A Beginner’s Mind

As part of learning design thinking and design research in design school, we learned about the value of keeping a “beginner’s mind” or “child’s mind” (especially in the early stages of a project). This helped us observe behavior and evidence in the environment that we would otherwise miss. It helped us look at our situation (or “problem space” as we called it), frame the problem, define the problem/challenge statement, and ultimately solve it for the benefit of the stakeholders involved (and along with them). We also learned that there was no one “right way” to solve a problem, and seeking a perfect solution would be running a fool’s errand. It was then I came across a quote by Shunryū Suzuki, a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher, who said:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

This is also the opening line is his famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which has come to be a great modern zen classic. Beginner’s mind comes from Shoshin, a word from Zen Buddhism.

It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. The term is especially used in the study of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts.

It is doing something with a fresh pair of eyes. Learning about things without assumptions, biases, or preconceived notions. Learning with an empty (and open) mind, so to speak. For instance, remember when you learned to drive? How you paid attention to every single detail at first such as shifting gears (in a stick shift car), watching the traffic, popping the clutch, stepping on the gas, hitting the brakes — everything. After you knew how to drive, you hardly “saw” those things again. You were no longer a beginner at that point.

The idea is to bring that beginner’s perspective to the things you do in your everyday life. It’s about not making assumptions about people and situations. It’s about not taking things for granted. It’s about having a child-like curiosity in all things. It’s about paying attention, most of all, to the “obvious things” in life.

Of course, this isn’t just about learning — it’s much more fundamental than that. I was reminded of this after the fact when my 5-year-old nephew walked up to me when his friend got out in cricket (similar to striking out in baseball) and said something to me about getting out. I remember him saying something about it differently, and because I already knew the meaning of getting out, I failed to listen to what he had to say. He was thinking something else and because I already implicitly made up my mind, I dismissed him outright without thinking twice about it. Of course, I realized this in hindsight and not in the moment. He was seeing the situation (getting out) not just for what it meant typically, but what it could have also meant. Because a child does not know what is not possible, they are open to exploring and discovering things. In other words, they are masters of using implicit process to determine outcomes.

Kids in schools nowadays are afraid to ask “dumb questions” publicly in class for fear of being negatively perceived by their classmates. Peer pressure gone bad. They would rather ask questions privately or worse, try to figure things out themselves (which isn’t always the best thing). When you don’t have a safe environment where you can exchange ideas and ask questions without worrying about others’ judgement, it stifles your creativity. You could replace “schools” with organizations and adults with kids, and the same still holds true.

There are often times when people look at me dumbfounded (or in disbelief) because to them it would appear I am asking something obvious, but in my mind I am confident there is more to that thing (without having any underlying presumptions).

There may be times when you say you want to learn things from others (such as your mentors), yet you may find yourself holding onto your own views. Because you go there thinking you know it all or you think of reasons why the things they are telling you won’t work, you end up learning nothing. As the saying goes, it’s hard to fill your cup unless you empty it first. As Barbara O’Brien writes in her article:

This is harder than you might realize. By the time we reach adulthood, we are so full of information that we don’t even notice it’s there. We might consider ourselves to be open-minded, but in fact, everything we learn is filtered through many assumptions and then classified to fit into the knowledge we already possess.

Anyone who claims to know it all about something are simply deluding themselves. In fact, the ones who say they are students (of a discipline) are often the ones who know more than most.

A few days back, I found myself at a creative writing and meditation workshop, which was about creating boundaries (physical, emotional, time, and material), something I like to believe I knew much about. I went there despite knowing that because I wanted to learn without assuming anything (while being aware of my own confirmation bias) and to meet amazing people passionate about having similar conversations.

As futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Here are some ideas for keeping a beginner’s mind.

Stop assuming things. Ask “dumb” questions. If you’ve ever found yourself “scared” of asking questions in a public forum thinking about what others will think of you, it’s Resistance screwing with you. Don’t let it. Stay curious.

Practice mindfulness meditation to cultivate a beginner’s mind. Spend some time in solitude every day (to be with yourself). Mornings would be best for this quiet contemplation.

Do the things you do every day as if doing them for the first time. Savor every detail of that experience. Always pay attention to the “obvious” things in life. There is magic in the mundane (of everyday things).

Stop looking at the world from the lens of duality — you vs. me, us vs. them, good or bad, etc. Paraphrasing Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, there is no such thing as “truth” because it’s all a matter of perspective.

It’s okay to change your mind about things, but that requires having an open and empty mind to begin with. That requires a relentless pursuit of “the truth”. It’s hard to think differently or laterally without having an open mind. For instance, doing ethnography would be impossible without it.

Embrace being present. It’s hard to stay curious if you’re thinking about the past or future. For instance, when you’re meeting someone, be with them mentally and expect the same from them. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Be grateful for what you have. Take nothing for granted. Appreciate everything you get.

Practice divergent thinking in your everyday meetings, at the start of a project, or any creative process. It’s the foundation of innovation, or where all things start. As an aside, organizations frequently work with me to get an “outsider’s perspective” on their internal things because I learn about how things work there based on empirical research and I help them see their blind spots, for which they pay top dollar.

Any time you find yourself trying to figure out your problem space (before you zero in on the problem), you have to operate with a beginner’s mind. Whenever you take on a new project, that’s when you have the freedom to be most creative and divergent.

It’s easy to be susceptible to confirmation bias, but don’t just look for ideas that support your point of view. One way to overcome that bias is to play the devil’s advocate and argue against your ideas. It’s only when you are open to the possibility of being wrong that you can learn something new.

Play more. I wrote about how I am never more serious than when I’m having fun at work. Work is serious play for me (and I suspect for you as well):

Here is the thing. Play is an essential part of our lives. It’s how we as children learned about ourselves and made sense of the world. It was not something we were taught. As kids growing up, we knew how to play. It’s how we did things instinctually. As adults, we have stopped playing, dissing it as trivial and a waste of time.

Practice empathy. When talking to others, listen with an empty (and open) mind. Try to see things from their perspective. Focus on listening, understanding, and making others feel understood without feeling the need to agree or disagree with them. Remember, everyone is always right from their perspective.

When seeking advice from a mentor or coach, “empty your cup”. If you know everything, why are you seeking their expertise? Use the ideas they share with you to look for ways of solving the challenge rather than telling yourself why what they are saying won’t work for you. You have to try things first before you can get further feedback from them, or else you’re simply wasting their time (and yours).

When going to social events, find alternative (and more creative) ways to introduce yourself to others and encourage others to do the same. Rather than asking them about their work as a way to break the ice, ask what they are passionate about, for instance. After all, there is more to your life than what you do for money. Besides, no one does “one thing”.

All of this isn’t to suggest that it’s best to always have a beginner’s mind because then there wouldn’t be any closure, synthesis, or execution of ideas. There is a time and place for being a beginner (often at the start of creative process with divergence), and there is a time for being an expert (towards the end of the process). When you blind yourself to possibilities by endlessly ideating and thinking about things, you’ll never finish your projects. Ideas without execution are pointless, but you need both. There is a time to ask Why? questions and then there is a time to ask Why not? questions. Knowing when to use which is the key. I wonder what Suzuki might have said about this.

Of course, when you learn things from a beginner’s perspective, you slowly add those things to your “expert toolkit” over time, which you can later use to converge and make sense of during the later stages of a project/process.

Having a beginner’s mind will enable you to ask questions about things you took for granted. Remember, when it comes to cultivating this mindset, your past does not have to equal your future. Just because you have always done things a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t do it better.

When your mind is truly empty, it is ready for anything and open to everything, Suzuki writes. Unless you keep a beginner’s mind, you’ll find it difficult to look at things differently and have new perspectives without which it would be difficult to make new connections and create lasting value.

As the British poet and essayist, T. S. Eliot put it:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

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