The concept of a beginner’s mindset comes from Zen Buddhism and the word Shoshin, translated as looking at every situation as if you are seeing it for the first time. With the world changing as rapidly as it is, we’re seeing things for the first time almost every day. Yet it can be our nature to connect what’s next with our experiences in a way that makes us less open to new possibilities.
In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, the Prologue opens with the line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This elegant sentiment is why I have strong feelings about people referring to themselves as experts.
In my book Peernovation: What Peer Advisory Groups Can Teach Us About Building High-Performing Teams, I wrote, “For those who know me well, they will tell you that I bristle when people refer to themselves as experts. If someone else wants to confer that designation on you, feel free to let them, but any real expert I’ve ever met remains a student of their discipline first and never confers the expert moniker on themselves. It’s how they develop their ever-evolving expertise and maintain their edge.”
Presenters and their Audiences
The more we see ourselves as students – as always trying to learn – the more likely we will be open to all the world has to offer us. I see this up close and personal every time I deliver a keynote address, in-person workshop, or virtual presentation of any kind.
It’s easy to pick out those with the beginner’s mindset and those who take the “I am the expert” approach. The facial expressions and body language are dead giveaways. In fairness, I get it. If you’re a CEO, for example, you’ve probably read dozens of books/articles and heard countless presentations on the topic of leadership. So, it’s easy to turn off your brain, thinking to yourself, “I’ve got this. Nothing new here. I’ve heard it all before.” Once you do that, though, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will be correct. You won’t learn anything new, but in most cases that won’t be the presenter’s fault, that’s on you.
The next time you attend a live presentation, particularly on a topic with which you have general familiarity, think about what it would be like if the speaker stood beside you rather than across from you. Or imagine taking a walk, where you are exploring the subject matter together. During this walk, let your curiosity reign supreme, and consider it your mission to leave your time together with a nugget or two or three that you didn’t have with you before you started. It’s there; you just need to be open to receiving it. And for you speakers out there, there is plenty to learn from your audiences as well.
In the 2007 feature film August Rush, we learned that the music is all around us; we just have to listen for it. In the 1930s, John Dewey talked about accidental learning. Many of us can relate to life lessons that came from the most unlikely of places. For example, my most important leadership communication lesson came from an incident at a junior high school track meet. As I passed the baton to the anchor leg in a relay race, the baton hit the ground. The coach was crystal clear about it being my fault, stating that the sender should NEVER let go of the baton until it’s in the receiver’s grasp. Later in college, I learned invaluable lessons about organizational culture in business – not from a business course – but a humanities course. During the semester, I encountered this fantastic article about outsiders trying to drive change in an African village without first understanding the culture. As you might have guessed, it failed miserably. I don’t offer these personal examples to suggest I am any better at this than anyone else, only to point out that the more open we are, the more receptive we can be.
The two examples I offered from junior high school and college showcase how even learning in an accidental fashion can take place if we’re open to life’s lessons. Imagine what can happen when we are intentional about it with the right mindset. Whether you are reading a book, listening to a keynote speaker, or leading a strategy meeting in your company. Pretend you don’t know everything. Let curiosity rule. The more you adopt a beginner’s mindset, the more likely you will equip yourself with the ideas, tools, and framing that will help you embrace and thrive in this world of what’s next. Leave failing to the experts.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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