The Beginner’s Mind

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As I prepare to embark on our coaching project, I’ve been reflecting on the things I think will be challenging for me as a coach.  One thing I want to keep front of mind is my tendency to want to solve problems and tell people what I think they should do.  As a coach my job is to help the people I’m coaching solve the problems for themselves.  Over the past couple of weeks I keep running across the concept of the “beginner’s mind” and decided that this is something I needed to explore further.

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”  For most of us, once we have figured out a strategy that works, we use the same techniques over and over again without ever questioning whether this is really the best approach.  As James Clear says in Shoshin: This Zen Concept Will Help You Stop Being a Slave to Old Beliefs, “most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.  As a coach, I need to be aware of my preconceptions and biases and also be open to seeing things from another’s perspective.

My goal will be to adopt a “don’t know” mind set and also guide those I am coaching to use the same approach.  We need to approach each process with curiosity and a sense of exploration.  We need to ask questions without assuming we know all the answers.  One way to know that someone is straying into preconceptions is when you hear the word “should”.  In The Beginner’s Mind, Peter Kaufman says “I think one of the most basic ways to think about the beginner’s mind is to speak of intellectual curiosity—to have this insatiable desire to gain more knowledge and wisdom because we know there is so much more to learn. “

In Beginner’s Mind D. Keith Robinson recommends reframing “success” as learning something new.  If your goal is to learn something new rather than solve a problem or come up with an answer, you will be much more open to asking questions and exploring. Fear of failure can lead to approaching a problem with a closed mindset.  However with a goal of learning, you are bound to succeed.

Many times feedback can be framed in the negative. Instead of saying “yes, but”, which can imply unwillingness to explore new ideas, say “yes, and” which implies a openness and a willingness to include other ideas or perspectives.  We need to be sure that we don’t close the door and say “no” to new possibilities.  As a coach, I will need to pay attention to the words I use.  I want to be sure I’m being positive and open rather than negative and closed.

When approaching an obstacle as a coach, I need to be sure that we follow the  PDCA process one step at a time.  It’s important not to mentally skip to the end as following the process will likely take us in new and unexpected directions. I need to help the person I’m coaching focus on asking good questions rather than feeling like she needs to have all the answers.  “You can never solve a problem on the same level on which it was created.”  Albert Einstein

Adopting a beginner’s mind, doesn’t mean that you have to throw out everything you know, nor is it meant to discount expertise. Rather, it’s a reminder to try to approach a subject with the same openness and curiosity that you had when you first began studying a new field.  When applying what you know to a new circumstance pay attention to the things that might be different.  Just because something may have worked previously, doesn’t mean that it will work for every situation.  In The hidden power of ‘I don’t know’: How to work through creative blocks with Beginner’s Mind, Jory Mackay recommends using your experience as a “cognitive time machine”.  “It’s like a mental time machine transporting you back to a point of open curiosity but with a higher level of wisdom.”

When I think about preparing to coach and developing a beginner’s mind, I have to keep reminding myself that this is not something I’m going to be good at immediately. It will take practice and work.  For the beginner, practice without effort is not true practice. For the beginner, the practice needs great effort.” Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki  I have to also remind myself that a beginner’s mind is not just another tool that I take out and dust off when needed.  It’s not a mindset but a way of being and approaching the world.  I just have to keep practicing and learning.

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Author: Joyce A Gustafson

Compliance professional and 6 Sigma black belt. Passionate about continuous improvement, "working out loud", and constantly learning. Originally trained as a cellular biologist, I have spent the bulk of my career working in the pharmaceutical industry. Previous experience includes Operations Management, Outsourcing, Recruiting, High Throughput Screening and Cell Based Assay Development, and Biology Research. NOTE: This is my personal blog and the thoughts and opinions are my own. This blog does NOT represent the view and opinions of my employer

One thought on “The Beginner’s Mind”

  1. I just fixed the links on this post. I had originally posted this on our corporate ESN and didn’t realize that this changed the links when I copied it over here. I apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused.

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