Seeing With New Eyes: How the Beginner’s Mind Expands Your Playing Field
“The beginner’s mind sees many possibilities, the expert’s only a few.”
November 4, 2019
Leadership & Philosophy
The term “beginner’s mind” comes from Zen philosophy and was brought to the West in the writings and speeches of the Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. It refers to an attitude of openness, of approaching life as though one is a beginner who doesn’t know anything yet. To begin something for the first time means confronting not-knowing and the insecurity around allowing questions and mistakes. It means detaching from one’s own presumed importance and prefabricated concepts in order to perceive things in an unbiased way. This lets us see previously invisible information and potentials, opening up new possibilities for action. The beginner’s mind is an important pillar of the Zen school of meditation. But the effects of this basic idea run much deeper than a simple exercise in mindfulness. What is the relevance of the beginner’s mind in everyday work life?
Mental routines and expertise
Our minds and our thoughts are shaped by individual and cultural assumptions, experiences and knowledges. As soon as we perceive something, we automatically begin filing it into familiar categories and judging it. We may do this to achieve a greater sense of security. But it can also lead us to miss a chance to learn something new – and sometimes even miss out on important information. On the one hand, we of course need expertise and experience in order to quickly assess specific problems and find effective solutions. How would productive work be possible if we couldn’t depend on knowledge we acquired in the past? On the other hand, it is precisely this knowledge that can hinder us to think about things in new and different ways.
Not-Knowing as a resource
At work we operate under the assumption that knowledge and experience are our assets and our shield. We expend endless energy on proving to others that we know more than they do, that we as experts have the solution to a problem. The fear that our knowledge gaps may lead to pitfalls and humiliation can, for example, lead to meetings lasting much longer than is needed, because real or presumed not-knowing is being covered up by excessive talking. In the minds of experts and within expert cultures, not-knowing is an unforgivable mistake that can, in fact, have far-reaching consequences.
Thus, the idea of the beginner’s mind may appear unusual at first – useful for spiritual seekers, but dangerous in practical daily life. However, the beginner’s mind allows us to grasp situations anew, coming to different conclusions than in the past. What if we didn’t always react based on our mental routines or the pressure of having-to-know, but instead asked simple questions like beginners wondering about what they see? If we understood the beginner’s not-knowing as an opportunity for learning?
A beginner open to new information
Every day in our work lives, we encounter people of whom we have created a mental image based on experiences or appearances. But is this image true? What chance do others have to change if we always see them in the same way? However, if we enter into these encounters in the spirit of the beginner’s mind, new opportunities can open up. Maybe we see something about the other person that we never noticed before. Or we hear a sentence that previously we would have filed away under “typical” and instead ask what is meant by it. This way the conversation could take a new turn and deliver unexpected results. The same goes for long-term difficulties and problems that experts have already struggled to crack. A simple question from the perspective of the beginner’s mind can clear the path to a previously overlooked solution. The more we assume not to know anything, the more open we are to all information, becoming less selective and perceiving more of what is actually in front of us. Often enough, it’s the obvious things that elude the educated mind of the expert.
Practice makes perfect
The beginner’s mind is a wonderful concept that reminds us in one simple expression to open our minds and leave behind our mental routines. The more we practice the beginner’s mindset, the easier it becomes to switch gears in any given situation and to see with new eyes. In organizations and in teams, the beginner’s mind can be practiced together with dialogue. An honest culture of dialogue thrives when we regularly enter into conversations with a childlike curiosity based on the assumption of not-knowing. With this approach we can see persistent difficulties differently and solve real problems. Even more, we can truly learn something new and expand our horizons. This is an essential foundation for creativity and change – even for experts.
Shunryu Suzuki: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. Weatherhill, 1970.