The True Meaning of Open-Mindedness

Open-mindedness has always been a trait that I’ve reflexively valued as one of those obvious, feel-good things you just embrace. Yet up until now it’s been a passive sort of open-mindedness, one that some might label (somewhat accurately) as an indecisive sheep in self-assured wolf’s clothing.

So when I ran into some last-minute work styles last week, I saw it as a clash between cultures: the American cut-to-the-crap attitude versus an ingrained Chinese respect for traditions and harmony. “You have to understand,” my traveling companion Dr. J warned me, “that this is the way things work here. You don’t want to come off as rude and ruin our 关系.”

I certainly didn’t. Yet part of me was frustrated that this project was barreling toward what looked-like a half-assed job. Brazened by the presence of my American mentor Dr. C, I set out a list of demands for our partner hospitals to fulfill during our meeting today. I found an unlikely ally—my Chinese mentor Dr. H, who seemed initially doubtful about the feasibility of these demands, suddenly began to lecture about the importance of not simply relying on old methods and already established connections, but pushing our partner hospitals to develop the ability to forge new connections through this project.

A day ago, I had asked Dr. C how he thinks China will change some of its less productive habits if the idea of “that’s the way we do things” is already so ingrained. “When people like Dr. H become leaders,” was his response.

In that moment, as I listened to an increasingly eloquent Dr. H speak of opportunities to forge a new standard of practice, I realized that this is what true open-mindedness really was. Open-mindedness is about respecting the views of those around you. But it’s not about listening to new ideas without acting upon them, and it’s certainly not about deferring to established ideas for fear of treading upon culture. In the end, open-mindedness is the active decision to try something new when the old ways aren’t working, and if harnessed correctly, it becomes the ignition that drives social change.

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