Expertise, Psychology, Something completely different

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities…

State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” Thomas Jefferson wrote this in 1787, but his words remain relevant. Advanced education often narrows our perspective, obstructing our ability to fully evaluate new information or to adapt well to life’s changing circumstances. What we think we know may keep us from grasping new things we need to understand. Zen masters of old likened our capacity to understand to a water bowl: its purpose may be to hold water, but it is only useful to the extent that it is empty. Here’s a real-life example of this metaphor…

In 2012, the 15 year-old inventor Jack Andraka made a scientific discovery and wrote to 200 top doctors and cancer researchers at the National Institute of Health and Johns Hopkins University. He discovered a new test for lung, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. His test was 168 times faster, 26,000 times cheaper and over 400 times more sensitive than the standard test used by doctors. A fast, sensitive and accurate cancer test costing only $0.03 vs. nearly $800 for the standard test is an innovation which, at the very least deserved a closer look. However, his 200 letters received only one positive reply. The fact that 99.5% of cancer doctors failed to recognize this innovation – shows an egregious failure of expertise.

These experts’ bowls were unable to receive any fresh water – because they were already full. Zen masters instruct their students always to cultivate the mind (or heart) of the beginner. As Shunryu Suzuki put it, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.

For educated grown-ups, the life-long challenge is to build up expertise, but at the same time cultivate the heart of the beginner so that fresh water can always displace the stale water in our bowls. I think the best way to go about this is to consciously devote a part of our time to playing with whatever attracts us – playing as a child would – with no thought of gain in money or prestige. Simply, by taking time to play for play’s sake. After all, life is playful. All nature is playful.

Alex Krainer is an author and hedge fund manager based in Monaco. Recently he has published the book “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading“.

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