How To Excel At Anything With A Beginner’s Mind

“The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.”

Suzuki Shunryu

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In the beginner’s mind, the world is full of wonder and infinite possibilities.

 

Adopting a beginner’s mind means adopting an attitude of openness, eagerness, and free of preconceptions.

 

This is in line with the immortal words of Zen master Suzuki Shunryu from his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

 


There is an apparent paradox in Zen master Suzuki’s words. The more you know about a subject, the more likely it is that you’ll close your mind to new information.

 

However, if you approach everything with a beginner’s mind, you can excel in anything you set out to achieve.

 

Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind

It takes courage to try new things or embark on a new pursuit. As a beginner, the feeling can be uneasy, unpleasant, and unsettling. It also comes with a steep learning curve.

 

When you adopt a beginner’s mind, you will be like a child discovering something for the first time. Kids have an innocent fascination for all things new and unusual. They are insatiably curious and are constantly on the lookout for answers.

 

In the words of Zen master Suzuki Shunryu:

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

 

In the practice of Zen and martial arts, there is a concept known as shoshin (初心), which means “beginner’s mind.” Shoshin refers to the idea of letting go of expectations and approaching a subject with enthusiasm and an open mind.

 

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As a beginner, you might have no idea how to perform whatever you’re learning right now. Yet, you will treat everything with awe and wonder, as if it were completely new.

 

Zen practitioners and martial artists are well aware that the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master. If you leave the mind to its own devices, it will become preoccupied and confused.

 

Whatever you’ve learned in the past is embedded in your subconscious mind. This makes you resistant to change and fearful of failure.

 

With a beginner’s mind, you’ll have an open mind and perceive everything through the eyes of a child. Expectations and preconceived notions about anything and everything are absent in the mind of a beginner.

 

But what if you are already an expert in your field?

 

The Risk Of Being An Expert

There is an inherent danger in being an expert.

 

When you adopt the mindset of an expert, you’ll become less receptive to new knowledge. You think that you have learned everything that needs to be learned.

 

For many, an expert mindset marks the beginning of the end.

 

Experts will block out any information that contradicts what they’ve already learned. They will plough through information until they find something that matches their previous knowledge and expertise.

 

In short, they want knowledge that supports what they already know. This is a natural human weakness known as ‘confirmation bias’.

 

In the insightful book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck remarked:

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?”

 

Dweck believes that abilities can be developed when you adopt a growth mindset, which is akin to a beginner’s mind.

 

People that have a growth mindset believe that by putting in the effort, they can improve their abilities. They will approach each task and learning experience with an open mind, as if they knew nothing.

 

Experts who believe they’ve “made it” are stuck in a fixed mindset that prevents them from progressing.

 

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Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing bad about becoming an expert. Being an expert is praiseworthy because it is not easy to reach the top of any field. It takes a lot of determination, effort, and hard work to become an expert.

 

Keep in mind that you got to this point by honing your abilities and expanding your knowledge.

 

True experts never stop learning. No matter how in-depth their knowledge of a subject becomes, they will still maintain the open mindset of a beginner.

 

They adopt the Japanese principle of Kaizen (改善), which means “constant and never-ending improvement.”

 

The First Step To A Beginner’s Mind

To become remarkable in anything that you’ve set out to achieve, you must avoid the expert mindset. In my hypnotherapy practice, I’ve encountered many clients who are faced with the daunting task of making lifestyle adjustments.

 

One of the key reasons they’re in a ‘stuck’ frame of mind is their fixation on how things “should be.”

 

According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology:

“Individuals induced to believe they are experts tend to over-estimate the accuracy of their beliefs.”

 

Before you can master anything, you need space in your mind to accommodate new knowledge, skills, and experience.

 

A long time ago, a scholar named Tokusan paid a visit to Master Ryutan, seeking enlightenment.

 

The scholar said to the master, “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen.”

 

The Zen master smiled and suggested they talk about it over a cup of tea. Tokusan began by discussing all he knew about Zen and why he was deserving of enlightenment. When the tea was ready, Master Ryutan poured a cup for his visitor.

 

Despite the fact that the cup was full, he continued to pour until the contents spilled across the table, the floor, and the scholar’s robes.

 

“Enough,” the scholar finally exclaimed. “You’re splattering tea all over me. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

 

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The master stopped pouring and smiled at Tokusan. “You’re like this tea cup, overflowing to the point where nothing more can be added. If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste this cup of tea?”

 

I’m sure we can all relate to this lesson. Emptying your cup is simple in theory, but putting it into practice is challenging.

 

Empty Your Mind And Be Formless

As we journey through life, we fill up our “cups” with our past experiences and knowledge. When a new idea comes along, it’s all too simple to distort it to match our world view.

 

Remember the aforementioned “confirmation bias?”

 

So, before you can be great at what you do, you need to cultivate a beginner’s mindset.

 

But where and how do you begin?

 

One effective way is by adopting the mindset that made Bruce Lee a great martial artist and philosopher.

 

Take a moment to contemplate his most renowned philosophical quote:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”

 

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This mindset requires you to be able to alter and adapt to the circumstances you find yourself in. It’s about not being entrenched in your ways when it comes to your thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge.

 

When you’re able to adapt to any situation, you can overcome any challenges and problems that life throws at you.

 

According to Zen Master Suzuki:

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”

 

5 Ways To Cultivate A Beginner’s Mind

Are you ready to rediscover your beginner’s mind? Here are 5 ways to get you started:

 

1. Embrace Your “Don’t Know” Mind

No one likes a smarty pants. Sometimes your ego gets the better of you, and that inner “know-it-all” pops up too often.

 

This is something I, for one, have been guilty of on numerous occasions.

 

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

 

If you don’t understand, or if you know something but don’t know how to say it, say you “don’t know.”

 

Get into the habit of acknowledging that you don’t know. When you embrace your “don’t know” mind, it’s an opportunity to approach every situation as if you had no biases.

 

2. Learn To Shut Up and Listen

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I used to feel compelled to add value to the lives of those around me. And it took me a while to realize that by refusing to listen to others, I’m hampering my own progress.

 

These days, I just shut up and listen. By avoiding the urge to “fix” their problem, I’m allowing myself to receive the entire message.

 

Make a pledge to yourself to be a better listener. Allow yourself to be open to other people’s perspectives and to see things from their point of view.

 

Learn to take a step back. Then just observe and listen.

 

3. Check Your Ego At The Door

Put your ego on the back burner and let go of the need to win every argument. If someone makes a statement that you disagree with, refrain from correcting them.

 

Be “intellectually humble” and allow yourself to be receptive to other people’s perspectives. Tell yourself that it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong.

 

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Letting go of the need to prove a point puts you in alignment with the concept of “shoshin.”

 

Take pleasure in the knowledge that you will learn something new as a result of this. Approach it with a sense of awe and curiosity.

 

4. Approach Life With Childlike Curiosity

Do you recall how you used to learn as a kid? You soak up information like a sponge. There are no preconceptions, social anxiety, or prejudices in your thoughts.

 

Adopt the curiosity of a child. Do not be ashamed of your ignorance. Practice asking questions to get the answers that you have always been seeking.

 

It’s never too late to reclaim the freedom and spontaneity of childhood, and to reintroduce your mind to new possibilities.

 

Emulate the innate inquisitiveness and imagination of a child. Approach each task and challenge with a childlike enthusiasm. And don’t be afraid to deconstruct assumptions and reimagine possibilities.

 

After all, life is a never-ending stream of lessons.

 

5. Subdue The “Monkey Mind”

Your mind is always busy from the time you awake. Most of the time, this chatter isn’t helpful. It makes judgments, speculations, and conclusions about everything.

 

In psychology, this is known as the “monkey mind,” the region of the brain that is linked to your ego. The chattering monkey mind is actually your internal monologue.

 

It stifles creativity and makes it nearly impossible to be present and focused on the moment. One way to control it is through the practice of mindfulness

 

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Mindfulness is paying attention to your current experience without making judgments about it. When you are fully engaged in a task and give it undivided attention without judgment, you are practicing mindfulness.

 

Another form of mindfulness involves controlled breathing in a quiet spot where you can enjoy some uninterrupted time.

 

Conclusion

It’s not easy to cultivate a beginner’s mind. However, the benefits it brings to your life make the effort worthwhile.

 

Aside from being able to excel in anything you set your mind to, adopting a beginner’s mind has many advantages. The most obvious effect is that it makes you more receptive to new ideas and possibilities.

 

When your mind is open you get to venture outside your comfort zone and explore new possibilities. A beginner’s mind helps you to be in the moment, and provides you with new insights into tasks and activities.

 

A beginner’s mind helps you to be present, recognize people’s good intentions simply listen without passing judgement. Your listening abilities increase when you communicate with others without prejudice or assumptions.

 

And last but not least, to a beginner, there is no failure, only feedback. Instead of looking at failure as something undesirable, you will realize that it’s just a part of the learning process.

 

Now that you’ve grasped the notion of shoshin, are you ready to adopt a beginner’s mindset?

 

What new skills and knowledge are you hoping to gain as a result of it?

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