I often hear people talk about “open-mindedness” as a trait they desire, whether in friendship, relationship, or a working relationship. However, when I ask people to define what open-mindedness is, they struggle to do so. The dictionary definition, “willing to consider new ideas,” is rather unhelpful. Obviously, someone who’s not willing to consider new ideas wouldn’t by anyone’s definition be open-minded, so it’s like defining an ocean as, “something with water in it” (i.e. necessary property but not a sufficient definition).

Despite so, the impression of someone who is open-minded is rather uniform. When I think of someone who’s open-minded, I think of a star-gazer on the field of a barn accepting his fate of not being born into a wealthy family, or a traveller peacefully observing the sunset on a rock by the seaside, deep in thought about his midlife crisis but somehow with a half-smile on his face. It’s romantic, but not very helpful.

Open-mindedness has many practical uses, from business to personal growth, relationships to careers, happiness to fulfillment, so I thought it would be nice to give it a more formal statement, one that captures all its properties in a unified way.

First, a necessary condition: Open-mindedness requires an ability to be a contradiction.

It’s no doubt those who are open-minded per the above two traits will often be misunderstood and seen as contradictory, because while most people draw their arguments in the singular direction of social convention, open-minded people are willing to hold their own against popular opinion.

Now, to visualize open-mindedness, I visualize people being plotted on a two-dimensional grid of horizontal open-mindedness and vertical open-mindedness.

First, definitions.

Vertical open-mindedness is the extent to lift oneself above a situation and see the big picture.

Recently, I was on a flight. As I try to avoid adding personal details into the School of Mind category, all you need to know was I was depressed as fuck. I tried to rationalize my depression; it was perhaps a combination of powerlessness, uncertainty about the future, and fear of the unfamiliar. It felt like everything is uncertain and I am powerless, unprotected, and a slave of fate. Because of a storm that day, we were flying at an altitude in which I can observe the city lights below. Suddenly, it dawned on me that perhaps there’re many people on the ground depressed that day, but they can’t see something I can (literally). No matter how much of their lives they think will change, the scene a flyer-by sees from above will not change. By finding some underlying set of things that won’t change, one can climb back up and prepare for the things that could change one-by-one. Even if everything tumbles down (say, a zombie apocalypse), the laws of physics won’t change (unless we’re just living in a mutable simulation, subject for another post).

With that thought came a relief, and the motivation to reconsider myself as part of a speck in the greater whole and sustain my sanity with constant parameters that won’t (not for a long time) change.

Horizontal open-mindedness is the ability to see polar opposite perspectives of a situation and finding a rightful balance in between.

This definition is motivated by the very interesting answer Peter Thiel gave on what personality traits he looks for in entrepreneurs.

(Go for the 2:30 mark.)

Being an entrepreneur requires a multi-dimension personality that can be pessimistic in worldview (as to see problems other can’t) and optimistic in worldview (as to be able to solve them), fluid as to never cease to consider new options, yet be unshakeable in the idea they adopt.

This initially seems like a contradiction – how can someone completely pessimistic be unshakeable in knowing what to do?

This is where the two-dimensional nature of open-mindedness comes in, because whereas someone can be locally pessimistic, they can be globally optimistic (higher on the vertical slider) as to continue to fight through problems in life knowing there’s some higher ideal they live by. Thus, this allows them to be unshakeable in the why and fluid in the how.

This is probably why open-minded people can have a surprisingly good inner dialogue with themselves, the same way I do on this blog (since no one reads it anyways), for they can play the most optimistic affirmative and pessimistic negative with themselves, only to eventually settle on some middle ground as his/her own stance before moving on to the next topic.

Put two non open-minded people in a non-escapable room for some time, and they will quickly grow tired, even agitated of the surroundings. Put two open-minded people in a room, and they will come out happier than when they came in, for they have infinite topics to discuss, since part of being open-minded is never settling on one side of an argument.

I hope those definitions serve as a starting point to thinking about how to develop open-mindedness.

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