How the Beginner’s Mind Can Help You Learn Something New

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In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What the beginner’s mind is
  • How to give yourself permission to be bad at something for a while
  • Embracing your childlike sense of wonder
  • How to share what you learn, while you learn

Once, long ago, there was a Zen master. This Zen master was very wise, and people came from all across the land to be instructed in the art of Zen.

One day, a successful and important man came to the Zen master. He said, “I have come to learn the art of Zen. Please teach me your wisdom.”

“Very well,” said the Zen master. “Before we begin, let me make us a pot of tea.”

The Zen master put on the teapot, brewed the tea, and brought out two cups. He began to pour tea into the successful man’s cup, but he didn’t stop when the cup was full. He continued to pour, and the tea spilled over the sides and all over the table.

“Stop!” the successful man said. “Can’t you see the cup is full? What are you doing?”

“You’re like this teacup,” the Zen master answered. “You’re already full of knowledge; there’s no room for anything else. I cannot teach you anything until you come to me with an empty mind.”

This ancient story has been used for generations to illustrate the importance of being a beginner. When you’re too distracted by what you already know, there’s no room to learn anything new. Even more importantly, embodying the mind of a beginner helps you learn faster, better, and more effectively.

In Buddhism, the beginner’s mind is a concept called “shoshin.” The beginner’s mind is powerful to embody, because:

  • When you’re a beginner, you aren’t distracted by ego.
  • When you’re a beginner, you aren’t worried about being “perfect.”
  • When you’re a beginner, you aren’t afraid of messing up.
  • When you’re a beginner, you’re focused on learning, not performing.
  • When you’re a beginner, you take feedback well, because you don’t think you already have all the answers.

Learning with a beginner’s mind is more fun, because it allows you to explore your curiosities, and enjoy the process of learning, rather than being distracted by ego or expectations.

But it’s also far more useful, because it allows you to consistently be learning, even (and especially) things you aren’t already good at. 

The beginner’s mind is a superpower

Throughout your whole life, you’re going to have to go back to being a beginner again and again. Each time you learn a new skill, a new tool, or a new task, you have to embrace the beginner’s mind all over again.

The world is changing so quickly, learning new things is inevitable:

  • In the workplace, the skills required for different types of jobs are constantly changing.
  • Jobs themselves are changing too. There are a plethora of jobs currently on the market that didn’t even exist a decade ago
  • Even in the jobs that remain the same, the software tools required to do those jobs are always evolving.

Even people intending to stay in one career their entire lives will need to master the art of perpetual learning in order to maintain their jobs.

But with most people switching jobs frequently (the average time spent in a single job is 4.1 years), the ability to stay agile in your learning is even more important.

Even beyond the workplace, the ability to learn and adapt is important — in order to learn new skills, use new tools, navigate a changing world, and expand your own mind (because intaking knowledge isn’t just important for practical purposes. It’s also a source of meaning and joy).

The better you can lean into learning, the more effective you’ll be in every aspect of life. 

And the better you can embrace the beginner’s mind, the better you’ll be at the learning process.

The beginner’s mind gives you permission to be bad at something for a while

When you give a child a bicycle for the first time, you don’t expect them to be able to jump on the bike and ride it on their first try. You expect them to fall  not just once, but many times. When you give them the bike, you’re already planning to stand outside with them and help them find their balance. You might even have the first-aid kit ready on the counter to patch up scraped knees.

You don’t expect perfection, because it would be ludicrous to expect perfection. Learning to ride a bike is a process — one that is physical and tangible, and with rules every one of us is bound by, no matter how athletic.

We must learn what it feels like to balance, and what it feels like to pedal. We must learn how to correct our balance when we lean too far in any direction, and how to turn, and how to stop.

Only then can we start to ride on our own without falling down.

In the same way, when you learn something new, you aren’t going to crush it on the first try. You’ll likely be bad at it for a while — maybe even longer than you expect. You need to acclimate to your new skill or knowledge, in the same way that you once needed to acclimate to the feeling of riding a bike.

When you’re learning with the beginner’s mind, you give yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. You don’t expect perfection, so you can lean into the process. You can embrace the failures as a necessary part of learning, rather than getting frustrated by them or giving up.

Put this into practice:

Go try to learn something, and embrace being bad at it. Lean into the parts that feel incompetent or awkward. Try to write an article, and embrace the fact that it doesn’t sound like you’d hoped. Try to write some basic HTML, and allow yourself the experience of not being great at it. Instead of being frustrated by not yet having the skills, lean into the process, and know that each attempt is making you incrementally better.

The beginner’s mind taps into your childlike sense of wonder

When we’re children, we’re curious about everything. “Why is the sky blue? Why does bread come in a bag? Why does a ball you throw in the air fall back down?”

As we get older, we spend more time focusing on what we do know rather than on what we don’t. We become preoccupied with the things we have expertise in — the things we already use in our day-to-day lives. We develop skills, we build expertise, we start careers, and we begin to focus on those areas of life.

When you embrace the beginner’s mind, you’re required to become curious again about the world around you. Almost by definition, beginners are focused on what they don’t know, and their curiosity around figuring those things out.

Like a child, you begin to lean into that same sense of wonder. “Why is cryptocurrency expanding so quickly? Why was Facebook so successful, but MySpace wasn’t? What does web3 mean, and why is everyone talking about it?”

In time, this curiosity opens up doors you didn’t even know existed. 

This practice is helpful even when you aren’t a beginner. Even when you have expertise, you sometimes don’t know what you’re missing or what you’re failing to see, because you’re too caught up in what you already know. Leaning back into your beginner’s mind — and approaching the things around you with a sense of curiosity — is a great way to catch yourself, check your conclusions, and make sure you’re looking at things as holistically as possible.

For example: if you know a lot about building webinars, and are already a practiced hand, you might assume you already know the best way to structure a webinar for a given event. But if you embrace the beginner’s mind — and your sense of curiosity — you might watch other webinars in the space with a deeper sense of curiosity around what you don’t yet know, and find ideas you can borrow that will bring your own webinar to the next level. Never overestimate your own expertise!

Put this into practice:

Next time you encounter something you don’t know, lean into your curiosity about it. Ask why it is the way it is, or why you find it so interesting, or what the implications of it might be. Formulate those curiosities into questions, and go ask those questions — either via Google, or as tweets, or by some other medium. Let your curiosity guide your learning process.

The beginner’s mind empowers you to share what you learn, while you learn

Sharing what you’re learning is an important part of the learning process. It helps you internalize your own learning, and it helps you build a portfolio around the content you’re consuming.

When you embrace the beginner’s mind, you give yourself permission to share what you’re learning, because your ego isn’t attached to expertise. Your identity is that of an explorer, not of an expert — which enables you to share what you’re learning, as you’re learning it:

  • sharing from the beginner’s mind is driven by curiosity. “I’m curious about X, so I’m reading Y, and I learned Z” is always a great format.
  • sharing what you’re learning can be as simple as a quick insight, like this tweet from Edvo team member Darlene Dang on her insights as a community manager.

Building a body of work around your learning process is valuable for you, because it makes it easy for you to go back and reference what you’ve learned. It also helps you build a strong reputation as a learner — because people can see what you’re learning about.

And when you’re embracing the beginner’s mind, you can share what you’re learning in real time — and embrace the learning process as part of your identity.

Put this into practice:

Next time you learn something new, share what you’re learning publicly — in the form of a tweet, a LinkedIn post, a quick video, or something else. Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know — remember, the goal isn’t to share your expertise, it’s just to share your exploration!

The beginner’s mind transforms your ability to learn anything

When you embrace the beginner’s mind, you open yourself up to the ability to learn anything — because when you’re a beginner, there’s no fear of failure. You can start at the bottom with any new skill. 

Go embrace your beginner’s mind this week and learn something new. Take a risk on something you didn’t think you’d be good at, or that seemed too intimidating to start. Explore!

And like the Zen master said, approach your learning with plenty of room still in your cup.

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