Everyone wants to be great at what they do. But few people understand that to be an expert, they first need to adopt the Beginner’s Mind.
In this article, I want to show you how cultivating beginner’s mindset helps you master any area you want. Additionally, it makes the whole learning process WAY more fun and effortless.
We’ll start by pointing out the differences between the Beginner’s Mind and Expert’s Mind to understand why the former is so beneficial.
Then, I’ll introduce you to some practical ways of cultivating an attitude of a beginner in your daily life — no matter who you are and what you do.
Let’s get started.
The Difference Between Beginner’s Mind 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’ll focus on the impact of these 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 through similar experiences in the past.
This is an attitude adopted 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, fewer aspects of a situation are questioned and more are assumed. This often results in a narrowed perception and performing tasks in a rigid way, while dismissing alternative ways of dealing with the situation. According to the Earned Dogmatism Hypothesis, it’s socially acceptable 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 Expert or Beginner’s Mind has very real consequences in one’s behaviour when faced with a learning or professional challenge. Here are some general tendencies typical for each of the two mindsets.
Behavioural Differences Between Beginner and Expert
Photo by Fabrizio Magoni on Unsplash
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki
To illustrate the differences in how the Expert and Beginner’s Mind operate, let’s imagine the following setup.
An experienced chef Marc, who has been working in hospitality for 30 years, is planning a wedding reception together with his assistant Katie, who’s new to the job. Representing the Expert Mind (Marc) and the Beginner’s Mind (Katie), these two will have very different takes on resolving challenges that arise in their work together.
1. 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 table service, 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 a buffet for a wedding — it’s not elegant enough. We will serve one cold starter first, then soup and then a hot starter. We will make all starters vegetarian, and for the main, we will give everyone a choice between meat or non-meat plate. The wedding cake should be chocolate — this is the most universal as, according to research, only 6% of people dislike chocolate.
The Beginner’s Mind sees endless possibilities for planning out the wedding menu. The Expert believes that there is just one “correct” way.
2. No “right-wrong” judgement vs. judgement based on established beliefs
While preparing the table before the arrival of guests, Katie figures that there’s very little space left – the wedding decorations are quite abundant. She decides that it would be more convenient for the guests if she served bread on their 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 at 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’s Mind doesn’t label things as “right” or “wrong” — rather, she 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.
3. Being in the present moment vs. sticking to a rigid plan
Noticing that some of the guests are cold after arriving, Katie suggests serving hot soup first so 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 a 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’s Mind is more likely to see what’s required in the present. For the Expert, it’s hard to let go of the pre-planned way of dealing with a situation.
4. Conscious actions vs. autopilot
In between serving meals, Marc and Katie are cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes. Marc, who’s used to working here, does many things automatically. He keeps putting the dishwasher on without noticing a little red light, which signals that the detergent 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’s Mind, it’s much easier to approach a task consciously, with the intention to find the best possible solution. Expert, on the other hand, easily falls into autopilot mode and struggles to solve problems if something’s out of ordinary.
During the wedding reception, the ultimate goal of Marc’s and Katie’s work was to provide the best possible service for the newlyweds and their guests. It’s easy to see which of the two attitudes — Beginner’s or Expert’s — was more useful in attaining this goal.
The first successful flight of the Wright Flyer. Source
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-funded, based on amateur technical solutions and a few years of experimenting with ideas that others “waved their hands at”.
It took a beginner’s mind to figure out a way for a man to fly.
Maintaining an open mind is essential if you’re 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 Marshall Goldsmith’s book reads:
This is especially true in the fast-changing world of the 21st century, where new technologies, ideas and trends are popping up 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 their next change. It’s precisely the Beginner’s Mind and the willingness to learn that allows them to retain their expert status.
If you want to master any given area, you have to embrace the idea of life-long learning. And to learn throughout your life, you don’t just need to 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.
Deep learning 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?”
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 Beginner’s Mind when faced with a problem you think you know inside-out? How do you trade the automatism and narrowed perspective for 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 can be 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.
How 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. Think 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 to improve the functioning of organisations, by making executives learn about their business from a new perspective. By putting themselves in a foreign professional context, the CEOs open their eyes to what various types of work look like within their company. They adopt the Beginner’s Mind to see things they couldn’t see while sitting 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 ways to cultivate it in any life situation. I want to share a few of them with you here.
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 you naturally tune into the Beginner’s Mind.
I. Perceptual tools
1. Be a beginner in a conversation.
Next time you will be in a social context and a topic you’re familiar with comes up — refrain yourself from speaking straight away. Especially when you hear someone expressing an opinion that’s different from yours, don’t give in to the automatic impulse to oppose.
Instead, try putting yourself in the position of someone who’s completely new to the subject. Ask the other person a question and listen carefully, as if you didn’t know anything about the topic. Be aware of your attitude and your thoughts, and check whether you’re 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 few minutes. But by examining it so closely, you force your brain to switch to the Beginner’s Mind, simply because you’re 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 facial expressions. Be in the moment and 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’re judging something or someone according to your beliefs. The idea here is to become aware that the good and bad are just your mental interpretations, rather than inherent qualities of the action or object you’re referring 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.
II. Action tools
1. Hang out with people who have a completely different lifestyle, job or worldview.
Just like the CEOs from Undercover Boss, you can invite the Beginner’s Mind 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 very different from yours. This creates 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 old friends from high school, or… spending more time with someone you already know, but who’s 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.
Do something you’ve literally never done before. It doesn’t matter whether it is trying a new sport, going to a knitting workshop or testing a different operating 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 automatic patterns.
What worked brilliantly for me was trying to ski for the first time as an adult. 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.
When the day came to an end, I realized that not only had I been present throughout the whole day and had paid attention to my body. I was also able to see many emotional reactions and thought processes I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. That’s because I entered the Beginner’s Mind, trying to make sense of a brand new experience.
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 that they walk or drive it automatically. Later on, they’re not able to recall how they got from point A to B. This is because of the Expert Mind which “knows how to do it” which switches on without us noticing.
To invite more attention into your routine act of commuting, choose to get from point A to B differently. It may be that you change trains on a different station or simply walk/drive a slightly different route. Again, your mind will have no choice but to abandon its reliance on the habitual way of doing things.
As a consequence, you will find yourself paying more attention and being more present.
If you repeat the exercises above, over time, they’ll start creating new neural pathways in your brain. Beginner’s Mind will become more and more natural to you. As a result, you’ll be able to learn like children do – without judgment or fear, but with an open mind instead.
This, if you ask me, is the quickest way to become an expert in any given field.