Shoshin, Fiction, and a Nostalgic Catamaran Ride

I read somewhere that if you’re not learning continuously, you’re not moving forward; You’re not still; Instead, you’re moving backward.

Learning is a continuous process.

If you’re an expert on something, you should keep learning to stay an expert. Because everything we’ve learned doesn’t stay the same. It keeps changing with time. But most of us assume that we’ve learned enough and shut ourselves from new ideas and perspectives as we become older.

Our thirst for knowledge feels quenched after we attain a certain position or a goal that we’ve been wanting to achieve. It can be a degree from our dream college or the job we’ve always wanted. This is the reason we might have come across stories where the theories of an executive (who is in the highest ranks) would’ve been debunked by an intern or a newbie who just joined the company.

Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk who popularized Buddhism in the United States, says that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The key to being smart and keeping up with the latest in a field is possible only by having an open mind. Zen Buddhism calls this mindset “Shoshin”, which translates to ‘beginner’s mind’.

Steve Jobs would’ve talked about a version of ‘Shoshin’ in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech.

Remember him staying “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”?

It indirectly touches upon the concept of ‘Shoshin’. After all, Steve was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.


‘Shoshin’ refers to approaching a subject with openness and without any preconceived notion.

Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean accepting all the worldviews and opinions. It refers to having the mindset to absorb and distill all perspectives and using them to form your opinion or summarize your own learning on a subject.

You can’t decide on the best option if you’re already fixated on a choice before even seeing other options.

How would you implement a ‘Shoshin’ mindset?

Researchers and Psychologists have found multiple ways to achieve it. And the first and the most amazing way to do it is by reading fiction!

Imagination is the key to success

George R.R. Martin said,

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Reading fiction is one of the best ways to achieve an open mind. It allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters in a story and makes us empathize more in real life. This was also scientifically proven.

According to a study conducted in 2006, “relating ourselves to the emotions of the characters in a narrative fiction helps us relate to the emotions of our peers in the actual world”.

Reading fiction helps us realize our knowledge gaps; Allows us to empathize more; And, makes us better humans.

The next time you’re setting a goal to read books, try to add a couple of good fiction titles among your non-fiction ones.

Another simple, yet effective way to achieve an open mind is by experiencing awe.

Nature is ‘Awe’ some

When I was twelve, our family with my uncle and cousins took a trip to Poombuhar, a coastal town in Tamilnadu which was once the capital city during the Chola Dynasty.

As I and my cousins played on the shore running away from the waves, my dad called us and told us that he had arranged a surprise for us. When we asked he said he had spoken to two fishermen and arranged for them to take us on a ride in a catamaran.

We were scared and thrilled at the same time. Scared because the catamaran was made of nothing but a few pieces of wood tied together with rope. Thrilled because we were going to go into the sea in that piece of wood.

So the three of us (me and my cousins – almost the same age) got onto the catamaran and the fishermen pushed the piece of wood into the water fighting the ebbing waves.

We did not have life jackets. There was a rope tied to the catamaran and we were asked to hold it and not let go. That was our only safety measure.

Fifteen minutes into the journey, none of us could see our parents on the shore. All we saw was the vast expanse of water around us.

It was scary. But, it also made me realize my position in this world. I realized that I’m just a tiny particle in this vast world.

I often realize how small I am when compared to the world we live in when I encounter nature at its raw self. This happens when I am looking down through the tinted window of an airplane; Standing in front of a huge lake or an ocean; And, recently when I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

The moment you experience awe, your mind opens up. You realize that you’re still a nobody when compared to nature and that puts things into perspective.

Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts openness – that is, a greater willingness to look at things differently and to recognize the gaps in one’s knowledge.

In a study conducted in 2018, people were shown nature videos and a virtual-reality experience of the aurora borealis. It was found that the volunteers who experienced awe were more aware of the gaps in their knowledge.

‘Shoshin’ is also referred to as the practice of looking at life with wonder.

So, the next time you come across a new concept or an opinion, approach it with openness. Instead of approaching it with a preconceived notion, approach it like a beginner, who knew nothing about the topic.

And, once in a while make time to visit the ocean, a mountain range, or a take a ride on the boat (if possible, a catamaran). It will put things in perspective. Whenever I feel like I am overconfident or I know everything, I always think about the time I was in that catamaran, surrounded by an infinite expanse of water.

I could hear the ocean whispering “You’re a nobody. You’re just a human.”

Image: Shot by me in 2011