappings of expertise, and instead foster a Beginner’s Mind. While specific tactics will vary for each organization, the key is to take regular, tangible action. Why? Because it takes some practice to become an expert, but it takes even more to remain a beginner.