The Art and Science of Open-Mindedness

One of the keys to coming up with great ideas — the kind that drive change and make a difference — is being open-minded.

Being open-minded is about being receptive. It means being receptive to ideas that are odd, unfamiliar, possibly even repulsive. You welcome all, and push away none. It means being patient with oddball theories and bold claims when others don’t care to entertain them. Because of these traits, you are more creative, more innovative, and thus bring more value to whatever you do.

But you can’t just be open-minded, anymore than you can just be muscular. You can’t just wake up one day and say I’m going to be open-minded today! Rather you have to do something — a bunch of things — to open your mind. You need to develop mental habits that help overturn established ones. Opening the mind, and keeping it open, is an intensive and ongoing activity.

Below are a few pillars of the art and science of being open-minded.

Ditch the Backfire Reflex & Confirmation Bias

Too often, we reject unfamiliar ideas because we feel threatened by them. There’s a name for the feeling that underlies this; it’s called the backfire effect. It basically says that when you present information to someone that conflicts with a closely held belief, the result tends to be that rather than changing the belief due to information that conflicts with it, they more tightly cling to it — rejecting the information they just received.

If anything can be said to be the barrier to open-mindedness, it’s the backfire effect — or more accurately, its direct ancestor: confirmation bias. We tend to seek information that confirms our beliefs. We tend to either actively turn away or just ignore information that challenges our beliefs. As a result, we tend to keep the same set of beliefs, generate the same types of ideas, and we become less innovative in our thinking.

One way to do this is to adopt a falsification mindset. Basically, this involves taking the attitude that you are attempting to find evidence that conflicts with your strongly held beliefs. If you find it, what a great mind-opening experience! If you don’t, you get the benefit of having honestly strengthened your position. Either way, you have taken a real look at many more diverse ideas that you otherwise would have.

Develop a Healthy Relationship Between Your Identity and Your Beliefs

There’s a clear danger when who you are comes from what you believe. This is part of why politics is so contentious and divisive — people’s beliefs about the topic are tied closely to their core conceptions of who they are as people. The same holds true for spirituality.

But this happens in areas other than the political and religious. We tend to focus only on certain areas of scholarly interest. We limit ourselves because we consider only our immediate interests as worth pursuing. Doing that pigeon-holes your intellectual and creative development.

You are not your beliefs. You are also not your interests or expertise. When you think in that way, you leave yourself open to so many new and useful ideas.

Abandon the Lust for Expertise

Expertise is great, but there are severe drawbacks to it. When you regard yourself as an expert at something, you tend to have a large body of knowledge that you take for granted. You tend to ask fewer questions, because your working assumption is that you know quite a bit. When you ask fewer questions, you leave little room for new and creative ideas.

So while it is tempting to want to gain expertise in something, and while it feels great to have a great deal of knowledge, it places a cap on where else you can go in the realm of ideas. Abandon the lust for expertise, and find open the realm of innovation and creativity.

Question the received wisdom. Ask yourself why the things you take for granted are so very obvious to you (are they?). Even if you find that you can’t shake your belief in them (which is fine), the very act of re-examining them will be enlightening.

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