Open or Closed?

Which are you? Ever thought about it? Before you smugly think you’re open minded, consider this: closed-minded people believe they are open minded. So how do you decide which camp you’re in?

An open-minded person demonstrates an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be wrong. But being open minded doesn’t mean you have to accept absurd or patently bad ideas just for the sake of appearing to be non-judgmental or unprejudiced. Being human, we’re all prejudiced to some degree – because we prejudge emotionally before we decide rationally.

No one has a completely open mind, nor should they. The life of the mind is about triage: sorting the valuable, essential or useful from that which is less helpful or inconsequential. Thinking is applied scepticism. Our minds should be closed on some issues, like paedophilia, inequality, injustice, dishonesty and sexual harassment. We should have open minds about some things but settled convictions on matters of high principle.

We cannot be paralyzed by indecision or indifference. We need the mental flexibility and honesty to adjust our beliefs when empirical evidence to the contrary challenges those views. While our knowledge is largely analogue and growing exponentially, our judgement is invariably binary when it needs to be more generative. We either like or dislike; we agree or express opposition. We rarely look to add value to propositions with which we fundamentally disagree.

Openness is a desire to explore the reasons for the choices we make. The analytical mind takes things apart; the creative mind puts them together in new and different ways. Picasso said, the act of creation begins with an act of destruction. Yin and yang; the answer (as always) lies in finding the balance.

The closed-minded react poorly when their ideas are challenged by others, particularly the uninformed. They get frustrated when they can’t convince people to agree with their views. Conversely, the open-minded are typically curious, rather than infuriated, when others disagree with their ideas.

The closed-minded are more interested in proving themselves right than in achieving the best outcomes. They aren’t eager to learn so they don’t ask a lot of questions; they’d rather show you why you’re wrong than understand where you may be coming from. They get frustrated, annoyed or sometimes even angry when you ask them to explain why they hold the opinions they do.

Open-minded people are incessantly curious about disagreement. They seek to unravel the mystery around the incongruous, unconventional and unorthodox. They understand there’s always the possibility, and occasionally the probability, they could be uninformed or misinformed; therefore it’s worth a little bit of time to evaluate contrarian or alternative views.

The open-minded see disagreement as an opportunity to expand their knowledge. They don’t get upset by seemingly “dumb” questions, however silly they might at first appear. They realize “being right” occasionally requires a need to change one’s mind, especially when someone knows something they do not.

The closed-minded prefer making firm assertions over asking exploratory (why) questions. They sit in meetings and offer opinions but rarely ask others to explain or expand on theirs. They’re focussed primarily on wondering how they can shoot down opposing thoughts than attempt to understand what they don’t know. Lacking the patience to hear voices other than their own, the closed-minded impede others from expressing their thoughts. Unlike the open-minded, they talk more than they listen.

When you stop listening, you stop thinking. The mind reverts to refutation mode, preferring to defend what it already knows. Edna Ferber, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, said “a closed mind is a dying mind.” Listening and critical thinking are rare traits, especially among politicians, which is why there are so few open-minded leaders in the world today. (Given his power and influence, I occasionally write about Mr. Trump, a poster child for the close-minded.)

The closed-minded have trouble holding contradictory thoughts simultaneously. Open-minded people easily entertain conflicting concepts and delight in going back and forth between them to assess their relative merits. This mental jousting is the mark of a creative mind as it searches for new patterns and differing combinations rather than fitting them into pre-existing, rigid categories. (This ability is what I call integrative thinking – the topic of a forthcoming post.)

At a fundamental level, the closed-minded simply lack humility. They are over confident in their beliefs about how things work and this is the definition of arrogance. Open-minded people, conversely, approach everything with a deep-seated understanding that they just might be wrong or perhaps uninformed.

Each of us lives somewhere along the continuum between being open and being closed. It varies by day and by subject. We tend to judge ourselves by the yardsticks of our own invention and, not surprisingly, we give ourselves high marks on those beliefs. The question open-minded individuals must ask is whether those conclusions align with the reality of the situations in which they find themselves at any given moment.

Being and staying open minded doesn’t happen by accident. It takes effort, at times hard effort. This is because we take our reality for granted and think our beliefs are natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that we are all accidents of geography and the product of the transcendent forces of culture. We are all born into different realities ruled by widely varying norms, values, economics and politics. So, like everything else that matters, open mindedness begins with self-awareness.

The person who genuinely wants to move his or her thinking needle towards openness is the one who develops strategies for recognizing hard-wired biases (those that make us pre-judge before assessing all available evidence), masking human fears (like making mistakes, being wrong or appearing stupid) and practising greater patience with others.