Instead Of Open Or Closed, Dial Your Mind To Active – Forbes

Posted: July 21, 2020 at 12:37 pm


Changing an opinion after thinking the wrong way is hard. So is sticking to correct beliefs in the face of opposition. Both actions take courage. The challenge is knowing when to concede or dig in, especially when confronting deep personal biases intertwined with feelings.

I faced my own struggle to separate emotion from reason while growing up in Mumbai, where the test of right or wrong had more to do with group reputation than anything else. The phrase drilled into me was log kya kahenge, which means: What will people say?

What will people say if I wear Western-style clothes, choose my own boyfriend or get a job outside the home? How will my behavior reflect on others? Your actions are unbefitting for a woman, and you bring us shame, my parents and extended family members would tell me.

Many authority figures wielded terms like community and society as weapons of guilt to force compliance. Eventually I learned to push back. But the negativity associated with the collectivist tenets stayed with me for decades, even after I crossed an ocean and started a new life in the United States.

As an economist, I cared about free market principles, and studied innovation and entrepreneurship in the for-profit realm of introducing new products and services. I had little thought for social innovation, even dismissing it as not worthy of study. That was then. Over time my views changed, as I compared new information to prior experience.

One breakthrough came when I realized that the founding principles in my new country represented a profound type of social innovation. The grand documents on individual liberty that inspired my youthful resistance were not commercial products or services. They were the principles upon which individuals could freely engage in enterprise and create win-win outcomes.

Today I study many other contributions from leaders without a profit motive. As I describe in a previous column, my recent research with Sonali K. Shah and Steven T. Sonka at the University of Illinois confirms that private, public and social sector organizations all have roles to play in driving upward mobility.

Some people would say I have an open mind because I evolved. The contrast would be a closed mind, unwilling to consider alternate viewpoints. Neither option in this false dichotomy is good. When venturing forth in the world, having either an open or a closed mind can sabotage growth.

The flexibility of an open mind is necessary to a point. But those who bend too quickly to new ideas might give up correct beliefs ormore likelyswap one set of flawed notions for another. They are like impressionable children, inclined to trust the most recent message they hear from adults without thinking for themselves. Such people never stand firm on principles because they dont have any.

On the flip side, the rigidness of a closed mind has advantages when trying to lock in cherished values. But those satisfied with their level of knowledge lose all sense of discovery. They assume their beliefs are true and complete, ending the need for further inquiry. No amount of information will convince them otherwise. Such people show strong convictionsright or wrongbecause nothing else exists in their minds.

I prefer a third alternative. Philosopher Ayn Rand calls it an active mind. The concept has less to do with whether you change your opinion, and more to do with how you form your opinion. People with active minds focus on learning, and on thinking critically. In other words, they emphasize the journey, not just the destination. They put process ahead of outcomes, pursuing growth in three stages.


Having an active mind starts with active listening. People who value learning seek diverse viewpoints from multiple sources. They read things that offend them. They talk to people from different backgrounds. Then they repeat back what they think they heard to ensure understanding.

I did this during my project with Shah and Sonka, two trusted colleagues. I listened to what the facts were telling us in the researchthat nonprofit engagement and social entrepreneurship were critical in market creation, especially in developing regions with limited infrastructure.

Closed-minded people build strawmen instead. They distort or misrepresent facts, creating easy targets to knock over. They also engage in whataboutism, a type of psychological deflection. Rather than refuting an opposing argument, they ignore it and charge the other side with hypocrisy.

Open-minded people simply agree with new information. They can hold multiple contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time, and never reconcile the differences. Rather than debate, they appeasesometimes because they fear conflict or commitment.


Once people with active minds listen, they synthesize. They compare old and new information, exploring how different ideas fit together. They distinguish between broad principles and the details of particular cases, which are not always representative.

In my own case, I caught myself focusing on concrete notions of social innovation, ascribing a narrow meaning based on my negative experiences in a collectivist culture. When I synthesized new information, I could see the shared basic principles underlying both social and for-profit innovation.

Many times when people confront an opposing viewpoint, the exchange produces win-win outcomes. Both sides move closer to the truth. Yet people with active minds are not confined to the linear distance between two viewpoints. By engaging in dialogue, active thinkers can jump beyond the continuum, often arriving at new ideas not previously considered by either party.

Closed-minded people avoid the journey. The more they clash with opposing viewpoints, the more entrenched they become in their original position. Open-minded people have a different problem. The more they hear new ideas, the more rudderless they become. They trade one position for another like musical chairs.


Once active thinkers synthesize old and new information, they test their emerging ideas in the real world. When they confirm a correct belief, they stay the course until better information comes along. When they detect an error, they update their thinking and try again.

People dont need a science degree to do this. Italian researchers Arnaldo Camuffo, Alessandro Cordova, Alfonso Gambardella and Chiara Spina at Bocconi University confirm that anyone can use the scientific method. Their field tests specifically focus on business settings during periods of uncertainty, but the scientific rigor works anywhere.

What active-minded individuals dont do is beat themselves up for honest mistakes. Instead, they celebrate every course correction and move forward without shame. This is what I have attempted to do.

I now embrace my role as a social entrepreneur in a nonprofit education setting, espousing the value of for-profit enterprise and markets for upward mobility. I find no contradiction in doing so, thanks to the course corrections I made.

Closed-minded people remain blind to the evidence of failure. Being wrong would jeopardize their entire belief system, so they reject the possibility. Open-minded people, meanwhile, never know they are wrong until someone else tells them.

While they wait, they miss opportunities to make discoveries for themselves. They also miss opportunities to share their ideas with others. Having an active mind engenders both creative activities.

People with active minds are flexible and firm at the same time. They adjust based on the evidence. The key is not being learned, but being a learner.

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Instead Of Open Or Closed, Dial Your Mind To Active - Forbes

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