Authority And The Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki

Such is the conundrum of the expert. All of that experience and knowledge can make us deaf and blind to new information that just might change how we approach a problem.

Most experts look for patterns. Say you’re an organizational change consultant to merging Fortune 500 companies.

You look for the sticky wicket because that’s your entry point. Over time you’ve developed a now ingrained sense of radar for even subterranean patterns of merger behaviors.

But what if your assessment is wrong? What if this was the 1-2% that did not fit the typical pattern? Your “solution” might cause more harm than good. At the very least, you’ll have wasted precious time and resources.

As experts, we have the duty to dig deeper. That dig is what will produce consistently solid work AND the occasional breakthrough.

It requires adopting a beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind means using your intuition and curiosity. Analysis and hard-learned preconceptions still matter—you just don’t rely on them exclusively.

Beginner’s mind and authority seem at odds, but once you’ve achieved mastery of your craft, keeping your beginner’s mind will actually ease your path forward.

Here are a few ideas to experiment with.

Eliminate the “shoulds”. When you’ve seen a situation dozens or even hundreds of times, it’s tempting to start sentences with “you should…”. But just like there is no try (Yoda), there is no should. The second we say should, we’ve put our own value judgments on our clients vs. helping them to think through the optimal answer for them.

Ask questions. There is liberation in asking questions—and not just to diagnose the patterns/problems you recognize. It’s a sign of curiosity. And, it allows you off the expert hot seat of “tell me all the answers” and puts you firmly into a collaborative, caring relationship. Don’t worry—they’ll think you’re even smarter when you ask thoughtful questions vs. spout off answers.

Sidestep the fear of failure. The fear of failure is a human condition. Fear comes from the ego—we don’t want to be wrong, we don’t want to look bad, we don’t want to fail. Instead of trying to eliminate the fear, just sidestep it. Decide to act anyway (the beautiful thing about that is it’s like a muscle that strengthens every time you do it). What would you do right now if failure didn’t matter?

Be in the moment. This feels ever harder to do, which is why it’s even more necessary. Create your own tricks and cues to help you stay in the present moment. When I’m on client calls, I create a tiny bubble. My email is off, I handwrite my notes while listening (I don’t type them since the noise is distracting) and I’ll often have a picture of my collaborator up on my screen. I’m physically comfortable and I literally shut out the rest of the world. How can you optimize how you work to make it easier to focus on the right now?

The end result—which sounds like an oxymoron—is that you actually let go of being THE expert/authority.

Because the second you detach from the label, you’re free to do what really matters: keep learning more to teach your audience.

Beginner’s mind is essential to our mission.

p.s. For more on this, check out Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.

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