Perhaps an overlooked item in times of change is to acknowledge what seems obvious: in an ever-changing world, we are all beginners.

Yet, most struggle to embrace the mind of a beginner – or what Zen Buddhists call our Beginner’s Mind – to approach life as a beginner. I offer a taste of this philosophy in this short video clip by Jon Kabat-Zinn

As a coach, mentor, researcher and even professor, I’ve witnessed adult learners and leaders struggle with the notion of being a beginner. Worse yet, I’ve seen instructors who cannot move beyond their expertise – unable to recognize the possibility in a student’s question or new perspective within an irritating discovery.

Embracing “I Don’t Know.”

Understandably, being a beginner requires putting oneself at risk in uttering those three fearful words: “I – Don’t – Know,” which finds us on the edge of being willing to unlearn and relearn.

Years ago, I was unable to “admit” when I didn’t know something, so I found learning a painful process. Yet, with practice in recognizing my ego, letting go of “knowing” has become easier. Just in time too. Much of knowledge today has a half-life of 5-7 years, with technical knowledge at a half-life of 18-24 months.

The rewards of embracing a Beginner’s Mind reduces the pressure of having to know everything – and brings forth an incredible openness and aliveness.

Like anything, developing a Beginner’s Mind takes practice. In our fast-paced life I’ve discovered that “time” – how we relate to time – is an often-overlooked pitfall that stops us from embracing our beginner’s mind. I’ve selected some common “time” obstacles to a Beginner’s Mind.

No TIME for mistakes.

Leaders are in-demand, busy professionals, who are expected to be “all-knowing,” and can embrace a perfectionist’s mindset. The all-knowing, perfectionist mindset avoids mistakes.

Here’s the paradox, failure paves the path to learning. Success yields little insight, but a mistake can pinpoint a cause that inspires new learning. Mistakes lubricate our learning muscles. The real failure is not in the mistake but in not learning from it.

Practice: Plan for mistakes. Buffer time into your planning for WHEN, not IF, mistakes happen. Embrace mistakes as your internal teacher and not the enemy.

No TIME for Learning.

Everything new involves a hidden learning curve. Embrace this first lesson: Count on a curve, even though we do not know what it will look like. So, create the time for it.

Whenever I take on something new I drastically overestimate – by two or three times what I think it will take to accomplish that task. Remarkably, in today’s climate even familiar tasks are new, as they involve new contexts, conditions, or arrangements.

Practice: Overestimate what you think you need to allow for the unknown. The worse that can happen is to yield extra time for another task.

No TIME to Create.

If I am willing to embrace mistakes then I can allow myself to BE in the creative process: to waddle and wallow through these four stages by Graham Wallas in his 1926 classic, The Art of Thought, as borrowed by Scott Jeffrey

  1. Wonder (Preparation): The mind prepares for the creative solution, which requires study and thinking intently on the subject—whether it be a musical composition, a new invention, a mathematical formula, or a business dilemma. Embracing a growth mindset, a Beginner’s Mind or childlike wonder finds learners experimenting, discovering and willing to see old ideas with a fresh perspective.

Practice: Become a student of your topic. Delve into it in a way to question existing knowledge. Questioning will expand understanding, create connections, and may involve being confused for a bit.

  1. Wander (Incubation): A germination period follows. We step away from the problem and take up some form of activity like daydreaming, walking, or meditating. We surrender to the moment and let life guide us, as Mozart describes it:

“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.”

Practice: Breathe, meditate, quiet the mind, and pause, regularly. Set aside the work to allow the mind to let go of the problem or support in getting an answer. Be distracted, and wander into life, dwelling into and drawing out ideas, organically.

  1. Insight (Illumination): Often as a flash, a brilliant idea shoots across the mind, frequently during a mundane task or while one is involved with something else. Nietzsche explains Insight:

“The notion of revelation describes the condition quite simply; by which I mean that something profoundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes visible and audible with indescribable definiteness and exactness.”

“One hears—one does not seek; one takes—one does not ask who gives: a thought flashes out like lightning, inevitably without hesitation—I have never had any choice about it … Everything occurs quite without volition, as if in an eruption of freedom, independence, power, and divinity.”

Practice: Be open and receptive to what comes to, or flows through, you. Sharpen the saw, and organize your life to capture ideas and insights.

  1. Acknowledge/Accept (Verification): The idea is tested to determine its validity. The composition is scored; the mathematical formula, proven; the business idea is formulated into a proposal.

Practice: Begin again by questioning, testing, revising, reviewing, formulating – whatever is required to bring an idea to the next level or to discover a new opening that may return you to a previous step.

No TIME for Discovery.

Review the four-step journey outlined by Jeffrey/Wallas. Consider that in most cases we do some work in #1, and then likely surf right to #4. Skipping Wander and Insight limits us to only leveraging what we know. We might get by, but we will not innovate, create or discover. Worse, we risk our imagination for the certainty of the predictable.

Honoring time disrupts this cycle. Time is finite, yet the learning from it is abundant if we honor it to access and cultivate newness. Most executives especially underestimate the time to encounter “newness” or to engage anything “newly.”

We do not allow for – give ourselves permission for – genuine learning, or newness to arise. We force a present situation into a past-based frame. We fail to consider or realize how our current pace of change alters even the familiar in subtle ways – differences that if approached with a Beginner’s Mind would offer jolts of learning and quantum leaps in understanding.

Discovery happens in stages 2 and 3 (“Wander” and “Insight”) of the framework above. By assuming nothing and questioning everything as a beginner, we can embrace the unknown and become open to surprises and unpredictable discoveries.


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.