Perhaps an overlooked item in times of change is to acknowledge what seems obvious: in an ever-changing world, we are all beginners.

Yet, most struggle to embrace the mind of a beginner – or what Zen Buddhists call our Beginner’s Mind – to approach life as a beginner. I offer a taste of this philosophy in this short video clip by Jon Kabat-Zinn

As a coach, mentor, researcher, and even professor, I’ve witnessed adult learners and leaders struggle with the notion of being a beginner. Worse yet, I’ve seen instructors who cannot move beyond their expertise – unable to recognize the possibility in a student’s question or new perspective within an irritating discovery.

Embracing “I Don’t Know.”

Understandably, being a beginner requires vulnerability — putting oneself at risk — in uttering those three fearful words: “I – Don’t – Know.” Such an utterance finds us on the edge of wisdom, of being willing to unlearn and relearn.

Years ago, I was unable to “admit” when I didn’t know something, so I found learning a painful process. Yet, with practice in recognizing my ego, letting go of “the need to know” has become easier. Just in time too. Much of knowledge today has a half-life of 5-7 years, with technical knowledge at a half-life of 18-24 months.

The benefit of embracing a Beginner’s Mind reduces the pressure of having to know everything. It cultivates openness and aliveness.

Like anything, developing a Beginner’s Mind takes practice. In our fast-paced life, I’ve discovered that “time” – how we relate to time – is an often-overlooked pitfall that stops us from embracing our beginner’s mind. I’ve selected some common “time” obstacles to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind.

No TIME for mistakes.

Leaders are in-demand, busy professionals, who are expected to be “all-knowing,” and can embrace a perfectionist’s mindset. The all-knowing, perfectionist mindset avoids mistakes.

Here’s the paradox, failure paves the path to learning. Success yields little insight, but a mistake can pinpoint a cause that inspires new learning. Mistakes lubricate our learning muscles. The real failure is not in the mistake but the inability to learn from it.

Practice: Plan for mistakes. Buffer time into your planning for WHEN, not IF, mistakes happen. Embrace mistakes as your internal teacher and not the enemy.

No TIME for Learning.

Everything new involves a hidden learning curve. Embrace this first lesson: Create time for a curve, even though we do not know what it will look like.

Whenever I take on something new I drastically overestimate – by two or three times what I think it will take to accomplish that task. Remarkably, in today’s climate even familiar tasks are new, involving new contexts, conditions, or arrangements.

Practice: Overestimate what you think you need to allow for the unknown. The worst that can happen is to yield extra time for another task.

No TIME to Create.

If I am willing to embrace mistakes then I can allow myself to BE in the creative process: to waddle and wallow through these four stages by Graham Wallas in his 1926 classic, The Art of Thought, as borrowed by Scott Jeffrey

1- Wonder (Preparation): The mind prepares for the creative solution.

Preparation requires study and thinking intently on the subject, whether it be a musical composition, a new invention, a mathematical formula, or a business dilemma. Embracing a growth mindset, or childlike wonder, finds learners experimenting, discovering, and willing to see old ideas with a fresh perspective.

Practice: Become a student of your topic. Delve into it to question existing knowledge. Questioning will expand understanding, create connections, and may involve being confused for a bit.

2- Wander (Incubation): A germination period follows.

Incubation involves stepping away from the problem with some form of activity like daydreaming, walking, or meditating. We surrender to the moment and let life guide us, as Mozart describes it:

“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.”

Practice: Breathe, pause, meditate, and calm the mind, regularly. Set aside work to allow the mind to release problems or become open to new answers. Wander into life, dwelling into and drawing out ideas, organically.

3- Insight (Illumination): The possibility of deep intuitive understanding. 

The brilliance of insight occurs in a flash, a brilliant idea shoots across the mind, frequently during a mundane task or while one is involved with something else, as Nietzsche explains:

“The notion of revelation describes the condition quite simply; by which I mean that something profoundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes visible and audible with indescribable definiteness and exactness. … a thought flashes out like lightning, inevitably without hesitation—I have never had any choice about it … Everything occurs quite without volition, as if in an eruption of freedom, independence, power, and divinity.”

Practice: Be open and receptive to inquiry and discovery, and to what flows through you. Sharpen the saw, and organize your life to capture and connect ideas.

4- Acknowledge/Accept (Verification): The idea is tested to determine its validity.

Here we are: the composition is scored; the mathematical formula, proven; the business idea is formulated into a proposal.

Practice: Begin again to churn by questioning, testing, revising, reviewing, and formulating. Engage and develop as required to bring an idea to the next level or discover a new opening that may return you to a previous step.

No TIME for Discovery.

Review the four-step journey outlined by Jeffrey/Wallas. Consider that in most cases we do some work in #1, and then likely surf right to #4.

Skipping Wander and Insight limits us to only leveraging what we know. We might get by, but we will not innovate, create or discover. Worse yet, we risk our imagination and genuine learning for the certainty of the predictable.

We do not plan for or give ourselves permission for genuine learning, or newness to arise. Most executives especially underestimate the time to encounter “newness” or to engage anything “newly.”

We turn something new into something known, forcing a present situation into a past-based frame. We fail to appreciate how volatile change upends even the familiar in subtle ways.

Discovery happens in stages 2 and 3 (“Wander” and “Insight”) of the framework above. By assuming nothing and questioning everything as a beginner, we can embrace the unknown and become open to surprises and unpredictable discoveries.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.