How to Exploit Shoshin for Revolutionary Personal Growth

Mar 30, 2020
 Created by the author — Original image from Pexels


That skinny kid wearing a white belt up there is me. I’m in the Jundokan in Okinawa, Japan, the birthplace of Karate. I’m glistening with sweat from the 100 degrees and 80% humidity cauldron.

I was a black belt who had trained for 8 years in the UK yet had no hesitation in wearing a white belt in Japan.

What I already knew wasn’t important. All that mattered was that my mind was open and ready to learn.


Shoshin is a Japanese concept meaning “a beginner’s mind.”

It’s important in Karate to guard against ego. The idea is if you approach everything with a beginner’s mind then you are open to learning more. This is what wearing a white belt signified.

My instructors were far more impressed by my ability to listen and learn than anything else.

If you can maintain Shoshin then you set yourself up for rapid personal development.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

Good is the enemy of great. You are not always right.

Everyone is good at something. Yet so few go onto become truly great.

It’s not a lack of ability stopping them, it’s a lack of motivation. Why bother if you’re already good?

Many people quit Karate just after obtaining their black belt. They now think they know everything but they’ve barely scratched the surface. I learned more in my first year as a black belt than the 5 years I spent getting there!

The problem is that we develop an ego once we are good. People praise us and we believe our own hype rather than growing further.

Labels such as ‘black belt’, ‘specialist’ and ‘manager’ do not help. We can think this label means our opinion is fact and fail to listen to new ideas.

The rank of a black belt literally means 1st level.

In Karate, colored belts are mere markers to the 1st level. A black belt is where the real journey starts! The 10th level is the highest and I met two in Okinawa. Both were more than treble my age but still training every single day without ego.

Think about yourself on this scale. Maybe you are exceptional at what you do but there’s still so much more you can learn. Even if you are the best in the world, can you raise the bar even higher for the chasing pack?

Beware of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Many people vastly overestimate their cognitive abilities. They use their inflated sense of intelligence as proof they don’t need to learn anymore.

There’s not a person on Earth who cannot teach me something.

This includes the poorest farmer and richest hedonist. The flipside of this is that there is not a person on Earth who you could not teach something.

Knowledge isn’t a competition; it’s a game we can all play where everyone wins.


Conquer self-doubt. You are not always wrong!

A beginner’s mind does not mean being crippled by self-doubt. Some people are terrified to learn new things for the fear of being wrong.

I had this experience when I started yoga. I was scared to start because I was afraid of embarrassing myself.

The secret is everyone is weak to start with. None of us are perfect. None of us ever will be. That is ok! Yet we are blessed with the ability to learn and grow.

You must accept you might fail but have the confidence to know you will get right back up.

How often did you find in class that the teacher would ask if anyone had a question and no one would say a word? Did everyone understand everything?

Are we afraid to ask questions and admit we didn’t understand, to look uncool? Asking questions is vital to Shoshin.

When I was in the National Squad, I loved to be used as an example. I’d have over 30 people rip my technique to shreds. This was awesome! I was good but now people were helping me be great.

I could not have put myself in this situation if I was scared of feedback. A beginner's mind doesn’t mean you need to retreat into a shell. It is simply being open to new ideas and being willing to challenge what you already know.

Believe in yourself and critically your ability to grow. Letting go of the need to be flawless gives us space to develop without guilt.


Seek opposing views.

It’s unfortunate we see the world in black and white. There are many paths to greatness and we can all learn from each other.

Two people can have completely different methods and see the same results.

Loyalty has been a big part of some martial arts. People will listen only to their instructor and spit venom at other styles. It’s ironic because many of the real Karate masters were also experts in Judo and Kobudo. No one person is perfect and by listening to different points of view, you can find what works best for you.

Jonathon Haidt’s A Righteous Mind is a fantastic read describing the biases that can hold us back. Confirmation bias is a particular challenge for us all. We are convinced we are right and then are blind to all the evidence that suggests otherwise.

When we seek out new information, are we simply looking for others to agree our way is best? Empty your mind and learn a different viewpoint with the aim of extracting benefits. You may learn your method is the best but let the evidence prove that not your biases.

None of us are duplicates of any other person.

A writer wanting to be the next Ernest Hemingway will inevitably fail. A writer who reads widely and creates their own unique style from the greats will put themselves on the path to greatness.

A surprising source of knowledge is your peer group. In Karate whenever I fought anyone, I’d always ask them what their strategy was for me. For a coder, ask your colleagues what they dislike about your code. They may not be upfront about it for fear of offending you but they may know your weaknesses far better than you do.

When you think you’ve mastered one way then try another way. Be an expert in multiple methods so you can use the right tool at the right time.

I disagree with the Bruce Lee quote of fearing ‘a man who has practiced 1 kick 10,000 times’. A one-trick pony is easy to work out. Bruce Lee himself trained in several martial arts styles and took lessons from different instructors. He went onto become the most fearsome martial artist of his age.


Personal Relationships

Shoshin can also be applied to personal relationships. We can sometimes convince ourselves that a person has acted with specific intentions despite having no evidence!

Shoshin means listening and trying to understand others and being open to apologizing.

As a practice exercise, think about the last argument you had. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about what their arguments were and whether any of them could be valid.

Most people are not out to maliciously hurt you. When you approach a conversation with this mindset then you can’t hope to learn.

Good people have differences of opinions formed by their information and their values. Unless you are in a debate competition, your aim doesn’t need to be to win.

Even if you don’t believe their arguments, at least you get an insight into the way they think. Isn’t understanding others better a good way to grow?

Unless they support a different sports team to you of course. Then all bets are off!



In Japan, the sensei I learned from would punch a wooden board 100 times every single day. If you’ve seen Kill Bill then you’ll know what I mean.

This isn’t practiced for the sake of practice or a sick sense of masochism. Every single punch is done with an aim in mind.

I do not think it is an exaggeration to say he would have thrown well over a million punches in his lifetime.

Yet he still knows he can improve further and continues to mindfully train. How many of us would show this commitment once we were even just slightly above average?

Some people don’t take advantage of Shoshin because of not understanding Kaizen. This is where simply being 1% better every day leads to massive improvement over time. It can be easy to accept you’re stuck because you think you need huge leaps to get better.

We tend to think of knowledge as discrete. You know how to code or you don’t. Yet there is a vast spectrum of abilities and those who already know how to code can get much better.


Make the world a better place.

Our existing views and prejudices get in the way of our potential.

Many western countries are becoming more partisan. The other side is evil or deplorable.

We can have our ideas and refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees with us.

Imagine a world where people listened to each other’s ideas and helped each other grow. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Imagine a world where a Democrat and a Republican could sit down for dinner and learn about each other’s lives. They could understand what problems the other thinks the country is facing and why they think their way will fix it. No one called a “racist” or “libtard”.

We can live in echo chambers and not truly understand the motivations of others.

There are over 7 billion people on this planet. 7 billion unique stories. If only we tried to understand more unique stories instead of putting people into boxes.

It is unnervingly common for people to follow a view of an influencer on Twitter and believe that they are now experts on the topic.

If more people were open to being wrong and learning new information, how much more advanced would we be as a civilization?


Enjoy the journey.

Curiosity is an underrated skill. A person who loves finding out new information is a person who will never stop growing!

We’ve been conditioned to come up with S.M.A.R.T. goals and objectives.

What if you just got better because you loved learning?

The problem with strict goals is if you reach them you think you’re done. If you don’t then you think you’re a disappointment.

If I had a goal now, it would be to look back every year on my previous self and be shocked at how much I didn’t know. At school, this was obvious because you had grades. You knew you were much better at the end of grade 6 than grade 5.

Can you still say the same this year?

If you practice Shoshin the answer will be yes.

After reaching black belt, I stopped caring about the label of the next level. I was concerned only with learning more and this attitude took me to the National Squad and multiple teaching awards. Not bad right?

Easy to show Shoshin when you’re new. Can you still show it when you’re an expert?



Shoshin is the beginner’s mind. It’s a way of thinking where we let go of our biases. This allows us to learn much faster.

  • Let go of your ego — you don’t need to prove how competent you are all the time.
  • Conquer self-doubt — it’s ok to fail and look stupid. Keep what is useful and discard what isn’t.
  • Seek opposing views — You can’t learn if you do the same thing over and over again. Experiment with different methods.
  • Bring to personal relationships — Don’t trick yourself into thinking you have someone worked out. People are complex and work with them to understand.
  • Kaizen — Small improvements over time become huge improvements.
  • Make the world a better place — Listen to others and try to build bridges not bomb craters.
  • Enjoy the journey — Enjoy learning and testing yourself and improvement will come naturally. Don’t set artificial goals.

Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day!

Reach Your Goals Without Burning Out

Get my free Anti-burnout Toolkit and weekly tips to help you balance your work and life.