In our information age, it is said knowledge has a half-life of seven years, and technical knowledge a half-life of 18 months. Just think of how we use e-mail today, compared to 5 years ago. Look at the impact of the Internet on this presidential election as compared to the 2004 election: new fundraising records, bloggers fact-checking the conventional media, hourly campaign updates, and greater transparency!
To live well in this Age of Information requires us all to embrace what Zen Buddhists call our Beginner’s Mind – to approach life as a beginner. Yet, as a coach and former professor, I’ve witnessed adults learners and leaders struggle with the notion of being a beginner. This is understandable, being a beginner requires putting oneself at risk, and a willingness to unlearn and relearn. The rewards, however, include an incredible aliveness, and reduced stress from the pressure of having to know everything. Together, we will explore some practices to recapture the joy and vitality that accompanies a beginner’s mind.
Years ago I was unable to “admit” that I didn’t know something, so learning was a painful process. Yet, with practice at recognizing my ego, it has become a little easier for me to embrace a childlike state of wonder, bewilderment and play.
Just in the last two years, my beginner’s mind has inspired me to engage many large and bite-sized commitments. I took on daily gym, cleansing, and nutritional practices and routines; then began running daily, and ran a 10K; and then started biking, yoga, and spinning. With those practices, I increased my energy and focus to create 3 blogs, chuck my Palm Treo and grab a Blackberry, and to leap from AOL to G-mail. Most challenging, I engaged a dream of mine: I began writing my memoir. As an "experienced" writer, I confronted what I already knew about writing, set it aside, then bought books to support me as a beginner.
Like anything, developing a beginner’s mind takes practice. Yet, mastering it can add a new vitality to our lives. Newness brings joy and enthusiasm to any project. I’ve discovered some pitfalls that can stop us from embracing our beginner’s mind. To begin, I’ve selected a some common obstacles to beginning.
No time for mistakes.
Leaders are in-demand, busy professionals, who must juggle careers, families, social lives, reading, travel, etc. As leaders, we can also tend to be perfectionists, so of course we avoid mistakes. Here’s the paradox, failure paves the path to learning. Success yields little insight, but a mistake energizes us to pinpoint a cause and learn something. Mistakes lubricate our learning muscles. The real failure is not in the mistake but in not learning from it.
Ever watched children? They build a sand castle, and when it falls, they look up and around, and plow back into building the next one. The fun of playing has them too busy to worry about failing. We “adults” will need to practice a bit.
As leaders, we pride ourselves on doing things “just right.” This “perfectionism” can place undue pressure on us. We must give ourselves permission to lighten up, and the time to learn. Everything new involves a learning curve. Embrace this first lesson: we do not know what that learning curve will look like, but you can count on a curve, so create the time for it.
Attachments and Expectations
Underneath our “perfectionism,” lurks two bugs eating away at the fun and joy in our learning: Attachments and expectations.
Attachments usually occur as reasons and results. The reason soon replaces the learning. Then we turn the reasons into results. Finally, we identify with achieving the results as part of our identity or ego.
For instance, I will write my memoir by the end of 2008. In that result, I establish the importance of the result: the product of the book, over the discovery of becoming a writer. I then assert, “That unless I write a book, I am not a writer.” If I do not accomplish the result, I see myself as a failure, get depressed and invalidate any learning about being a writer.
In that example, notice all the expectations. First, notice how I “expect” this goal; second, notice that I expect to achieve it by year’s end. See the pressure? Where did these expectations come from? If I am a beginner, I’ve never done this before, right? How could I come up with any timeline for myself? Nevertheless, I identify with these expectations as markers of my success and happiness, and simultaneously discount any joy I might discover along the way.
Other expectations I identify with might include, reasons I to write the book: to have a best seller; to increase my credibility; to attract attention; to market my business; to become rich or famous. Becoming attached to goals, replaces any possibility of joy. Now writing becomes something I engage for these “reasons,” rather than the possibility of joy.
For a breakthrough, replace attachments and expectations with intentions. For instance, I might create three intentions in writing my memoir. I intend to 1) tell my truth; 2) write something every single day, and 3) discover something daily about myself as a writer. Then I can reflect each day on these intentions to see how I did. Soon, I begin to learn about myself as a writer. And out of that learning, a book will manifest.
Consider that learning is for its own sake, not for any reason. Remain a beginner and you will remain vital. Here’s a secret: once you embrace your beginner’s mind, you can bring this vitality to any domain of your life: family, friendships, work, travel, relationships, spiritual, living, wellness, communications, or projects. Let me know what happens as you practice.
Tony Zampella is a communications specialist and leadership consultant and coach. View his website or his blogs. He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.