Finding Hope in the Promise of Beginner’s Mind

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Written by Pete Sena,
• 7 min read

There is no question that we are living in unprecedented times. Those of us who are lucky enough to have business that can be done from home are doing all we can to keep our heads down and continue to move things forward. Many of us don’t or won’t have that option for much longer. For all of us, the task of starting fresh is daunting and overwhelming, to say the least.

I’d like to help on that note, without joining the pile-up of positivity pushers that are chiming in with pithy advice that’s ringing less and less true with each passing day. This is more where I’m at these days (and what a difference a week makes in the face of COVID-19):

While a positive mindset is helpful, it’s not always realistic. But there is one mindset that we will naturally find ourselves in when we’re finally able to return to full-capacity work: the Zen concept of Shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind. To me, there is no stronger driver of growth than a mindset that’s entirely free of preconceptions.

Take, for example, Steve Jobs, who was known not only for his industry-shattering innovations but also for his spiritual side and devotion to Buddhism. Shunryu Suzuki’s classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was one of Jobs’ go-to business/life guidebooks. It made a definite impact on his ability to focus and create (if not his willingness to live by other Zen ideals, like humility or compassion).

So let’s start at the beginning and see how and why emptying your mind of previous knowledge is a great way to start moving forward again towards future success.

Getting started with Shoshin

I learned about Shoshin through meditation. Unlike Jobs, my entree to exploring mind-clearing concepts was through apps like Headspace and Calm. (On second thought, maybe thanks to Jobs, as he both innovated apps and helped popularized Zen Buddhism in the US.)

Because design thinking has so much to do with getting out of the way of your preconceived notions and directing your focus on how others interact with a brand’s product or service, the ancient concept immediately resonated with me.

In fact, this Suzuki quote sounds like something worth telling a team before a design sprint:

“Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people.”

Beginner’s Mind is all about putting on a hyperaware lens so you can see the world in new and exciting ways. It sparks eagerness and joy and helps shut down the been there, done that negative attitude that is a massive creativity killer.

The best part of Shoshin is that it’s easy to start practicing immediately. For example, you can tune into a singular sense by focusing on just the sounds in the room, or scan your surroundings for a particular color or texture.

Or, you can simply start thinking of everything as a gift. The satisfying crunch of biting into a crisp apple, the smell of blooming jasmine, the taste of dark roast coffee, the feel of fuzzy socks, the sight of your dog running at top speed to greet you when you walk into a room.

Coming to your senses can help you relax (and hopefully those examples did just that).

Now it’s time to see how to apply Shoshin for better results and a more gratifying experience at work.

Open up to possibilities

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~ T. S. Eliot

As someone who works day in and day out with amazing brands that have products that do incredible things, you may be surprised to hear that I believe that curiosity and creativity are broken.

There is so much riding on success that we let our brains trick us into believing that there is only safety in the known… in what happened in the past… in what we think we know works.

If you’re looking for a fast way to suck energy and creativity out of a room, keep dredging up the “good old days.” The past is not the path forward. And in the face of defining a “new normal,” it may well be off the table anyway.

Shoshin is the perfect concept to embrace as you prepare to hit the reset button and seek out new business avenues and revenue streams. Beginners are always curious, because they genuinely don’t know what’s possible.

This is why I love cultivating the idea of being a curious dreamer. It’s a great way to figure out what makes people tick — and how a brand can improve or enhance their experience.

Dare to dream and lead like you never have before

It may seem to you that you’ll lose ground if you show up as a beginner rather than an expert.

I’d argue that you’ll be better armed than ever before to conquer challenges and win business. Curiosity and empathy are weapons of wonder. When paired together, the infinite number of actions and opportunities they present give you a universe of new paths to explore and valuable ideas to uncover.

All it takes is an open mind. Trust what got you to this point, but also be willing to be convinced otherwise. Ask open-ended questions, like “How might we…?” and don’t be afraid to admit, “I don’t know… I’m curious about your thoughts.”

By accepting new perspectives and opinions, you remove any barriers in the way of your pursuing the ultimate best idea or solution.

As Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents. I am just passionately curious.”

So make like a genius: indulge your inquisitive nature and stop assuming.

After all, billion-dollar businesses don’t begin in a boardroom; they start in the mind’s eye of the curious. Jobs marveled at the simplicity of his favorite places — a Kyoto garden, the minimalistic Eichler-style homes in his childhood neighborhood — to create the signature clean, intuitive aesthetic of his Apple products.

Shoshin starts with not being afraid, and it expands your horizon once you permit yourself to assume nothing. With all we’re going through now, it’s much easier to lean into leaving our views and opinions behind. This may well be a helpful place to start envisioning a new way forward.

As Suzuki points out: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”

The coronavirus is changing everything, and at the moment, it may seem impossible to find a silver lining. But when the pandemic ends, we will want and need to get back to work with a renewed energy.. The beauty of Beginner’s Mind is that it takes the onus off of having to know what to do. All it takes is a simple willingness to begin again.