In 2004, Charles Duhigg was working as a reporter in Baghdad when he heard that an army major, while reviewing footage of recent riots in the city of Kufa, had observed an interesting pattern: Violence usually came after a crowd had gathered in a plaza or open space. Along with the crowds came spectators and food trucks, and not long after, a rock or bottle would be thrown and a melee would begin.
This being the case, the major asked Kufa’s mayor to keep food vendors out of the plaza. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered; as it became larger, people started chanting angrily. But at dusk, the crowd was getting restless and hungry: The kebab stands where they could normally eat were absent. By 8 p.m., everyone had gone home.
Understanding habits, the major told Duhigg, was the most important thing he learned in the army.
Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could inﬂuence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a ﬂashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work, the major told Duhigg.
Our brains are hard-wired to seek out patterns, and habits form as a result. It’s a remarkably efficient strategy, a shorthand of the mind that spares it the energy of having to reinvent the wheel every time a familiar situation arises. But Duhigg, who authored the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, points out that these mental shortcuts can become too comfortable, and inhibit creative thinking.
The science of habits
Habits are formed in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is also involved in developing emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, on the other hand, are made in the prefrontal cortex. But once decisions become automatic, that part of the brain goes into a sort of hibernation.
“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” Duhigg tells NPR. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”
It’s a very useful system — to a point. But it also makes us susceptible to what are called “mental habit loops,” in which our brains misapply patterns outside the context in which they were initially learned. Once stuck in a habit loop, it can become very difficult to process information otherwise, and we risk getting stuck in a fixed mindset, seeing the world from only one point of view.
That sort of thinking is kryptonite for an entrepreneur, whose ability to process multiple perspectives and alter course on a dime is paramount for a company’s success.
Think like a beginner
In Zen Buddhism, there’s a concept called shoshin, or “the beginner’s mind.” In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki writes that, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
Western thought has since jumped on board, with the authors of one 2015 study finding that “self-perceptions of expertise increase closed-minded cognition.” In other words, those who consider themselves experts are apt to being close-minded.
The nature of disrupting a market means asking questions like a beginner, without a preconceived idea of what is possible and what is not. Companies like Warby Parker and Airbnb practiced shoshin when they tore up the rulebooks for their industries, reimagining their products from the ground up.
So how to stop thinking like an expert and start thinking like a beginner?
1. Ask questions:
Many of us have the unfortunate habit of dismissing things we don’t understand. Speaking at an event in 2018, entrepreneur Hooman Radfar shared that having historically mostly backed tech companies, he was hesitant to invest in sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain. But after conducting research by meeting with the founders, visiting locations and talking with employees, he realized that sweetgreen was much more than what he thought it was. “They weren’t selling you a salad. They were selling you a lifestyle. You’re part of something bigger,” he said. “I wouldn’t have seen it if I wasn’t willing to dive in.”
2. When something fails, figure out why:
A normal human reaction to failure can be to give up. But that philosophy doesn’t work for entrepreneurs, where failure is a near-inevitable part of the process. If I had quit whenever I encountered a roadblock or rejection, my company, Jotform, would never have grown it out of my New York apartment and into the company that it is today. This doesn’t mean that failure doesn’t sting. But a beginner’s mindset means that once the hurt has dissipated, you get up and try again.
3. Learn relentlessly:
In order to stay relevant, entrepreneurs must be constantly learning. Self-motivation is part and parcel to founding a company, and the desire to seek out new knowledge is key. Thinking like a beginner means accepting that you might not be good at something the first time you try it — or even the 15th — but persisting anyway.
Accept the discomfort
Stretching your muscles makes you more flexible. But did you know that the same goes for your brain? It’s called “neuroplasticity,” meaning your mind can actually rewire itself to create new neural pathways. These pathways can be created by learning new things, and the more we use a particular pathway, the more ingrained it becomes. Conversely, neglected pathways become weaker and eventually forgotten.
Many adults have a tendency to avoid trying new things because we think we won’t be successful. Forging into unknown territory takes a lot of mental energy, and your brain would rather try to push you back into an old pattern — even a negative one — than embrace something new. Moreover, a tendency to repeat negative behaviors is magnified when we are decision-fatigued, and the brain switches to self-preservation mode.
But acknowledging this resistance is the first step to overcoming it. Rather than avoiding starting up a new hobby for fear of failure, take comfort in knowing that the struggle you’re experiencing is simply the process of forging those new neural pathways.
Understanding how your brain works help you keep your brain flexible throughout your life — a must for an entrepreneur. Switching things up does take effort, but it will help you stay sharp, emotionally intelligent and flexible throughout your life.