“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki
Last year, while learning and practicing meditation, I was introduced to Shoshin (初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “Beginner’s Mind”. A co-worker had suggested reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and, while it’s a bit hard to get through at a times, I found it inspiring. It’s changed the way I look at many things and I’ve found it a very positive influence.
A great—and probably the first—example was with my work. I’d recently started a new gig, at Heroku. I was looking for a challenging learning experience, but wasn’t expecting it to be as difficult as it was. I was having trouble fitting in; a classic fish out of water situation. I think of myself as a seasoned pro and as such I came in assuming I’d fit right in. That wasn’t happening. It was not so much that I was doing poorly, I wasn’t, it was more that my high expectations were causing friction and a bit of frustration. At first I didn’t realize it was a problem I could (and should) solve, but once I did, I began to slow down and pull it apart.
Things immediately started to get better, I guess that intention to work through it helped, but the real break-through came when I started reading Suzuki’s book. Right from the start I made a few connections between the practice of Beginner’s Mind and day-to-day life, and thought that it might help me with the problems I was having at work.
At its core Beginner’s Mind is pretty straightforward. It simply means adopting an open mind; looking at the world with eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, even when approaching something you’re already experienced with. Essentially, approach things as a beginner.
So I decided to give it a shot. Every morning on my way to work, I thought about how I would attack the day as a beginner would. I set aside preconceived notions of how things should be done and asked a ton of questions. I spent a lot of time in the un-comfort zone. I went out of my way to have difficult conversations, I worked on holding back my initial reactions to think more, I practiced listening, etc. I tried to understand what made people and teams go, I became interested in the different ways people approached work, and actually started to get excited when things were new and different. Even if at first they seemed odd or awkward to me. Learning has always been fun for me, and, in a way, Beginner’s Mind allowed (enabled? encouraged?) me to have that fun all the time.
Very quickly this problem became less of a problem and more of an opportunity. Letting go of all that I was supposed to know and shifting my expectations to prioritize learning over some concept of hard-and-fast-and-amazingly-expert results, allowed me to make mistakes, and, most importantly, to not worry about it. I was a beginner! And there was a lot to learn so long as I was open.
Borrowing from Suzuki, think about it this way: Experts may have the best answers, but beginners have the best questions. Experts may have very little to learn, beginners have everything to learn.
And it wasn’t just me fitting in. Stress went down, which was great, but in addition, problem-solving, creativity and overall team velocity (and harmony) started to creep up. I think it was a big positive to everyone involved.
So, you might be wondering about the specific changes I made to my mindset and routine, and how you can start practicing Beginner’s Mind. While it’s probably harder than it might look at first, it’s similar in a lot of ways to meditation itself in that it’s really just a matter of practice. Here are a few ideas to get you going.
Start by asking questions, and be alright with the idea that you might not know something you’re “supposed to know.” Often, when you come into a new situation, you’re shy about asking questions. You don’t want to seem like you’re in the dark, especially when you think you’re expected to know something. So you don’t ask those questions, for fear of seeming stupid or out of the loop. Make a point to ask questions when you need to, and even those you don’t, you won’t regret it.
Be open-minded. Check your initial reactions. We often react to something new and different with skepticism or defensiveness. We “know better” or think we do. I’ve found that if I take some time to think things through, before offering up a reaction, I will sometimes find my initial reaction to be misguided. I like to think of this as training and testing my intuition with a side of building up my empathy. Even if that initial reaction proves to be correct, there is probably something worth learning in there.
Be ok with making mistakes, and change your definition of success. If you start with a goal of learning something as opposed to some other, more concrete measure of success, suddenly it’s much easier to take risks. So, don’t lower expectations, adjust your definition of success and treat learning as a valid success criteria.
Be open to diversity in thinking. Go out of your way to think differently. Diversity in thinking, with others or even when within your own mind, can lead to great insights. The best teams are diverse, why not apply that to your own thinking? I’m not an expert on kanji, but “shin” can also mean “heart” or “spirit”, in addition to “mind” — that’s interesting to me because I feel there are many kinds of intelligence. A very quick example; think about how you describe your opinions. Some people say “I think” some people say “I feel” — I don’t see either as better or worse, we all have different ways of looking at life and expressing our thoughts. Recognizing that, and taking care to be curious and open about it, is, to me anyway, the at the heart (or shin) of Shoshin.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Shoshin is all about practice, both in the sense that Beginner’s Mind is something that requires work and practice, but also in the meta-sense that practice is required to get better at anything. Working practice into anything you do, regardless of your level or expertise, is a great way to also work on your beginner’s mind.
Approaching situations, old and new, personal and professional, with a beginner’s mind is a great way to live. Practicing being open, unassuming, excited and curious allows you see things, even things you know well, in a whole new light, revealing a world of possibility. Shoshin has many other additional benefits as well: curiosity, empathy, positivity, vulnerability, etc. It’s a way of approaching life that offers up limitless possibilities.
Oh, and it’s easier than meditation. :)