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Navigating the New Year With a Beginner's Mind

A beginner's mind is what allows us to embrace the highest emotional qualities such as enthusiasm, zeal and optimism to creatively move ourselves forward.
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Gerry Spence, the famous lawyer, and a noted poet and photographer from a small town in Wyoming once wrote:

Some claim amazement that any lawyer could achieve national prominence after spending his first seventeen years of practice in the sticks of Wyoming -- indeed, in Riverton, Wyoming, population something like five or six thousand people. But the key to whatever success I now enjoy after nearly sixty years of practice is ignorance.

The power of ignorance frees one of fear, frees one to rely on one's native talents.

No one is more powerful than the kid in the trenches who has no understanding of pain or death. That's why we send young men to war.

I can relate to Gerry's notion of the "power of ignorance." I have been jumping into life's adventures one after another since I was 17 years old.

In my upcoming book, Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (McGraw-Hill, February 2014) with my friend Drake Baer, we discuss quite bit about this power of ignorance and a beginner's mind.

As we get ready to say "welcome" to a new year and "goodbye" to another, this post, taken from Everything Connects, just might jump start your next big adventure.

The Clay Cup

A clay cup sits in front of you.

How does its function change when it is full versus when it is empty? A full cup is useful in that you can drink from it -- you can use the resources inside of it. But what use does an empty cup have? You cannot drink from it, so how can it be useful? Which would the optimist -- or the pessimist -- choose? Is it "better" to be half empty or half full?

Or, conversely, what if you wish to add more liquid to the vessel -- would you want it to be empty or full? What is the function of the liquid then? It's value?

Take these questions in for a moment. Chew them, taste them, savor them.

Done? Good.

So what is that cup? The vessel, according to the old Zen metaphor we're summoning, is your mind. It can be full or empty, each with its implications.

Which mind do you want? Which mind do you want your team to have?

If you want to be thought an expert -- you may privilege the full mind. After all, it's rather impressive to know many things, to be a fount of knowledge. However, expertise implies a sort of rigidity; if your cup is full, it cannot accept more water.

As an entrepreneurial society, we've experienced many things and advanced our skills to a high level. However, if we fixate our conception of the world on the systems that we build to represent it, we can lose sight of the world. Instead we just see our ideas about the world.

The Beginner's Mind


This is why we need to maintain what Zen Buddhists refer to as beginner's mind or Shoshin (初心) -- a certain playful absence of assumptions. As Shunyru Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few," and since we are the product of repeatedly experimenting with possibilities, we're behooved to approach our life in such a way as to give the maximum surface area to possibility.

Beginner's mind, then, is a practice of approaching our experiences empty of assumptions. Essentially, beginner's mind is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled up by the raw data of doing commerce and living life. In this way, we become more vulnerable to insight. Since we don't claim to have come to the final answer, we can more readily welcome new ones.

What this demands is a nuanced understanding of the timeless and the timely: some parts of life are timeless, such as, say, the nature of consciousness, the nature of relationships -- this is why ancient wisdom about these fundamentals remains so deeply resonant today -- while other, more emergent aspects of life, such as technology, are intensely timely: the phone you carry in your pocket today is markedly different than the one you carried five years ago, and we can assume will be different than the one you have five years from now.

This is why we can still look to Socrates for insight into teaching as the transference of knowledge, but we probably wouldn't reach out to him to learn about satellite imaging as a transference of knowledge. So we have our feet in two streams: the timeless and the timely. And as entrepreneurs -- that is, people who take full responsibility for their economic and psychological well-being -- we need to develop an appreciation for the differences between the two.

Power of Ignorance

There's a word for not knowing: ignorant.

While this word usually has a negative connotation -- if someone called any of us ignorant, we'd leap to defend our fragile intellectual egos -- we hold that it can be positive. We can be skillfully ignorant by acknowledging that this is a complex, maybe even opaque world that we're working in.

From that we can get good at being ignorant: at an individual level, we can get good at acquiring the new skills that will be demanded of us, and at an interpersonal and organizational level, we can surround ourselves with people that shine light onto our various blind spots -- and treat them in a way that encourages that expansive behavior.

A beginner's mind, then, is what allows us to embrace the highest emotional qualities such as enthusiasm, zeal and optimism to creatively move ourselves forward.

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