The secret of Sho Shin

It means “Beginner’s Mind,” and it changes everything.

Mike Troiano
May 22 · 3 min read

Ever meet a VC who acts like they know everything? There seems a great temptation to pretend you do in our business. I’m not sure where it comes from… maybe the desire to appear to LPs as some kind of Master of Risk, maybe the arrogance you build over time by working in a business that delivers huge rewards to people who are right one time in ten, so long as they’re right enough. Maybe it’s just a misguided attempt at convincing entrepreneurs you’re someone they want to work with. Regardless, I’ve often felt pressure to feign mastery of concepts I don’t really understand well enough to explain to other people, or to come to quick judgements and offer counsel to entrepreneurs as though it were some kind of revealed truth.

It’s not just VCs, of course. All leaders feel this pressure, and most people who either find themselves or aspire to be at the top of whatever social or economic hierarchy they’re a part of feel it as well.

And while certainly not exclusive to White men, it’s hard to argue we’re not at least a little more willing to present ourselves as an Expert on topics we don’t actually know much about.

I like to think I succumb to this pressure less than most, or at least that I’m a little more plugged in to the danger of it. I’m not shy about telling someone I don’t understand, about asking for help. I offer my opinions with a degree of humility. I try to withhold judgement until I cross what Colin Powell called “the 60% threshold,” in his brilliant explanation of what makes a great General.

If you’ve never heard it… Powell said a General is someone who can make good decisions with 60% information. Those who decided at 40% were too often wrong, and those who waited til 80% were too often late.

The point is I’m conscious of the damage closed-mindedness and overconfidence — call it the “expert mindset” — can do, in the macro sense of one’s life and career, but also in the micro sense of closing you off to new information and learning, to the personal growth that only comes from new experiences.

This is a universal idea, of course, but the Japanese actually have a word for the antidote to this problem, and it is Sho Shin.

Sho Shin… which roughly translates to “Beginner’s mind” is defined as “A state of openness and wonder that allows a person to approach life unfettered by the preconceptions, biases or habits associated with knowledge and experience.”

Beginner’s Mind frees me from the constraints of my own bullshit. It lets me relax into new experiences, to overcome the anxiety I often feel through the awkward phases of something new. Sho Shin helps me see the virtue in not knowing something, in a world, and in a job, that too often rewards the knowing.

Work toward Beginner’s Mind as you approach something new today. I’ll be doing the same.

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