Don’t let your own brilliance get in the way

shoshin, expertise trap, open mind, learn, self improvement

Thomas Edison had a very interesting way of interviewing his research associates. He asked them to eat a bowl of soup.

He watched them avidly as they started eating the soup. Some of them just tasted the soup. The others added in salt or pepper, sometimes both before they tasted it. The group that seasoned their soup before tasting it were eliminated. The others moved on to the next round.

What was Edison trying to look for in his candidates?

He was looking for people with an open mind. The candidates who seasoned their soup before tasting it, were assuming that the soup will be under seasoned. It was Edison’s strong belief that, “Assumptions are made and most assumptions are wrong”.

Edison was definitely onto something with his creative interview process.

Did you know that the best learners and innovators are children? Why is that so?

The prefrontal cortex part of the brain, that is responsible for gathering information from our surroundings and processing it, is well -developed in adults. What this means is, as adults, we have had more experiences. The brain learns from these experiences and stores information, making us better tuned to avoid accidents, make better decisions or plans based on the information we have.

But this also means, we have functional fixation. That is, when we see a box, we see it as a box.

If you’ve ever seen a child play with a box, you would’ve noticed that the child sees the box much more than what it is. It becomes a space ship, a house, a car. The under developed prefrontal cortex, offers the child the flexibility to see an object or a situation in multiple ways.

In short, the brain of an adult is designed for better performance and a brain of a child is designed for better learning and creativity.

What are the problems of functional fixation?

The social, religious and political views of people around us mold and shape our views. The way we approach our life, the systems we put in place, are all a direct reflection of our ingrained views. We keep following what we have been doing without analyzing, if it is the right way to do it.

There is a reason why we keep doing things a certain way, all the time. We are trapped in “expertise”.

Our expertise tag is well earned. We have worked hard to understand an industry , a concept, a system, an art. We have gone through ups and downs in life. Now, we know too much. We know what works, what doesn’t. We believe there is only one way to do things right, and that is our way.

As experts we knew, the earth was flat and the sun and the planets revolved around it. As experts, we knew carrying around a computer was just silly and we also knew, everyone will want to see and touch a product before buying them.

We knew and Copernicus, Galileo, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos didn’t.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

How do we escape the expertise trap?

There is a word in zen buddhism called ‘Shoshin’. It means ‘beginners mind’. It’s the attitude of having curiosity, eagerness and lack of pre-conceived notions or assumptions when learning.

The means to escape from the expertise trap is to practice Shoshin.

In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts mind there are few.

Zen master Shunryo Suzuki

How do we practice Shoshin?


When was the last time you listened to someone talk without wanting to interrupt them with one of your valuable inputs? Assuming we have better ideas, more to offer in a conversation, prevents us from learning anything new.

Just by putting our egos, pre-conceived notions and judgements aside, we learn, connect and foster better relationships all at once. Listening is the simplest way we can practice Shoshin in our lives.

Ask Questions

Socrates was one of the leading followers of the Shoshin mindset. He always said “all I know is that I know nothing”. This attitude alone made him one of the greatest philosophers we know. The Socratic method, rightly named after Socrates, is a method of teaching by asking questions.

It is an attempt to expose the inconsistencies or the loop holes in our beliefs and then overcome them. It is a critical, creative way to approach problems and solutions.

One way we can apply the Socratic method to our life, is to question everything in your life. Your beliefs, your systems. Don’t accept anything, simply because that is how it was always done. Question why something is done the way it is done.

This article shows clearly how the socratic method can be applied to our lives.

Get a different perspective

In many ways I am like Hermoine. My solution to anything is “read a book”.

We cannot underestimate the impact, books can have on our lives. Whatever you could think about, somebody thought about, already.

The easiest way to get multiple perspectives from the world’s best thinkers is to pick up a book. A close second is listening, but we spoke about that already.

Different perspectives will help us look at things differently instead of just black or white. Suddenly, there will be grey area and a box will no longer just be a box.

You might also like to read about how learning improves our chances of success.

Posted by

I’m a bookworm, mom and have a daytime job that involves computers and tons of data. I believe we have the power to make our lives better and the right time to start is now.

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