The critical importance of "beginner mind" when starting a business

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beginnermindWe all get cocky sometimes and think we know a lot about a lot of things.  This is probably true; your life experience and education have given you a rich body of experience that you should be proud to share with others.

However, if you go into entrepreneurship for the first time with an attitude that you know everything, you will quickly be humbled by the reality that what you think you know, you really don’t.  It is a better strategy to approach your new venture with “beginner mind.”

What is “beginner mind?”

Beginner mind is a state of being where you approach learning with no judgment, censoring, editing or preconceived expectations.

When you are in a state of “beginner mind,” you think things like:

  • Wow, this is cool!  I wonder how it works?
  • That is interesting!  Why do you think that?
  • I want to learn as much as I can about this topic!
  • I really don’t understand this person, but I wonder what makes him tick?
  • I can’t wait to get in front of customers to hear what is important to them
  • What else?  Tell me more.

It is in direct opposition to its cousin “expert mind” where you think things like:

  • When is this person going to stop talking so I can share what I know?
  • This person is so wrong in her explanation and I can’t wait to prove it to her
  • I tried that already and it didn’t work
  • I can’t wait to share my 152 Powerpoint slides at my first sales meeting.  They will be so impressed with what I say that they will probably buy my product before I leave the building.
  • This is a total waste of my time.  I am learning nothing.

“Expert mind” can be very dangerous as a new entrepreneur, since you are in a phase of discovery where you need to soak in as much as possible about your new area.  Some expert mind traps can be things like:

  • I don’t need to bother learning small business marketing, since I am a certified marketing expert from Corporate U and was the Senior VP of Marketing for the entire globe.”

    :  The marketing you know may be very, very far removed from what you need to know to be an effective entrepreneur.  Although it may sound similar in concept, in practice it is very different.
  • I know there is a need in the market, since I have studied it extensively online for the last 2 years and have the spreadsheets to prove it.  I do not want to bother talking with someone in the market, since I know they will just confirm my research.”Mistake:  Nothing substitutes talking to real people in your target market.  Many entrepreneurs see the potential of a five billion dollar market in their area.  But how many can personally name those that are ready to buy the first ten products?
  • I don’t really want to talk to people that have been in this field for awhile, since they are too “old school” and don’t have half of my fresh ideas or academic degrees.Mistake:  You can learn many, many valuable things from seasoned entrepreneurs in your field.  You may not agree with everything they say, but you can avoid many mistakes by listening to what they have learned by hard-fought experience.

I could always spot the difference between “beginner mind” and “expert mind” when I taught martial arts classes in San Francisco.  A “beginner mind person” would come into class, introduce himself humbly, and follow all instructions in the first class.  He would pay attention, ask lots of questions and carefully watch how I did the movements.

An “expert mind person,” by contrast, would strut in the class and immediately tell me that he was an experienced martial artist.  As I was trying to explain the movements, he would focus on watching the more advanced students work out.  When I gave a point of direction or corrected a position, he would get a slightly annoyed look on his face as if to say “who are you to tell me what to do?”

The interesting thing is that many times the “beginner mind” person had just as much experience in other martial arts as the “experienced mind” one, he just had a different attitude toward learning.  By coming in with a fresh perspective and seeing the art as a beginner, he picked up techniques much quicker and in the long run developed more talent.

Cultivating a beginner mind as an entrepreneur will greatly increase both the depth and pace of your learning, and make the process fun and exciting.  You will find that more people are willing to talk with and support you when you  are open and non-judgmental.

15 Responses to “The critical importance of "beginner mind" when starting a business”

  1. […] having the beginner mind. I came across the term reading past articles, particularly this one from Escape from Cubicle Nation. Beginner mind is a state of being where you approach learning with no judgment, censoring, editing […]

  2. Helen Coetzee says:

    Even though I agree 100% with this, I sometimes have a little voice that tells me I should be more arrogant and pretend I know everything in order for people to take me seriously. I think the challenge is to combine the ‘humility’ with the the confidence that you may know more about your subject than the person you are speaking to, but that person also has a lot to teach you.

  3. Rebs Rebillon says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I view life as a whole learning experience. Just starting my new company with friends and still learning the world of a free-lancer where they came from and trying to marry my experience in a big established company to create the best of both worlds.

  4. I was going to pull that quote from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind but I see someone has beaten me to the punch. However, this is a terribly good post and well worth making.

    Just to play devil’s advocate for a second. One of the problems I often encounter when talking to would-be entrepeneurs is that they are often hesitate or put off starting up on their own because of what they don’t know. In some ways, having some expert knowledge can be useful if it means you have the confidence to make the leap.

    I wonder if the right mental attitude is a tension between beginner’s mind, know-how and want-to-figure out.

  5. Mary Schmidt says:

    Ah, the powerpoint presentations! You can always spot someone who’s coming out of a big company. They’ve got a ton of glossy slides, with lots of clip art. And, they force you to sit through the entire presentation, no matter what. No stopping or even slowing if you say, “Yes, I’ve done that” or “Yes, I saw that on your web site.” And, please! Hold your questions to the end.

    Unfortunately, experience (and success) in big companies doesn’t automatically translate well to start-ups. As you note, it’s a very different market and perspective.

  6. Pete Aldin says:

    Still learning? Still living.

  7. Great post, Pam. I think dealing with the ego is a prerequisite to much of this. It’s the thing that puts internal pressure on to talk, to show my smarts, to put out at the cost of taking in. However, letting the ego go is hard, and depends on self-esteem and self-confidence (among others)… Deep stuff!

  8. Me says:

    I heartily agree. And I have to say I’ve been guilty of this in the past from time to time. As a much more seasoned business person now, I wear my experience well.

    If only managers in organisations had the same inquiring, curious mind, rather than feeling they have to have all the answers – life would be better….

  9. Adriana says:

    Those are very important suggestions for a beginner!

  10. Jeni says:

    Pam, you ar so right about the importance of speaking with more seasoned entrepreneurs to provide guidance. We call it “seeking wise council” and advocate reaching out to others as a means of building relationships and resources. One of the best examples of someone not afraid to start in “beginner mind” was Katherine Graham of the Washington Post. When she needed expert financial advice on running the newspaper (a skill she wasn’t known for) she reached into her back pocket and pulled out a resource she had acquired during her days as a Washington Socialite. Who was the expert she spoke to? None other than Warren Buffet.

  11. Ron Davison says:

    Delightfully stated – as is your habit. Just remember, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

  12. Leah Maclean says:

    I agree completely Pam! To me it is a matter of curiosity. I once had an opportunity to talk with a very experienced coach and trainer about what it took to achieve mastery in her field. She said it fell to 2 key things – being a master of learning and a master of curiosity.

    Every week I come across this “expert” mindset when it comes to technology. The person considers themselves “clever, highly educated, able to run projects and even companies, so of course they SHOULD be able to handle this technology stuff themselves”. So they mess around with it for a while and sometimes even mess it up.

    I have had over 20 years experience in IT&T and everyday I am still learning and still in awe of what is left to learn. I’m always saying “Wow, this is cool! I wonder how it works?”

  13. I love the quote from Shunryu Suzuki author of “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”

    And I paraphrase here…

    In the mind of a beginner, possibilities are endless; in the mind of an expert, there are few.

    Of course — because experts already know it all & close off the mystery and possibility.

    Thanks for the post & reminder!

  14. Aaron Bailey says:

    Along a similar though, author Jim Collins says to be interesting, you have to be interested. From a Business 2.0 article: “If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet — their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.”,17863,1134856,00.html