Use Your Beginner’s Mind to Open Your Prepared Mind

In 1973, 27-year-old Vernon Hill decided to start a bank. He launched a single, nine-employee branch on a highway in southern New Jersey. Vernon didn’t call it a “bank” or a “branch,” though. He called it a “store.”

Although he had worked afternoons at a bank while an undergrad at Penn’s Wharton School, Hill’s professional experience was primarily in real estate and fast-food retail. He scouted and developed sites for chains such as McDonald’s, CVS, and Jiffy Lube, and had an ownership stake in dozens of Burger King restaurants.

As a relatively inexperienced newcomer to the world of banking, though, Hill was able to cast aside many of the preconceptions people had about how banking ought to be done.

Hill brought a retail mindset to the banking industry. He believed that he could attract more deposits by providing extraordinary customer service than he could by offering competitive interest rates.

The new venture, Commerce Bank, was among the first to remain open evenings and weekends. They offered free coin-counting machines, free checking accounts, and free money orders. They had a no-float rule that allowed deposits to instantly clear. Their pens were given away freely, not chained down. They didn’t have overdraft fees on debit card transactions. They gave away lollipops and dog biscuits.

His strategy worked. Hill ran Commerce Bancorp for three decades. During that period, he opened over 450 stores, increased deposits as much as 30 percent per year, and delivered his shareholders 23 percent average annual returns. In 2008, the company was acquired by TD Bank for $8.5 billion.

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The beginner’s mind

Vernon Hill’s approach to banking exemplifies the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.”

Hill didn’t set out to do business using the traditional methods that would be intuitive to the experts in the staid banking community. He took a fresher, more open approach to banking. He also transferred knowledge and methods from the customer-driven fast-food retail domain to the stodgy world of banking.

Soto Zen teacher and monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”[1]

According to Suzuki, a beginner’s mind requires that we abandon self-centered thoughts and thoughts of achievement. When we begin something new with an achievement in mind, we attach to the result. If we focus too much – or too early – on outcome, we dilute the purity of our beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind is related to the concept of intellectual humility, one of the foundational components of wisdom. Intellectually humble people recognize that there are limitations to their knowledge, that they are vulnerable to biases, and that their beliefs could be wrong.

Intellectually humble people:[2]

  • Are flexible thinkers
  • Can recognize and overcome biases that affect their reasoning
  • Can find creative connections between past ideas and new information
  • Can adjust their attitudes and opinions in light of new evidence

Intellectually humble people are open-minded and curious, two fundamental aspects of beginner’s mind. Adopting a beginner’s mind enables the kind of fresh and flexible thinking we need to consider possibilities and seize opportunities. A beginner’s mind allows us to let go of our preconceptions and expectations and embrace creativity and innovation.

The prepared mind

The idea of the “prepared mind” has long been considered a prerequisite for serendipity. An oft-repeated quote from an 1854 lecture by Louis Pasteur asserts that, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the mind which is prepared.”

Most scientific discoveries – and, for that matter, many personal or professional advancements – involve some combination of insight and luck. Often, our insight is driven by our knowledge and experience. However, while extensive knowledge in a particular field is important, there are some cognitive risks associated with being an expert.

When people think of themselves as experts, they tend to overestimate the accuracy of their own beliefs. According to one hypothesis, social norms tend to entitle experts to adopt a dogmatic cognitive orientation. This “earned dogmatism” causes experts to process information in ways that reinforce their existing opinions or expectations.[3]

Some of the pitfalls of intellectual hubris include:[4]

  • An unjustified insistence in the correctness of our own beliefs
  • A disregard of people who hold different views
  • Increased interpersonal conflict
  • Strong reactions to differences of opinion
  • Overconfident decisions based on incorrect information
  • An unwillingness to compromise

Bertrand Russell wrote, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

A prepared mind is open to doubt. Beyond just our knowledge and beliefs, it is about our attitude and how we manage our own ignorance. It involves the ability to change our cognitive state and understand the real meaning of a serendipitous event by anticipating a range of possible outcomes.[5]

The prepared mind is more than just experience and expert knowledge. It also involves knowing how to recognize and take advantage of fortuitous accidents. The prepared mind often notices – even without intent or directed search – new information that solves a problem or creates an opportunity.

The beginner’s mind and the prepared mind in tandem

When Apple was less than a decade old, an internal power struggle led to the ouster of cofounder Steve Jobs. He would return a dozen or so later years later, but in the interim he founded NeXT and backed Pixar’s spin-off from Lucasfilm.

Jobs was not really known for being patient, or pliable, or personable. But his Pixar experience made him a more relatable, receptive, and wiser leader. Delivering Stanford’s 2005 commencement address, Jobs offered the following reflection:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Jobs’ recollection of the “lightness” of being a beginner supports the idea of the beginner’s mind shared by Mark and Barbara Stefik, authors of Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation. The beginner’s mind, they explain, is open to fresh perspectives and is willing to consider unconventional ideas. The beginner can consider ideas that the expert might dismiss as silly because the beginner’s mind is “lighter and more playful.”[6]

According to the Stefiks, expertise enables us to solve routine problems efficiently. But in novel situations, expertise can sometimes impede a breakthrough. When old knowledge isn’t helping us solve new problems, invoking our beginner’s mind can rescue us. Preparation saturates our mind with ideas and leads us to the brink of an “a-ha” moment, but our beginner’s mind allows us to break the constraints of our own experience and uncover real insight.[7]

As we develop expertise, we construct a set of cognitive rules and habits. Within a particular domain of knowledge, these rules often serve to streamline our decisions and help us quickly solve common problems. Sometimes, though, we must liberate ourselves from our own rules to create, innovate, or discover.

Our prepared mind might enable us to recognize a random occurrence or observation as serendipitous. It could also prevent us from seeing the same event’s potential. Our expertise might cause us to not pay attention to it or to arrogantly dismiss it out of hand.

Discussing various ways of preparing the mind to maximize serendipity, neurolinguistic psychotherapists James Lawley and Penny Tompkins acknowledge the importance of maintaining a state of “not knowing:”[8]

In Zen it’s called a ‘beginner’s mind’. This does not mean ignoring all our acquired knowledge, nor abandoning tried and tested methods. It means fully realizing at each moment that we really don’t know what is going to happen next; that what happens next may blow away everything we thought we knew; that what happens next may be the most serendipitous event of our life; or, that all our efforts might come to nought. But whatever does happen is what happens — and that’s information.

The prepared mind and the beginner’s mind work in tandem to maximize serendipity. Our prepared mind gives us direction, focus, and judgment, and our beginner’s mind keeps us alert, curious, and humble.

How to cultivate our beginner’s mind

Buddhism teacher and author Joseph Goldstein said, “We begin with beginner’s mind, and then, if we’re lucky, we deepen it, or return to it.”

The beginner’s mind is in all of us. Sometimes it just gets pushed to some deeper region of our brain as we acquire more knowledge. There are techniques we can use, though, to awaken and strengthen our beginner’s mind.

  • Become a perpetual beginner. Probably one of the most straightforward ways to maintain a beginner’s mind is to always be learning something new. Not just a new skill related to your work, but something outside your normal interests and expertise. Winemaking, swing dancing, pradal serey, whatever. The more time we spend learning new things, the more active we keep our beginner’s mind, and the more easily we can apply it to other domains.
  • Explain something to someone else. As we develop expertise, we get in the habit of making a lot of unconscious assumptions. Verbalizing an idea or a problem helps us actively notice these assumptions and deal with them.[9] Sometimes talking something out will bring insight that can’t be realized by just mulling things over in our head.
  • Explain something to yourself. If no one is around to explain something to, pretend you are being interviewed about the topic at hand. Imagine the questions the interviewer might ask and respond out loud. This exercise can prompt us to ask questions we haven’t asked ourselves before, and can also expose gaps in our knowledge or understanding.
  • Focus on questions, not answers. When you seek a better answer, ask a better question. Start with short, simple, open questions that challenge basic assumptions. Then move on to deeper inquiry that requires more visionary synthesis. Remember the Kipling poem that begins, “I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”
  • Simplify your language. Sometimes we use complex verbiage or jargon to conceal what we don’t fully grasp. If we can’t even define our own words, we probably don’t fully know what we’re talking about. It’s easy to repeat words we have heard used in a particular context, even though we have only a casual understanding of their real meaning. Using simple language allows us to break things down to the component level and improve our understanding.
  • Challenge overconfidence bias. We have a tendency to overestimate our own ability, judgment, talent, and skill. For example, 93 percent of U.S. drivers say they have above average driving skills. This can be particularly bad if we consider ourselves highly skilled or knowledgeable in some area. It can cause us to believe that we are at the top, and no longer really need to learn or improve. Always consider the consequences of being wrong, reflect on your mistakes, and pay attention to feedback.
  • Consider the contrarian view. Sometimes it helps to look at things as though they were the reverse of how we see them, and to consider outcomes that are 180 degrees opposite our expectations. It doesn’t mean we have to pursue every crazy idea. But status quo and convention can sometimes commandeer our thinking before we’ve had a chance to consider anything truly radical or innovative. Sometimes it helps to flip the script.
  • Be more receptive. We can nurture our beginner’s mind by cultivating receptivity. We need to challenge our biases, relax our boundaries, suspend judgment, abandon expectations, ask naïve questions, and listen. Beginners are naturally open to new ideas and experiences.

Beginners embrace new things with an openness, eagerness, and curiosity that tends to diminish with mastery. Experts often lose their intellectual humility and look only for information that validates their current orientation or position. Breakthroughs, however, usually require someone to notice something new.

We can strengthen our beginner’s mind with application and practice. We can complement our prepared mind with our beginner’s mind. Using both in tandem, we don’t have to make tradeoffs between innovation and efficiency, creativity and productivity, or noticing and missing.

Notes

1. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1995), 21.

2. Leor Zmigrod et al., “The Psychological Roots of Intellectual Humility: The Role of Intelligence and Cognitive Flexibility,” Personality and Individual Differences 141, (2019): 201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2019.01.016

3. Victor Ottati et al., “When Self-Perceptions of Expertise Increase Closed-Minded Cognition: The Earned Dogmatism Effect,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 61, (2015): 3-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2015.08.003

4. Mark R. Leary et al., “Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43, no. 6 (2017): 793. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217697695

5. Selene Arfini, Tommaso Bertolotti, and Lorenzo Magnani, “The Antinomies of Serendipity: How to Cognitively Frame Serendipity for Scientific Discoveries,” Topoi 39, (2018): 944. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-018-9571-3

6. Mark Stefik and Barbara Stefik, “The Prepared Mind Versus the Beginner’s Mind,” Design Management Review 16, no. 1 (2005): 11. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1948-7169.2005.tb00002.x

7. Ibid, 13-16.

8. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, “Maximising Serendipity: The Art of Recognising and Fostering Unexpected Potential,” (notes presented at The Developing Group, June 2008, updated May 2011): 9-10.

9. Stefik and Stefik, “Prepared Mind,” 14-15.

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