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Beginner’s mind

Posted 4 years ago by Linh Nguyen

We are all naturally narrow-minded. The moment we’re born into this world, we are moulded by external influences: society, our friends and family, the media, our work. All of these influences create an identity for us, a lens through which we see the world. As Anais Nin once said: “we don’t see things as they are, we see things are we are.” To go beyond our lens of the world requires strength of the imagination, a quieting of the ego, and a cultivation of the beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind, which is also known as Shoshin, is a Buddhist concept popularised by Shunryu Suzuki, a monk and teacher who helped to bring the teachings of Zen to the United States. Taken from his book of meditations, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the concept teaches us to view ourselves as works in progress. We should never assume that we know everything; instead we should constantly be cultivating and/or maintaining intellectual curiosity.

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

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Beginner’s mind is known by other terms too: open-mindedness, design-thinking, divergent thinking, mindfulness. Carol Dweck calls it the ‘growth mindset’, Orson Welles calls it “the gift of ignorance”. In regard to his film Citizen Kane, Welles said:

“I didn’t know what you couldn’t do. I didn’t deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, ‘Why not?’ There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything, you know.”

Some people don’t do well with not knowing. What beginner’s mind can teach us is how to cultivate an attitude that embraces uncertainty and an eagerness to learn. Slowly, we learn to be OK with not knowing yet at the same time excited to know. This way of looking at the world helps us to be less attached to our ingrained beliefs, to recognise them as just a small view of the world, so that we are less prejudiced and more welcoming when presented with an unfamiliar situation.

Fairly recently, Fortune Magazine interviewed Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon, and one of the main takeaways is that he’s always eager to learn new skills. “To be a leader of any kind” says Bezos, “you have to be interested in self-improvement and growth.”

Bezos is known for having projects completely unrelated to Amazon. He owns The Washington Post, which he hopes will become more than just a local newspaper; and set up Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company that will enable human access to space. Bezos shows that our background does not need to set the path for our future. As long as there’s interest, there’s moving forward. For him, it’s mandatory to maintain a beginner’s mind, not just for our creativity, but because the fast-changing world demands it:

“The best inventors have a high level of expertise in a particular arena, and they simultaneously maintain a beginners’ mind. And that’s hard to do. But that’s what you have to do if you want to invent and pioneer. The world is so complex and deeply rich with prior invention that it’s very unlikely that as a naive beginner you’re going to invent anything of use. So you have to be an expert in the state of the art and then somehow let that expertness not make you jaded.”

Beginner’s mind helps us to understand that there is more than one way of doing something, and that ours is not necessarily the best way. We have a tendency to repeat behaviour because we are resistant to change. The routines by which we live our lives becomes almost mechanical. When we set ourselves to work, we turn to the familiar: the same tools, the same space, the same research sources, because they’ve not let us down before. There’s a saying that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ which appears like sound advice, but has a defeatist undertone to it. Truth is, things can always be better; there’s always an alternative. That’s what innovation is all about: making tweaks on existing products to improve the way people live.

Those who insist on making things better are those who are not satisfied with what they know. Angus Woodman of Crew has a great article on why they only hire noobs.

“Are you an expert in something? Great, do some of that, but also do things that you don’t understand. We believe that keeping one foot over the ‘edge’ at all times keeps us sharp.”

Noobs are naive. They break rules. Why? Because they don’t know any ‘better’. College dropouts, for example, have the advantage of not being constrained or indoctrinated by a traditional education. They go and break all rules because they’ve not been taught otherwise. Of course, that’s not to say all college dropouts and all noobs go on to be success stories. The more important factors here are attitude and a hunger to learn. Not knowing isn’t the thing we should be worried about – since anything can be learned if given the time – but a lack of motivation. Two people can see the same thing and have different ways of dealing with them. A noob would keep going and going and spend more time considering different outcomes. An expert would stick to their bubble, do what they know, and generally stop there.

Our lives consist of bubbles that anchor us, from our friends and family, to society. We work in industries that are bubbles and when we enter a workplace, we are shaped by its culture and values. Yet the danger is that those with similar roles end up grouping together, limiting the inflow and outflow of knowledge within those respective groups. Marketers will go on about KPI’s and other acronyms no-one else gets, designers conflict over function and aesthetic, writers express their annoyance over that misplaced semi-colon, developers wished they didn’t have to tackle bugs all the time. How the workplace is set up can exacerbate such grouping and self-referential conversations.

Office-cubicles are where ideas go to die. They’re miserable, soulless, and they don’t help us do better work. Thankfully, more and more companies are embracing open-space offices because they understand the importance of looking outward for growth. People are dipping into each other’s disciplines, expanding their world view and learning from each other. Within these organisations, teams are deeply multidisciplinary, so people are less likely to have the same ideas because they’re not inward-facing. Pixar’s original workplace separated scientists, animators and everybody else into three respective buildings, until Steve Jobs came and helped redesign it. Jobs saw that these barriers stopped everyone from sharing ideas and solutions. He understood that space and roles don’t have to be so defined, that borders are both transitory and arbitrary. Jobs envisioned a big atrium for Pixar as a hub in which everyone would go and talk to each other more in order to get outside of their own heads. When we intersect fields, we see new angles to a current problem.

All of life is a processing, a working through. We’re never as settled as we think we are. It is both a terrifying and liberating thing to find ourselves at the beginning, in the land of the strange, taking baby-steps. Beginner’s mind is an openness to uncertainty and a courage to try things out anyway; it’s a way of looking at the world. It’s not about choosing to be ignorant or starting from scratch per se, but being aware of our preconceptions and to step outside of our comfort zone. The goal isn’t to know everything. The goal is about learning and improving. Everyone is both a teacher and a student, a giver and a receiver.

Joel Gascoigne had no idea what he was doing when he started Buffer. According to him, he did everything wrong:

“When you’re building a startup, you are in a world full of unknowns and uncertainty. You literally do not know what you do not yet know. I think the only way to cope in this kind of environment is to strive for knowledge, information and validated learning through feedback.”

It takes guts to admit we don’t know what we’re doing, especially when we have a job title that strongly suggests we should. To cope, like Gascoigne said, is to strive. It’s a myth to assume that we need to know enough to get started – that’s a form of perfectionism. Done is always better than perfect. A dose of healthy naivety and skepticism will always do us good.

Innovation happens outside the paradigm, outside the sphere of security. Rules are meant to be broken because the world is too chaotic to ever live up to them. Tony Fadell, one of the guys behind the iPod and CEO of Nest Labs, has a TedTalk in which he advises us to look broader and to think younger. For him, the first secret of design is noticing:

“We all saw the world more clearly when we saw it for the first time, before a lifetime of habits got in the way. Our challenge is to get back there, to feel that frustration, to see those little details, to look broader, look closer, and to think younger so we can stay beginners.”

Humans are very good at adapting. We naturally tend towards habituation. Every new thing that comes into the world eventually normalises. Digital connection is now essential for most of us, it’s no longer weird to order a cab via an app on our smartphones, and online dating doesn’t have the stigma it used to. Yet, habituation affects the way we tackle problems because it’s hard to solve what we don’t see. For most of us, it’s just the way it is.

There’s always more of what we don’t know than what we do know. When it comes down to it, we truly know nothing and that’s exciting. Though we habituate, it’s also in our nature to constantly evolve. It’s good to try and see the world through fresh eyes and to stay hungry. By constantly engaging in new things, we build character, courage and empathy. Beginner’s mind is an exercise in failure, and from failure, we grow.

Why, hello there! I’m the word-generator at Marvel with a background in the humanities. I also like walks, talks, and…rhymes. You can contact me on good ol’ email.

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