Beginner’s Mind

Portrait of child looking closely with magnifying glass

“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

How comfortable are you hanging out with the feelings that show up when you don’t know something?

How comfortable are you letting other people see that you don’t know something?

Many people go to huge lengths to avoid such feelings.

Which is a shame, because not knowing things is vital for learning, growth, responsiveness to change, leadership, and healthy relationships.

Conscious incompetence is the beginning of every journey worth taking.

We start any process not knowing. And most of the time we don’t even know what we don’t know. Then, we discover a topic or a process exists and we start to see what we don’t know. We know so little that we don’t even know what questions we need to ask to start to understand. Then, slowly, if we stick with it, we start to understand enough to ask better questions.

Emotionally, not-knowing can trigger shame and self-doubt. And we need tools to deal with those, because that shame and self-doubt can paralyze us if we let it. And once we realize that we don’t know something, we can never go back to the blissful ignorance of the moment before we got that knowledge.

We can decide we don’t care that we don’t know it, we can deny that we don’t know it or that it matters, we can fret about not-knowing without being willing to learn, or we can stay with the discomfort, practice, and study until we start knowing.


As we practice, we develop competence. At first, we have to think about how to do something. We count by threes five times to multiply 3 x 5. Later, we just know how to do it. 3 x 5=15. That jump from consciously thinking about it to just being able to do it is mastery, and the only way to get there is by climbing the ladder of learning through conscious incompetence and conscious competence.

Learning and growth start from accepting our own incompetence.

Beginner’s mind is the willingness to learn, the courage to be wrong without hiding. Learning requires asking for help, risking looking foolish, making mistakes, being bad at something, feeling lost, letting go of preconceived notions, and getting curious about what is presented.

Once we adopt a beginner’s mind, we become capable of learning.

Beginner’s mind is the foundation for adaptability and responsiveness.

Mastery is incredibly valuable. Once you have learned to ride a bicycle, you can focus on where you want to go. Once you learn how to use a spreadsheet, you can generate the reports your business needs. Once you learn how to play guitar, you can entertain your friends.

Mastery works because your brain and body have created habits, unconscious patterns of thinking and behaviour. The mental and physical processing required are happening fast enough and with enough certainty of repeatability that you just know or do something. No thinking is required, and there are no emotions to process.. Thinking slows things down. When you have mastery of a skill, performing the skill simply flows.

The downside of mastery is that it also assumes that the starting conditions don’t change. If the starting conditions change, the habitual skills that formed mastery in the old system can get in the way. Book publishers that mastered the printing and distribution systems of the pre-ebook era have habitual ways of thinking and doing things that are not nearly so profitable in the new era of digital publishing and print on demand. They need to assume that they don’t know important things about the new marketplace and move into learning mode to adapt.

Leadership through change – making learning the norm

The modern world is changing and fast. The accelerating expansion of technological capability has created a world in which each generation has a completely different experience. Business, government, and education are struggling to keep up with each other and with change that is being driven by individual actors and small groups creating things that become commonplace without warning.

We have two choices. We can be buffeted by the circumstances or we can engage proactively and consciously adapt. Leadership requires conscious adaptation. Without adapting to the world as it fluctuates around us, we are restricted to following the currents.

In a world that is changing around us, the new skill we need to master is learning. We need to increase our capacity to live with beginner’s mind. For most people, this is a radical shift.

The old school approach to mastery provides the ego with a sense of safety, a sense that “I can do this,” and an ease around the challenges that life inevitably presents. Mastering the art of living with beginner’s mind is entirely different. One learns that safety is not in any one skill but in one’s ability to create something positive from whatever happens.

For many people, this is a radical and scary shift in perspective and they need some kind of support as they switch mindsets. Don’t be afraid of asking for help if this is a shift you want to make for yourself. Get a coach or a support group or a collection of buddies who cheer each other on.

Long-term relationships die without beginner’s mind. 

The sense of safety you create for yourself by trusting your capacity to learn and adapt will enrich every part of your life, because it will enable you to become real and present in every relationship.

Whether it is a relationship with a family member, romantic partner, colleague, friend, or mentor, every long-term relationship needs a good dose of beginner’s mind to thrive.

Some relationships feel natural and easy from the very beginning because the assumptions each person makes fit together. This feels great when it happens and is dangerous to trust. In the initial ease, it is easy to forget that this person is fundamentally unique and worth getting to know as an individual. Cultivating your curiosity and looking to discover what you don’t know about this person will help you develop a real relationship with them and not merely companionship or neighbourliness.

Other relationships start with no need to cultivate a sense of wonder about the other. The differences between two people are obvious. In this case, being willing to be in the discomfort of not-knowing is often required for a relationship to emerge at all. This is often the case when a new hire is brought into a company or when people from different socio-economic backgrounds meet.

The reality is that every conversation between people is cross-cultural, even if we don’t recognize it.

One of the hardest places for people to recognize the need for a willingness to learn something new about someone is in a long-term partnership, whether personal or professional. When we have known someone for a long time, it is easy to think that we know them well. And we may know certain aspects of them well, but there will always be parts of them that we do not have access to. In addition, people change over time. We want to be recognized as the person we are today and not who we were 5, 10 , or 25 years ago, and so do the people around us.

To keep connection alive between people, there must be acknowledgement of the mystery that still remains.

Think of a person you have known a long time. Who are they today? What do you not know about them right now? Get curious. Practice rediscovering the person who is right in front of you.

The willingness to not know is the key to feeling alive.

The willingness to not know requires you to pay attention to what is actually happening. And when you connect to what is happening, you experience now. And now is where the feeling of aliveness lives.

How will you cultivate curiosity and a beginner’s mind this week?

Let me know in the comments or on my Facebook page.


This post is part of the 2017 Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Mind

  1. Pingback: Cultivate the Qualities that Make Hard Conversations Easier | Cracks In The World

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