Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could retrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Learning how to learn is an essential skill. If you’re still in school, it can help you take advantage of a broken educational system enough to make that degree worth more than a piece of paper. After school, knowing how to learn becomes even more important as it separates those destined for the dead-end of middle management from the ambitious individuals who rise to the top.
We are living in an age of revival, when the once archaic idea of the jack-of-all-trades Renaissance man has returned to a status that exceeds its former glory. It’s no longer enough to learn a specialized skill set, get hired, and retire 40 years later having worked for one company your entire life. The average employee stays at each job for only 4.4 years, which means that adaptability and a broad skill set are the most valuable assets to possess. If you’re looking to find freedom in self-employment, this point is only emphasized further because the modern entrepreneur is a master of multitasking. They’re the C.E.O, the marketer, the customer service rep, the artist, the social media expert, and the accountant. An ability to learn quickly and deeply is the only way to thrive in this dynamic environment.
Luckily, there is a wealth of tools and resources to facilitate ‘aftermarket education’. Youtube, TED talks, Wikipedia, Massively Open Online Courses, and blogs weave a robust network to fuel your growth. Without the right attitude, though, all this wonderful content becomes useless.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept called Shoshin (初心), which translates to “Beginner’s Mind.” It suggests that the best way to learn is to take the perspective of an absolute novice, by understanding and accepting that you know nothing. This confession of ignorance stimulates an intense curiosity; by knowing nothing we feel driven to learn anything and everything. It also leaves us open to the teachings of others because our ego no longer gets in the way of communication. Even as an expert in a subject, adopting the beginner’s mind refreshes your perspective, and allows you to see the same challenges without the associations and expectations that typically define your approach.
In trying to live this practice myself, I have found massive impacts not only on my academic life but also in my social experience. Instead of spending conversations trying to share my opinion and prove my point right, I dedicate more time to listening and understanding those around me. By admitting that I know nothing, I’m eager to learn what people have to say. Shoshin is the mastery mindset, one simple change that will help you to flourish in a fluid world where information is the most valuable commodity.
Acknowledging that we know nothing is the first step to knowing everything.
Recommended Reading: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shinryu Suzuki