Beginner’s Mind

So I’m a bit behind on my writing. What can I say? It’s been a crazy few weeks

Darren Kuropatwa thinks it’s difficult to be a change agent if you are an expert.

Dan Meyer (sorta) disagrees:

Darren thinks his situation requires more novices when instead it requires better experts. Hungry experts. Experts who empathize with the novice, who constantly re-evaluate their own assumptions from the perspective of a novice, who get outside their own heads as much as possible and as often as possible.

Anytime you think of yourself as an expert – hungry, empathetic or otherwise – you have already put yourself at a disadvantage. The Zen master Shunryū Suzuki said:

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

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p 1)

The most effective teachers are the ones who approach every unit, every day, every lesson like it was the first time. They do not ignore their wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience; nor do they let that knowledge or experience dictate their actions. Rather, they let their current situation – the one they are experiencing for the first time, the one in which they are the beginner – determine the best course of action.

I know from my own experience that my colleagues who have been the most effective and inspirational were the ones who were never fully satisfied with their work. They never seemed to use the same lesson plan twice because there was always something that could be improved. They never saw themselves as the expert and thus able to rest on their laurels; they saw themselves as beginners with many possibilities to improve.

9 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind

  • March 16, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    You could just rewrite Dan’s quote to be “experts who don’t think of themselves as experts because they’re so hard on themselves” and you get what you just said.

    I think it’s possible to go a bit extreme with the self-deprecation. Bruckner was famous for this, causing him to do things like structure every symphony he wrote after Beethoven’s 9th. Ives attempts later in life at revising his early work made things worse; most musicians play the original versions.

  • March 17, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Really loved the way you summed it up in this line:

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

    I find “many possibilities” inspiring.

    I love when a kids first groks a tough bit of mathematics; you can see it in their eyes.

    I also love watching a teacher drink deep of the electric kool-aid for the first time; their eyes shine too.

  • March 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    @Jason Dyer Maybe it’s a semantic distinction, but I think the use of the word ‘experts’ is where I have trouble with Dan’s statement. An expert who is hard on herself is still an expert and is still seen with that mystique by those around her (and possibly herself). An expert who empathizes with a novice still places a distinction between himself and the novice.

    I don’t think ‘Beginner’s Mind’ is about self-deprecation. Self-deprecation is done for the comfort of others whereas approaching something as a beginner is done for oneself. When Michael Jordan decided to develop a turnaround J even though he was arguably already the best basketball player on the planet, he wasn’t doing it as an example to his teammates. He saw an opportunity to improve himself. That people like myself point to that example to motivate myself and others is probably irrelevant to him; he did it just to get better.

  • March 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    @Darren Kuropatwa I’d love to take credit for that line but just to be clear it comes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. [This has been corrected above too.]

    I also love it when a beginner walks into a situation (any situation) and finds a solution simply because they were unencumbered by previous experience. Maybe the whole concept of ‘Thinking Outside of the Box’ is really just approaching problems with a Beginner’s Mind.

    And I’ve decided I don’t use the word ‘grok’ enough in my everyday life. I need to change that.

  • March 17, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    You nailed it. While what makes an expert “expert” is their continual striving to get better and not seeing themselves as experts, they’re still experts. That inevitably influences their work and how they are seen by others. While an expert can strive to have a beginner’s state of mind they can’t have it anymore; that’s not how growth works. Only true novices can genuinely be beginners and be seen as such for others.

    I am only an egg. We grok when waiting is filled. 😉

  • March 19, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    “Never fully satisfied with their work” matches my exact definition of self-deprecation.
    I don’t get where “the comfort of others” comes into play here. (Really, people would have preferred Bruckner not have been so hard on himself, because it led to erratic behavior and the *dis*comfort of others.)

  • March 22, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    @Jason Dyer Sorry for the delay. Stupid unhealthiness…

    To me, self-deprecation is about belittling yourself (before others have the opportunity to do it). I might make self-deprecating remarks about my work so that others can identify with me, not because I truly believe my work has shortcomings. I guess, to some extent, I equate self-deprecation with false modesty.

    “Never fully satisfied with their work” is something completely different.

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