The Importance of a Beginner’s Mind in Mastery

Pair of glasses on a book

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin in Zen Buddhism, refers to the attitude that you often see in people who just begin an activity.  This attitude is characterized by a general openness and eagerness to learn as well as not having any preconceptions while you learn whatever it is they are learning.  A popular Zen saying is ‘In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities.  In the expert’s there are few.’  I have six concepts below, in no particular order, about the Beginner’s Mind.

    • Preconceptions force us to miss what is in front of us. When a beginner starts something new, they do not have an existing repository of information in their brain saying this is what to expect.  They don’t read something and say, “no, that’s not the way it is supposed to be.”  They say, “wow, why is it like that?”  The first question stops you; the second one frees you.
    • Acknowledge your preconceptions, expectations, and prejudices. This has to be done before you can ignore them.  To believe that you don’t have them in the first place is folly and directly contradicts the Beginner’s Mind.  When you acknowledge that they are there, you can begin to learn in spite of them and learn to ignore them.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Lots of questions.  Too often, people feel as if asking questions is rude or imposing.  Or, just as often, they don’t want to look like an idiot.  A true beginner will ask questions until the sun comes up.  Learn the art of asking the right questions.  If you have a hard time with the ‘right’ questions, then learn the art of asking ALL of the questions.  Breakdown everything into the smallest possible chunks and learn all that you can.  Remember your best friends: what, where, who, how, and, most importantly, why.
    • Lose yourself in learning. When was the last time that you truly lost yourself in something?  You know the feeling.  This is where an activity that you spend hours on seems to pass by in a moment.  Was it a good book or a movie?  Was it spending time with friends or playing an instrument?  He who is able to do this while learning will conquer heaven and earth.  When you are able to immerse yourself in something so heavily that time disappears, then you will have found something that you are capable of being great at.
    • Have fun, even while you are frustrated. The best feeling to have as a beginner is that feeling of ‘this is great but why the hell can’t I get it?’  Enjoying something that is difficult for you is not an easy task.  But, this is the prime example of something pushing you to your limits and you growing from it.  All too often we stop trying to learn something new
    • Don’t assume that you have to be amazing. “I don’t want to do this anymore; I am no good at it!”  Do you remember saying this as a kid or, maybe, you still say it all the time as an adult.  Most people do, even if it is not always out loud.  The beginner does not expect to be amazing because they just started.  Sometimes, high expectations can hold you back, because you are afraid of trying anything new.

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