Tools & Practice August 31st, 2020

The Beginner's Mindset

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

Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism that means “beginner’s mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. The belief helps you see old problems from new perspectives and it helps you better adapt to ambiguity and change.

On paper, having a beginner’s or growth-mindset seems fairly straight forward and easy to execute, but of course reality throws in monkey wrenches, making it difficult to do it well - We see this every day in our journey to make Zappos a more self-organized company!

The tricky part is that in order to change ourselves we need to change our practices, but doing that usually brings up some common types of discomfort, pitfalls, and risk (and very few of us actually like this kind of stuff). Awareness and understanding what holds us back from having an open-mindset is vital and the faster we do, the faster we can create solutions that can help us succeed in any challenge we deal with.

So, What Do Many Of These Common Pitfalls Look Like?

The underlying assumption around the notion of being a "Beginner" is that human beings may have some more-fixed characteristics, but mostly we are a product of our current and historic practices (this fits with the Growth Mindset some of you probably know of). The tricky part is, to change ourselves, we need to change our practices, and changing practices usually brings up common types of discomfort or risk. The period where we know we want to change, and we take on new practices, is the period I refer to as being “a Beginner”.

What we know about being a beginner

We tend to underestimate how long it will take to build new competence.
"I already tried this twice and it didn't work, WHY IS MY LIFE SO HORRIBLE?!"

We over-correct.
For me, when I started to develop stronger boundaries and say No, my early No's were really intense! I was over-correcting from my old habits of being too compliant.

We fail at the new behavior, and we don't like that.
Staying on the "building my strong “No”" example, I would continue to see times where I went along with something when I wanted to say “No”. I experienced failure, and I didn't like it.

If the new behavior involves others at all, we can fear or experience embarrassment.
Again, humans don't like that. We're evolved to fit in, to belong, so embarrassment can feel really threatening.

So tempting to give up and just keep the old behavior!

If the new behavior is social, we can seem fake while we're still Beginners.

Active listening can seem fake when people first start practicing it. It can seem fake to others or to ourselves.

Again, the strong temptation for many of us when this happens is to give up and pull back to what we know.

And What Can We Do To Make It Through These Challenges As Beginners?

Set low standards.
Celebrate like crazy when you or someone you're supporting makes an iota of progress.

Ask for support from others.
And make sure to specify what support looks like to you…

Get a guide/friend/mentor/coach/teacher.
Someone who's a little or a lot further down the particular path you are starting down.

Learn in a group with other Beginners.
Surround yourself with committed learners than can help you normalize the discomfort and frustration of being a Beginner

Establish simple, achievable practices, and keep practicing.
Ask for feedback from people you trust. Don't let YOUR automatic self-assessments convince you that you're the Worst Person Ever or even a SUPERSTAR, get calibration from other people who can observe you in action.

Stay connected to your WHY for building this new competence.
You can never have too much connection to your Purpose. Just to put this together into an example again, a few years ago I started teaching innovation classes. My background is much around teaching leadership and teamwork, so this was a new and different gig for me. I was a Beginner. And boy, did I not like getting the feedback that I needed to change some of my behaviors! As a leadership and teamwork Coach, I would ask deep inquiry questions that could leave the whole room silent for what seemed like a long time, and it was fine. Those silences helped people to reflect. But my innovation mentor didn't want that, their workshops were intended to move quickly down defined paths and leave people with really concrete tools. They didn't like my deep open questions! I found it really uncomfortable to get this feedback. Why, people come from miles around for my deep questions! I won the Deep Question contest at the County Fair! I'm awesome, don't you know that?! These were my defensive reactions in the face of the failure in facilitating differently. Eventually I learned to ask tighter questions, to meet the different standards and purposes of my innovation client. I learned to embody the competence that was called for in that context. My point here is that the discomfort is to be expected, no matter how many other hills we've climbed or changes we've made. A new behavior is by definition something we're not good at and for the most part, humans (including me) don't like the feeling of not being good at stuff.

Competence as a lens for human behavior (versus fixed, inherent qualities). Want to know why someone did or didn't do a certain thing? Consider competence. Were they competent to do anything other than what they did? If not, do they want to build a new competence? Etc… (Tends to work better than attributing negative motive, which most humans do automatically)

Is competence something you can measure objectively? Nope. It's an example of an assessment. I might assess you as competent at babysitting kids, but if my partner has different or higher standards than I do, their assessment might be different!

What have you noticed about yourself when you're a Beginner at something? How do you tend to navigate that terrain? What do you do that you find helpful, and what other behaviors might be automatic and less helpful when you're a Beginner?