We all would like to become expert in our field — this is quite obvious. The self-development articles explaining “how to become the best in the world at what you do” get thousands of claps on Medium. There must be a reason for that.
It is certainly great to have the skill of an expert. But what about the attitude you adopt along the way? In this article I want to show you that it is actually cultivating the Beginner’s Mind that helps you master any chosen area. Plus, it makes the whole process (i.e. your life) way more interesting and fun.
Let’s start with pointing out the differences between the Beginner’s and Expert Mind to see why the former can be so beneficial. Later on, I will introduce you to some practical ways of cultivating an attitude of a beginner which you can incorporate into your daily life — no matter who you are and what you do.
What are the Beginner’s and Expert Mind
“When we adopt the mind of a beginner, we endeavour to look at things as if for the first time, free from the influence of the past or speculation about the future. We open ourselves to what is here now, rather than constructing stories about what we think is here. Much like a scientist who observes without bias, beginner’s mind allows us to collect raw data. This opens us up to new possibilities, rather than being confined by habits and conditioning.” — Tracy Ochester, Attitudes of Mindfulness: Beginner’s Mind
Beginner’s Mind and Expert’s Mind are two different approaches one can apply to learning, looking for solutions, performing tasks or virtually any other activity. In this article I will focus majorly on the impact of those two attitudes on learning and developing skills.
Beginners’ mind, or shoshin in Japanese Zen Buddhism, is an empty mind and a ready mind. This means a mind free of preconceptions as to how to approach certain experiences. Beginner’s Mind is naturally attained when we are trying something for the very first time or we are just beginning to learn a new skill — for example cooking a new dish, driving a car or skiing. With time, as we regularly attend to a well-known activity, adapting the Beginner’s Mind takes our deliberate effort. If we don’t make this effort, our brain usually switches to the “Expert Mind” mode, and acts according to patterns established during similar experiences in the past.
This is an attitude adapted by someone who believes to have gained enough experience to know how certain things are done (note that the word expert and experience have common etymological root). In the Expert’s view of the world, less aspects of a situation are questioned and more are assumed. This often results in a narrowed perception and performing tasks in an official, established way, while dismissing alternative ways of dealing with the situation. According to the Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis, it is socially accepted for the people accredited as “experts” to adopt more close-minded views. Consequently, “situations that engender self-perceptions of high expertise elicit a more closed-minded cognitive style.”
Adapting either the Beginner’s or the Expert Mind has very real consequences as to how one behaves when faced with a learning or professional challenge. Although it would be far-fetched to claim that each of those attitudes always implies a specific set of behaviours, there are certainly some general tendencies typical for the Beginner’s and Expert Mind.
Behavioural differences between the Beginner and the Expert
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
To vividly illustrate the differences in how the two Minds operate, let’s imagine a following setup. An experienced chef Marc, who has been working in hospitality business for 30 years, is planning out a wedding reception together with his assistant Katie, who is new to the job. Representing the Expert Mind attitude (Marc) and the Beginner’s Mind attitude (Katie), these two will have very different takes on resolving certain challenges that arise during their work together.
Exploring different possibilities vs. believing in one “correct” solution
When discussing the menu with the bride, Katie asks a lot of questions. Are any of the guests vegetarian? How much cold and how much hot food should there be? Would it be a buffet or service to the table, or a bit of both? What flavour would the wedding cake be?
Before the bride gets a chance to speak, Marc already comes up with answers, based on how a wedding “should” look like:
We can’t do buffet for a wedding — it’s not elegant enough. We will serve one cold starter first, then soup and then hot starter. We will make all starters vegetarian, and for the main we will give everyone a choice between meat or non-meat plate. Wedding cake should be chocolate — this is the most universal as, according to research, only 6% of people dislike chocolate.
The Beginner sees endless possibilities for planning out the wedding menu. The Expert believes that there is just one “correct” way.
No “right-wrong” judgement vs. judgement based on established beliefs
While preparing the table before the arrival of guests, Katie figures that there is very little space left there, taking that decorations and dinnerware are quite abundant. Therefore, she decides that it would be more convenient for the guests if she served bread on individual plates, rather than trying to squeeze bread baskets somewhere in between flower vases and candles. But Marc definitely opposes:
This is wrong. — he says. — You cannot do this kind of thing on a wedding. It doesn’t look nice to put bread on their plates, together with the courses. It has to go in separate bread baskets.
In this case, the Beginner doesn’t label things as “right” or “wrong” — she rather sees what is more or less practical in this particular situation. The Expert, on the other hand, has his judgements about what is “good” and “bad”, according to the rules he had internalized.
Being in the present moment vs. making decisions based on the past
Noticing that some of the guests are cold after arriving, Katie suggests serving hot soup first so that they can warm up. She sees the guests shivering and wants to take action which makes sense in the present situation.
Marc, however, thinks it’s too late for any changes: The cutleries are arranged in certain order, so the courses need to be served in the same order — he responds. We have no choice but to do it the way we planned. Let’s start with the green fruit salad and the soup will go after that.
The Beginner is more likely to see what is required in the present moment. For the Expert, it is hard to let go of the pre-planned way of dealing with a situation.
Conscious actions vs. autopilot
In between serving meals, Marc and Katie are cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes. Marc, who is extremely used to working here, does many things automatically. He keeps putting the dishwasher on without noticing a little red light, which signals that the soap dispenser is empty and needs refilling.
After a few rounds of dishes that didn’t wash properly, Marc tries to identify the problem and he figures that the dishwasher must be broken. He still fails to notice the little flashing light. He calls Katie to come and have a look. Because she has never used this machine before, she examines everything she sees with a fresh eye. The red light immediately catches her attention and the problem is solved within a minute.
For the Beginner, it is much easier to approach a task consciously, with an intention of finding best possible solution. Expert Mind, on the other hand, easily falls into autopilot mode and struggles to solve problems if something goes out of ordinary.
During the wedding reception, the ultimate goal of Marc’s and Katie’s work was to provide best possible service for the newlyweds and their guests. It is easy to see which of the two attitudes — Beginner’s or Expert’s — was more useful in attaining this goal.
How Beginner’s Mind helps you become an Expert
“Everybody knows that some things are simply impossible until somebody who doesn’t know that makes them possible.” — Albert Einstein
In the first years of the 20th century a renowned physicist and inventor, Samuel Langley, was awarded $70,000 ($2 million in today’s dollars) in grants to build the first flying machine in the history of humanity. After many trials, failed attempts and spending all the funding, Langley gave up the project. New York Times reported that the machine “might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.”
Just a few days later, Wilber and Orville Wright succeeded to lift the first man-powered flying vehicle off the ground. Their project was self-founded, based on amateur technical solutions and a few years of experimenting with ideas that others “waved their hands at”.
It took an attitude of a beginner to figure out a way for a man to fly.
Maintaining an open mind of a beginner is essential if you are trying to innovate, but also if you want to become an expert in any field. This is because moving to the next level of skill or knowledge often demands letting go of beliefs and attitudes acquired at earlier stages of learning. In other words, mastering any skill or field of expertise requires you to constantly revise what you assume you already know.
As the title of the Marshall Goldsmith’s book pronounces:
This is especially true in the fast-changing world of 21st century, where new technologies, ideas and trends are popping up virtually every day. This reality forces anyone who wants to become a true expert to give up the Expert Mind and replace it with an attitude of a beginner.
For example, let’s look at the SEO industry, where expert work is largely reliant on the ever-changing Google search engine algorithms and indexes. If SEO experts assumed at any point that they already know everything there is to know — they would be out of the game as soon as Google implemented a new indexing policy. It is precisely the Beginner’s Mind and the willingness to learn that allows them to stay up-to-date with the constantly upgrading mechanics of the search engines.
If you want to master any given area, you have to buy into the idea of life-long learning. And to learn throughout your whole life, you need to not only stay attentive, open-minded and willing to accept new perspectives; you also have to be ready to give up some of your old, outdated ideas.
All the above-mentioned are the qualities of authentic learning, which is driven by the curiosity to know more, rather than an urge to always be right. A famous Buddhist anecdote illustrates the concept of such learning:
“A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” — Buddhist Anegdote
The question is: how do you manage to keep your cup empty, even when dealing with well-known tasks and situations? How do you maintain the attitude of a beginner when faced with a problem you think you know inside-out? How do you trade the automatism and narrowed perspective for an open mind and the ability to look at things with a fresh eye?
The good news is that the Beginner’s Mind can be seen as just another mental habit, which grows itself naturally if nurtured. Just like you can engrain in your mind habits such as gratitude or patience, the attitude of a beginner may also be trained with the use of certain exercises and perceptual tools.
Ways to cultivate the Beginner’s Mind
Undercover Boss is a reality show in which CEOs of big corporations spend one week discovering their company from the perspective of labour workers, customer service employees and other people working at the bottom of the corporate ladder. This includes the boss working at a pizza-making stand at Domino’s or the Taco Bueno CEO operating a forklift at the tortilla wraps factory.
I think this show is an excellent example of how the Beginner’s Mind may be deliberately used as a tool to improve functioning of a whole organisation, by making bosses learn about their business from a whole new perspective. By putting themselves in a foreign professional context, the CEOs open their eyes to how various types of work look like within their company. They adopt the viewpoint of a beginner to see things they couldn’t see while playing the role of an expert at their headquarters.
Luckily, you don’t need to take such dramatic steps to be able to train your Beginner’s Mind. There are various simple ways to cultivate this attitude in any life situation, and I will share a few of them with you here. Feel free to use them as they are, or adjust them so that they better fit your personality, routines or lifestyle.
Three of the exercises I propose are perceptual tools, which you can use to adjust your perception and see things from a beginner’s point of view. The other three are action tools, allowing you to deliberately enter more experiences that make your mind naturally tune into the beginner’s mode.
1. Be a beginner in a conversation.
Next time you will be in a social context and a topic you are familiar with comes up — refrain yourself from speaking straight away. Especially when you hear someone expressing an opinion different from yours, don’t give into the automatic impulse to prove your point to the other.
Instead, try putting yourself into a position of someone who is completely new to the subject. Ask the other person a question and listen carefully, as if you didn’t know anything about the topic at hand. Be aware of your attitude and your thoughts, and check whether you are able to alter your perspective on the subject matter.
2. Explore something you normally take for granted.
This classical mindfulness exercise allows you to look with a fresh eye at something so familiar that you don’t even notice it anymore! This something can be as humble as a raisin (or any object that you think you know very well):
“Take a raisin and put it in your hand. Pretend you have dropped off from another planet, and you have never seen a raisin. With an inquisitive, open, non-judgmental perspective, examine the raisin. Explore it. Smell it, feel it, taste it. Engage your senses, in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. With all your attention, be one with the raisin.” — Amira Posner, The Mindfulness Meditation Institute
It may feel silly the first time you do it — watching, smelling or even listening to a raisin for a good couple of minutes. But by examining it so closely, you force your brain to switch to the beginner’s mode, simply because you are paying attention.
If you don’t like the idea of examining an object, you can instead pick an everyday activity and do it mindfully. Making your bed, brewing coffee, doing dishes or brushing teeth are all good places to start. Pay attention to your moves while you do it. Notice your breathing, your thoughts, your face expressions. Simply be in the moment and try to explore the activity as if you were doing it for the very first time.
3. Observe your automatic judgments.
An Expert Mind is likely to judge and classify life occurrences as either good or bad, right or wrong. A Beginner’s Mind doesn’t need such labels, because it perceives things as they are.
If you want to transform this aspect of your mind, you have to first notice your judgements. A useful way of achieving this is becoming alert throughout the day every time you use the words good or bad in a conversation. These words are usually indicators that you are judging something, according to your belief system. The idea here is to become aware that the good and bad are just your mental interpretations, rather that inherent qualities of the action or object you’re reffering to.
Any time you notice yourself labelling something as good or bad, ask yourself questions like: What does “good” and “bad” really mean to me? Why am I using this word in this particular moment? Do I really believe in what I just said, or did I just say it out of habit?
This kind of reflective questions will help you distance yourself from your judgements and, consequently, stop using them as a means of navigating your experience.
1. Hang out with people who have a completely different lifestyle, job or worldview.
Just like the bosses from Undercover Boss, who learned so much by adapting the perspective of their company’s workers, you can invite the attitude of a beginner by diversifying the circle of people around you. By spending time with people of different ages, cultural backgrounds and professions, you expose yourself to ways of living other than yours. This is what makes perfect conditions for the Beginner’s Mind to flourish.
You can do this in many ways. Searching for people who are different than you online — e.g. finding an angler’s club meet-up and attending it — is just one option. Other strategies include talking to strangers whom you find interesting (here is how to make the most out of it), reaching out to friends from high school from whom you haven’t heard in years, or… spending more time with someone you already know, but who is very different from you. You may discover that approaching your “crazy co-worker” or “bossy grandmother” with an intent of exercising the Beginner’s Mind will uncover a whole new dimension of your relationship.
2. Try a completely new activity.
Something you have literally never done before. It doesn’t matter whether it is trying out a new sport, going to a knitting workshop or testing a different operational system on your laptop. The point is to put your brain in a situation where it has to deal with a new task without relying on established behavioural patterns. (or at least not majorly relying on them)
What worked brilliantly for me was trying to ski for the first time ever this winter. Because moving around in skis is so different from any other experience, I had no chance to behave in an automatic manner. The Beginner’s Mind was on from the moment I entered the ski shop to rent the equipment and realized that I will actually need special boots to be able to attach the skis (no jokes — I didn’t know this). Then the whole day was about experimenting with what works and what doesn’t if I want to stay vertical. I had no previous experience to refer to.
When the day came to an end, I realized that not only had I been present throughout the whole day and had paid attention. I was also able to observe many of my emotional reactions and thought processes, which suddenly became very easy to notice. That’s because this was what I was doing all day long: learning how to manage my fear of falling down, how to keep myself motivated, etc.
3. Alter a well-known route while commuting.
Another easy way to bring your mind into the beginner mode is to put yourself in a different physical space. Many people report that the way to work or groceries’ store is so obvious for them, that they walk or drive it automatically and are not able to recall how they got from point A to B afterwards. This is because of the Expert Mind which “knows how to do it”, switching on without us even noticing.
To invite more attention into your routinely act of commuting, choose to get from point A to B differently. It may be that you change trains on another station or simply walk/drive a slightly different route. Again, your mind will have no choice but to abandon its reliance on habitual way of doing things. As a consequence, you will find yourself paying more attention and being more present.
Initially, the results may only be apparent during the very act of commuting. But if you repeat this and other exercises consistenly, the Beginner’s Mind will gradually permeate all the areas of your life.