What Exactly Is a Beginner’s Mind (& How to Expand Your Mind by Thinking like a Beginner)?

In 1973, Vernon Hill had an idea: Why not start a bank that’s as convenient as a retail store?

The thing is, Hill wasn’t a banker. Though he’d worked part-time at one while studying at Wharton, his experience was mostly in real estate; specifically, scouting locations at which to develop new McDonald’s stores. Schlepping from one burger purveyor to the next, the uniformity of the chain’s locations fascinated him: “You don’t have to think about what time a Home Depot, a McDonald’s or a Starbucks is open,” Hill said later. “They’re open. You just go.”

It was based on this notion — exemplary customer service in a standardized environment — that Hill launched Commerce Bank. But it didn’t happen without some blowback. Other bankers didn’t hesitate to inform Hill that they thought he was crazy. Of the 15 prospective investors he invited to an initial meeting, all but seven walked out after he laid out his plan. Hill’s idea was so radical, such a dramatic departure from commonly-held banking wisdom, that industry experts assumed it would fail.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Investing $10,000 with Hill back in 1973 would be worth $2 million today. “Did we think this would happen?” Morton Kerr, one of the original Commerce board members, asked Philadelphia Magazine in 2006. “Are you kidding me?”

Had Hill been more steeped in the banking world, it’s highly likely he wouldn’t have thought to question the paradigms that so many assumed were immutable. Instead, he approached it with what’s known as “shoshin,” a Buddhist concept that means “beginner’s mind.”

There are plenty of industries in which being an expert is not only preferable, but necessary: Commercial airline pilots come to mind, as do surgeons. But for entrepreneurs, having a truly groundbreaking idea often requires abandoning long-held assumptions, and asking questions from a much more basic place of understanding: Why can’t computers and music be portable? Why can’t eyeglasses be cheap? Why can’t banks stay open past 3 p.m.?

Shoshin 101

In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki summarized shoshin like this: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Personally, I spend a lot of time trying to understand my industry better, since I want to run my company, JotForm, as well as I possibly can. But counterintuitive though it may seem, there is a restriction in knowing too much. As we deepen our knowledge of a given subject, we inadvertently narrow our focus and become less open to new ideas and perspectives. Contrast this mindset to that of a student, who has no preconceptions and therefore is open to entirely new ways of thinking.

Experts tend to ignore new information that clashes with their existing knowledge, creating a very limited space for new perspectives. As Atomic Habits author James Clear writes, “Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.” While this might be a great way to feel smart, it’s not the way to actually become a better thinker.

Adopting a beginner’s mindset doesn’t mean ignoring acquired knowledge. It simply means acknowledging that we don’t actually know what’s going to happen next, and approaching the world accordingly.

Assume you know nothing

For professionals who have reached some stature in their careers, practicing shoshin requires a healthy dose of humility. To think from the ground up, you have to be willing to venture away from the well-worn paths of experience and into the unknown. After all, circumstances change: New technology becomes available, new markets emerge, and customers’ tastes evolve. Staying relevant means regularly testing what you think you know, and being willing to alter your views if necessary.

Bertrand Russell famously said that, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” The less you assume you know, the more able you’ll be to open your mind to new possibilities.

Spend more time listening

This is another one that will take some humility. But the fact is that if you’re always the one talking, there’s no time to actually listen.

Clear points out that high-achievers often feel compelled to add value during conversations. This isn’t necessarily a good thing:

“If you’re constantly adding value (‘You should try this…’ or ‘Let me share something that worked well for me…’) then you kill the ownership that other people feel about their ideas,” he says. “At the same time, it’s impossible for you to listen to someone else when you’re talking.”

Spending more time listening won’t just create space to learn new things; it will also help build healthier relationships. Active listening is a skill that most of us struggle with — but it can be learned. A good place to start is by looking the speaker in the eye, waiting until they’re actually done talking before you respond, and asking good follow up questions that show you’re not only paying attention, but genuinely interested in what they’re saying. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn.

Get outside perspective

In the course of filming the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, director Peter Gruber was frustrated that the titular gorillas weren’t behaving the way the script called for. In a meeting to try to workshop the problem, an intern suggested something unorthodox: Letting the gorillas write the script.

Asked to clarify, the intern explained, “What if you sent a really good cinematographer into the jungle with a ton of film to shoot the gorillas? Then write a story around what they do on film.” In the end, that’s exactly what Gruber did. It was the intern’s inexperience, he said, that “enabled her to see opportunities where we saw only boundaries.”

Experience is, of course, helpful in many ways, but sometimes it pays to talk to people with some remove from a given issue. This can mean listening to younger people, as Gruber did, who aren’t bound by convention, or even asking people outside your industry for their perspective.

Harnessing a beginner’s mind won’t just help you solve problems — it will allow you to think more freely and more creatively, and open a new world of possibilities your expert’s mind didn’t know existed.

AUTHOR
Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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