Shoshin: The Beginner’s Mind

Shoshin is the Zen Buddhist term that translates to “beginners mind.” It’s the idea of letting go of all of your preconceived notions and adjusting your attitude to be completely open when learning / studying a subject.

Our thoughts and behaviors are usually influenced by the way we were raised. Subjects such as religion or politics are often passed from one generation to the next. If you’re a Catholic adult, you were more-than-likely raised in a Catholic household. Your parents political attitudes will most likely have influence on your party alliances as an adult. But this type of ‘system-taught behavior’ is not limited to religion and politics. It effects everything. The way you do your work is directly influenced by your previous bosses and mentors. The way you eat, drink, socialize is influenced by the friends you surrounded yourself with. At some point in your life, you learned how to think/do from someone else.

So what’s the problem here? Isn’t that how we learn; by being taught by someone? Yes, that is true, however this type of ‘system’ often clouds our brains. We have been taught to do something ‘one way’, not necessarily ‘the right way.’ Shoshin allows you to approach every subject as if you’re learning it for the first time. It allows you to formulate new thoughts and beliefs around a subject sans any preconceived biases.

See, when we get to the point of being an ‘expert’ on a topic we often start losing sight of the other ways of doings things. Many ‘experts’ state: ‘I already know how to do this’ and shut out new thoughts and ideas. Take my position for instance. I consider myself pretty knowledgable around digital marketing in the healthcare space. With marketing, there are often many ways of accomplishing the same task / getting to the same intended outcome. Some are simple, some more complex. When I was learning about digital marketing I was taught to do things a certain way. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what I was taught was the ‘right / most efficient’ way of doings things. It just means that I was taught by someone who had also learned, at one time, how to do it that way. When discussing digital marketing with other team members, I make a point of keeping my mind open to the way they do things. I can then figure out the best way to get things done. I have learned so much by taking this approach.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

-Shunryu Suzuki

So how can you start applying Shoshin to your day? It’s actually quite simple. Here are three techniques I use in my daily life to practice.

1. Assume that what I know is wrong / misinformed. 

This is a great way to start focusing on what others are saying in meetings. Take the approach that everything you were taught was misinformed. This truly opens you up to the new thoughts and ideas being shared by others. I find it very helpful / informative.

2. ‘Can you expand on that idea / thought’ 

Don’t be afraid to ask an individual to dive deeper into their thoughts and ideas. Take the approach of a curious child learning a subject for the first time. Tell me more… share more about this… teach me your ways…

I have benefited greatly by asking questions and doing deep dives into specific topics. This is how I acquire my knowledge. If I don’t know something, I’ll ask someone who knows the topic to explain it to me (usually in great detail). If I think I know something very well, I’ll double down on my efforts of trying to learn more. Constantly questioning if my ideas/thoughts are the best. If someone brings up a new way (new-to-me wayof doing something, I’ll ask them explain why they take that approach. This idea is quite freeing.

3. I let go of winning.

You don’t always need to ‘win.’ Western civilization has adopted the ‘argumentative’ problem solving method. The point-counterpoint discussion format can be found in every meeting I attend. It’s a bit annoying if you start looking at other methods of communication / brainstorming, like the ‘Six Hats method.’ Parallel thinking is GREAT! But I digress.

You don’t need to know everything. It’s okay to not have the ‘best / winning idea.’ The sooner you approach things without the need to win, the sooner you open yourself up to other’s thoughts and ideas. You’ll find yourself listening vs. formulating your next counterpoint.

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