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How to Practice Active (not Passive) Open-Mindedness

A simple, 2-step method to help you learn and unlearn more effectively, and gain a stronger body of knowledge in the process.

For all the lip service that we tend to give the concept of “an open mind”, I have found that it both (a) isn’t clearly and consistently defined (b) there is no good set of instructions for how to develop and keep an open mind.

For the most part, I think that we tend to conceive of an open mind as simply being willing to try new things or tolerate people or opinions who are different. But what I mean when I say open mind is more robust than that. I call it being actively open-minded. By actively open minded I mean possessing the following 2 traits:

  1. The ability to quickly and nimbly integrate new information into your current set of beliefs.
  2. The willingness to change your existing beliefs according to the strength of evidence that supports them.

Those of us who consider ourselves as “lifelong learners” have likely honed the first trait quite well. But the second trait— effectively the ability to change your mind — is challenging for many. And often, the more educated you take yourself to be, the more research you have done and the more intellectual milestones you have reached, the harder it is to be willing to change your mind.

So my advice here is less about developing the first trait, because I think most of us have an idea of how to learn a bunch of stuff, and begin weaving it into the fabric of our existing knowledge. What I will focus on is how to be ready, willing, and able to change your mind about things, and how to stay that way.

The Method

I’ve met a great many people who have claimed (often proudly) that their beliefs are supported by rationality. But what that often means is simply that they have a structured argument for their beliefs, which includes some sort of evidence to support them. That is a great start, and that kind of structure should always be in place to support one’s beliefs, but with the buffet of available evidence for any given belief, it’s not enough.

What I am suggesting is an additional 2 steps, in order to take you further down the line of being open-minded. These steps are simple, and steeped in discussions that were going on during the mid-20th century about how to do good science. They are as follows:

  1. For any position you take on an important subject, have a clear idea of what evidence — if you were presented with it — would make you change your mind.
  2. Look for that evidence on a regular basis by interacting with people who disagree with your position, and consuming media that presents evidence against your position.

The first step is one that people rarely do when they take up a position on an issue. Many of us go our whole lives simultaneously telling people both: “prove me wrong”, but also never clearly laying out what would actually prove us wrong. As a result, we tend to dismiss evidence that contradicts our positions, and we lose valuable opportunities to engage in enriching discussions that can only help us grow intellectually.

Like any habit worth picking up, this requires two things: an attitude change and practice. But if you do it at the beginning of a tough debate, or as you begin to write about your take on something, it can be an absolute game-changer.

The second step is one that some people just flat out don’t do, and much to their detriment. In the realm of social and political issues, people tend to stay within the echo chambers of media that supports their given ideology. That allows them to hide themselves from any possible challenge to their beliefs because they simply don’t encounter it in their chosen media buffet. In the realm of academia, researchers can get trapped in literature reviews of journals that tend to publish very similar articles from scholars that agree, and that can also cause a lack of exposure to the broader marketplace of ideas.

For those of us who are neither political junkies nor scholars, we can tend to simply get trapped in our own belief systems by not venturing out of our intellectual spheres. In the same way we tend to get into routines where we grab lunch from the same place, watch the same kinds of movies, we can end up only read books by the same group of authors, about the same subjects, or getting involved in the same kinds of projects. We build, hop into, and tape shut our own intellectual boxes.

The alternative approach is to make time to venture outside of your normal reading, viewing, or listening. Look up podcasts that might contradict your views on things. Research notable detractors from your position. And thanks to the first step, you can do this in a targeted fashion — armed with specific evidence and topics to look for: the stuff that would prove you wrong.

Active Open-mindedness, Simply Stated

To put the principle simply, here is the way to practice active open-mindedness: Be ready, willing, and able to change your mind about things by clearly defining what evidence would prove you wrong and actively looking for it. Side effects may include: higher degree of intelligence, increased humility, better critical reading and listening skills, and more original point-of-view.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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