The Zen Buddhists have a concept they call the Beginner's Mind; shoshin in Japanese. It means to approach something with no preconceptions, with a mind as open as a beginner's, even if you've already spent years on the subject.
When I first read about it as a teenager, I thought it was a great idea. Approach everything with the mind of a beginner! Of course! That's so totally Zen!
But as I found out over the years, the Beginner's Mind doesn't always feel very Zen. In fact, it can feel like a humbling, pride-swallowing knee to the stomach (sometimes literally in my case). It can be Teh Suck.
The Beginner's Mind Makes You the Suck
Can you handle it when you do something for the last 10 years and see someone else do it so mind-bendingly great that you feel like you're back on Day One?
Can you deal when an absolute beginner takes you down because you were careless and/or complacent?
Can you handle realizing that everything you so painstakingly learned for years and years has only been the first few baby steps?
That's the Beginner's Mind, in your face. It ain't no pretty metaphor like I thought as a teenager. It's a real, concrete state of mind and body. And depending on how you take the Beginner's Mind, it can either bring you down or make you great.
The Beginner's Mind Leads You to Mastery
In his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard finds that the key difference between a dabbler and an expert who excels in his field is that the expert works through plateaus.
There's always the beginner's high to learning something new. Because you're starting from absolute zero, everything you pick up feels like an achievement.
But as you cross over from being an absolute beginner to becoming a student, things become more difficult. You start sweating the details you never noticed were there before. Then sooner or later you'll hit a plateau, a point where it seems nothing you do makes you improve like you did before.
This is the critical junction that separates the wheat from the chaff.
Dabblers, feeling like they're not getting anywhere, and lacking the initial ego-boosting high of rocking the learning curve, quit. Eventual experts stick through the plateaus, they keep working it, working it, and sure enough, one day they jump the plateau and onto the next level.
In other words, in order to become a master, you have to accept sometimes sucking – and sometimes sucking for a long time – as part of the journey.
The Beginner's Mind Makes You Learn
There's another positive side to the Beginner's Mind: learning. You get off your high horse and you realize there are still things you don't know. When you get blindsided you realize something is showing you an area you missed and need to improve.
Falling off your high horse can be a big knock to the ego, but when it comes down to it you have to decide which you value more: getting better or feeling proud?
Pride is not a requisite to stop learning but it can be a cause. It takes a lot of guts and a solid Beginner's Mind attitude to say: "Okay, I thought I was the bomb, but now I realize how little I actually know. But I'm hungry and I'm willing to learn. Bring it."
Think about it. If every time you show up you feel good about your game, you're probably stuck in your comfort zone. It's when you're learning something completely new – not something you're substituting with the old stuff – that you feel awkward and clumsy. But congratulations, you're stepping onto new ground.
How to Handle Sucking
This has been pretty cute theory so far, but how do you handle the suck? How do you handle something as real as feeling yourself drop from the level of experienced back to noob?
One difference between positive and negative people is that positive people usually overestimate their capabilities, but this in turn makes them push themselves more. Whereas negative people have a far more realistic estimation of their abilities, but this causes them to take on less challenges.
Since we know this works, you can use it to overcome the suckiness of the Beginner's Mind by accentuating your achievements over your mistakes.
Think about how far you've already come. Remember the moments when you did something difficult and pulled it off. Pump up your highs. Writing them down is best.
It might sound like you're feeding your ego, but everyone needs a pat on the back sometimes to tell them how awesome they are. You're also sending your mind a clear message: if I could overcome that, I can overcome this.
The Best Advice About the Beginner's Mind I Ever Got
The best advice I ever got about handling the Beginner's Mind came from someone who'd started practicing my martial art at a time when I was only a little boy - and boy, was he good.
We'd just finished a very difficult class in Japan where I couldn't keep up at all and was feeling very funky about it. I asked him about it on the train ride home and was flabbergasted when he said he felt the same way, even after more than two decades of training.
"But that's the point. Many people stop training because they can't handle feeling like that. They need to feel like they've reached a certain level. But it's when you can take feeling like a beginner again and again that you'll stick with it. That's the best part about what we do; there's no end to how much we can learn. And that's why we say in our martial art that the most important thing is to keep going."
Keep going. Stay hungry. I know it sounds like I've railed on the Beginner's Mind, but it's not always a sucky thing. When you come from it positively, it can be a beautiful thing – to appreciate something you thought you already knew with new eyes all over again.