Beginner’s Mind: How To Unlock Curiosity

Beginner's Mind

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One of the noteworthy things I came across while reading The Everything Store was about Amazon’s “Day One” mindset. Amazon’s practice of cultivating a beginner’s mindset is one of the reasons the company retains the ability to reinvent itself. It also helps to sidestep problems that other huge companies face. Let’s look at how developing a Beginner’s Mind can help in staying intellectually curious and being more open to absorbing new and relevant information.

Beginner’s Mind: Quick Look

What is A Beginner’s Mind?

Beginner’s Mind is also referred to as the practice of Shoshin in Zen Buddhism.

Beginner's mind is the practice of setting aside your preconceived notions, (hard-won) opinions, beliefs, and expectations to look at something like you are a beginner. This also implies that you approach something you think you have adequate knowledge about as if you were just starting out.

If you think you have a certain level of expertise in something, you could go back to reevaluate your methods and procedures. This includes going back to the first time you learned something in your field.

It is possible that the first time you learned something:

The Expertise Trap

We tend to perceive the expertise of an individual without considering the ill effects it adds to decision-making and problem solving over time.

Expert Illustration

Sydney Finkelstein explains in an article about how expertise can hinder performance because of overconfidence and incuriosity.

“When we begin to identify as experts, our outlook can narrow, both in daily work and in times of crisis. We become reluctant to admit mistakes and failings, thus hindering our development. We distance ourselves from those “beneath” us, making it harder to earn their affection and trust…Over time the very expertise that led to our success can leave us feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and stuck.”

In order to stay intellectually curious and not be clouded by our own expertise, it is important to challenge ourselves, including our expertise.

Advantages of Having A Beginner’s Mind

Setting aside your expertise at times can help to gain a better perspective. However, there are a few more advantages of seeing things as a beginner.

Increased Creativity

As a beginner, you are not well-versed with all the procedures you are supposed to follow. This can help to break out of a rut when doing something which can give you a new (and better) perspective. Thinking like a beginner with a fresh perspective can result in increased creativity, better decision-making, and problem-solving methods.

Better Learning

Reflection is an important part of learning which involves thinking about and visualizing how you would apply it to a situation or make a process better. Looking at something with a beginner’s mind can help you uncover something you had never noticed before.

Connecting a newly discovered component to what you already know leads to better learning and helps to fill in gaps in your knowledge.
Testing Effect with Spaced Repetition

To further discover gaps in your knowledge you can explain the concepts to yourself as simply as possible using The Feynman Technique. One of the best ways to retain what you learn is by testing yourself using retrieval practice along with spaced repetition.

Better Relationships

As mentioned above, perceiving yourself as an expert can make you reluctant to admit your mistakes and distance yourself from those you think of being “beneath” you. Having a Beginner’s Mind keeps you grounded and helps you contribute better as a team member. This also gives you an opportunity to earn the trust of other people you associate with.

More Gratitude

After achieving a certain level of expertise we tend to think less about the small things that contribute to our results. Getting a beginner’s perspective brings these seemingly small things to the front that can make you more appreciative and have more gratitude.

How to Cultivate A Beginner’s Mind?

Here are some ways to cultivate a beginner’s mind to keep learning and staying curious.

How Do I Know I Am Right?

Ray Dalio, the author of Principles, devised a simple and effective approach to keep yourself in check:

“Rather than thinking, ‘I’m right.’ I started to ask myself, “How do I know I’m right?”

We tend to question our opinions less, especially when we have a certain level of expertise. Instead of assuming you are right, you can make use of this mental check to make sure your expertise is not impeding your growth.

Embrace The Outside World

Amazon strives to nurture its “Day 1” culture throughout the company. Basically, Amazon strives to have the same zeal and innovative capacity as when it was a fledgling startup. Through this form of the beginner’s mindset, it tries to avoid inflating its ego along with the increasing size of the company.

One of the ways Amazon tries to be relevant is by looking outside the company to identify trends. Large companies, sometimes, tend to dismiss these trends without even pursuing them which could cause them to get left behind. Embracing the outside world involves learning about new approaches and techniques that can help you improve your results.

Your expertise can be fleeting if you are not looking for learning opportunities to improve. Embracing these opportunities come with growing pains but leads to long term learning.

Learn From Your Mistakes

“Learn from your mistakes” is a piece of advice and a cliché that we are not good at following. In order to stay grounded, we need to periodically reevaluate our past to make sure hindrances do not reemerge. Instead of assuming you were right, learning from your past decisions and outcomes keeps you on your toes for potential opportunities to become better.

Explore Multiple Possible Solutions

An “expert” is good at, possibly, a few things and not at everything. This leads to a tendency where the expert is trapped within the confines of their discipline when searching for a solution. According to Charlie Munger, our expertise can blind us from the optimal solution. In his Psychology of Human Misjudgment Speech, he refers to this as “Man with a hammer syndrome”:

“To the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail”

Instead of constantly looking at your own field of expertise for a solution, it is beneficial to try a new and better approach. This could involve learning something entirely new or collaborating with an expert in another field.

Turn Off Autopilot

We tend to look over the seemingly small aspects once we have achieved a certain level of expertise. Additionally, we also accustom ourselves to go through a set of procedures and expect a certain result. Turning off autopilot can help in staying a lot more involved even with the smallest aspects of what you do.

Rather than taking procedures and results for granted, it could help to slow things down to really understand every component that contributes to results. In addition to making you more engaged with the process, turning off autopilot could also give rise to opportunities to improve the overall process and the results.

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