What does it really mean “to have an open mind”?

One of the popular phrases doing rounds among the changework community is “you should have an open mind”. And I do agree that having an open mind is valuable; it’s just that the phrase means something quite different from what it’s usually meant as.

And that’s because usually it’s really meant as “Believe stuff easily.”

Thing is, that’s not open-mindedness. In fact, it’s often the very antithesis of being open minded, because once you start believing in something, you tend to stick to it, no matter the evidence. It’s no shame; we all have this tendency. It’s part of what makes us human. It was an evolutionary advantage, once: when you started to believe there were man-eating tigers in an area, you kept your vigilance despite not seeing any tigers, so you had less chance of ending up as tiger food.

Real open-mindedness, however, is going against this evolutionary tendency. What having an open mind really means is this: do not require any more evidence for changing your opinion. Then you have to make it in the first place and to support it afterwards.

In other words: play fair with the data you get. Be ready to change your opinion if new data arrive. In fact — and I highly recommend it — publicly state the specific criteria under which you will change your mind on a given subject. These don’t need to be the only criteria that will change your mind, but it will give people an opportunity to challenge them, if they’re unfair, or to meet them, if they have the data.

Now, admitting you’re wrong isn’t easy or pleasant. For example, it took great guts for the originator of the anti-GMO movement to go public and openly state that he was not just wrong but horribly wrong. But it’s a really valuable growth experience, and that’s kind of what the whole changework thing is about, now isn’t it?


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