This is the third in a five-part series. The second is here.
It's one thing to verbally parse insights dropped by the Dale Carnegies of the world; it's quite another to internalize them. I think of this as Dale's Theory-Practice Gap, or, more academically, The Problematic of the Dale Praxis. It's pretty common to read or hear an idea and think, "Hey, I'd do better if I acted on that." It's almost as common to understand the idea and think and write about it yourself; hell, that's a big chunk of what I do here. But does any of this translate to patching the idea into your own code? Hard to say.
What gets in the way? The lingering detritus that junks up all our minds, I suspect: unreasonable but unreconsidered preconceptions, plastered-over knowledge gaps, unhelpful but comfortable habits of thinking. The paranoia of the meek that sees sources of potential embarrassment everywhere. The cultural and intellectual siege mentality of the subconsciously self-considered elite. The solipsism of the once-"gifted" kid. It's this kind of nonsense that makes me wish brains had manual override switches.
Having cleared away all that stuff must be what Zen Buddhists mean by "beginner's mind," about which Shunryu Suzuki had much to say:
In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means "beginner's mind." The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it.It occurs to me that a beginner's mind toward other people is exactly what the social maladroit lacks. If you keep stumbling over the fallen assumptions you've failed to juggle, you won't have a lot of attention left for pure interest. Dare I invoke the tired word "openmindedness," to which we give such unending lip service?
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You should not lose your self‑sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself.
Just as the near-epic challenge of developing a Dale Carnegie-style "genuine interest in other people" often goes unacknowledged, it seems to me that people tend to be wrong in the same way about openmindedness — or empty-mindedness, ready-mindedness, or beginner's-mindedness, or shoshin-mindedness. Whatever you think of Zen Buddhists, at least they don't sugar-coat the struggle to attain it. The way I hear it thrown around in the mainstream, you'd think it was something you could just decide to "be."
I would submit that, like anything worthwhile, cultivating this sort of receptive mind demands actual sacrifices. I've mourned living people due to to their unwillingness or inability to understand this. If I could only frame life in one way, I'd frame it as the constant pushing outward of one's own comfort zone, with all the attendant risks. If you're not doing that, you are, in some sense, dead. With constrained interests, you're similarly dead. Without the willingness to separate your interests from your identity, from your various prejudices and from any other of the aforementioned lingering brain garbage? Dead. At least it makes me feel dead.
Note that interest ≠ admiration. Being interested in something or someone, as we all know but maybe don't often remember, doesn't mean you have to like it. But haven't you heard people hem and haw about how they're not interested in person, place or thing x because don't think they'll like it? It's a strange conflation, one that makes a kind of sense on an intuitive level but absolutely none when even casually examined. You see it happen a lot with art and culture ("Ulysses? Aw, forget it"), but I find it doubles down in plain old society. It feels so natural to avoid working up an interest in people you doubt you'll really like.
As frequently as I quote Terence on these matters, some humans, alas, remain totally alien to me: Netflix user reviewers, for instance, who seem as slow, pedantic and obtuse as they accuse most great movies of being. Social media marketers, of whose existence as sentient beings I have seen no persuasive evidence. And I'm absolutely convinced that I'd have a more fruitful discussion with an 80-year-old Dinka tribesman than an SEO consultant.
So this is all much easier said than done, but it's a problem worth working on. If there's one thing I've realized for sure about the lack of interest in developing social adeptness and an inclination for broad engagement with the outside world, it's that, to the extent that someone doesn't straighten it out, they are so fucked.
Stay tuned for the thrilling Part IV of The Plight of the Social Maladroit, tomorrow on The War on Mediocrity.