Brokerage Ops the June 2023 issue

Cultivating a Beginner’s Mind

Don’t get trapped in decades of expertise that can lead to one way of thinking.
By Elizabeth McDaid Posted on May 28, 2023

As you may know, there are four—beginning with unconscious incompetence, that blissful state of not knowing what you don’t know. The next stage is conscious incompetence, the deer in the headlights, “holy S&*@t, now I know what I don’t know, and I don’t like the way this feels” state of mind. The third stage is conscious competence, when you know what you are doing but it requires your full concentration. Finally, you ascend to unconscious competence where you are an expert at what you do and you just do things without needing to give it much thought. This is the stage that we all aspire to, but what if I told you that might not be the best place to be. Heresy, you say. Maybe. But let me explain.

There is a stage of learning that Zen Buddhists call shoshin, which translates to beginner’s mind. In beginner’s mind you look at everything as if it’s the first time you are seeing it. Shoshin is the practice of seeing life with wonder. In his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk and teacher says, “If your mind is empty, it is open to everything. In beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in expert’s mind there are few.”

“Experts risk being trapped by their expertise into retracing old routes over and over, seeking assurance in what has worked in the past. This can hinder the ability to uncover new ways of doing things,” write authors of a Deloitte report, “A Beginner’s Mindset, Leading Organizations in New Directions.” Experts will make assumptions about what they have to do and won’t ask questions before they make a decision. This could lead to a narrow view of the situation that might inhibit new or better solutions.

Decades of research into top executives show that having an expert mindset can severely impede performance. Deep expertise can create overconfidence, which leads to the “expertise trap,” writes Sydney Finkelstein in the Harvard Business Review article “Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise.” An expert can become incurious and develop a bad case of tunnel vision. It’s important to turn back the clock and adopt a beginner’s mindset.

To avoid falling into the expertise trap, Finkelstein has strategies he has garnered from some of the busiest and most productive executives.

Challenge your own expertise. To do this, cultivate more modesty and remind yourself of your intellectual limitations. It’s important to:

  • Check your ego. Don’t pressure yourself to always appear “right.”
  • Methodically revisit your assumptions. Analyze them one by one and decide which are valid and which should be discarded.

Seek fresh ideas. An expert can easily become intellectually cloistered, so be sure to expose yourself to novelty.

  • Look to teammates as teachers. Ask open-ended questions, reward rather than dismiss or criticize those who speak up, create career opportunities for junior colleagues to present on topics they find important but that you or other senior leaders aren’t currently considering.
  • Tap new sources of talent. Hire people with different functional, industry or cultural backgrounds. Ensure that your team has several forms of diversity, including ethnic and experiential.
  • Add a role model or a learning buddy. Look to peers for inspiration to keep learning. Cultivate “learning buddies,” colleagues with whom you can bounce around new ideas and who will challenge your thinking.

Embrace experimentalism. Don’t stop taking risks. Push the limits of your comfort zone.

  • Pose frequent creative challenges for yourself. Look for unusual or unfamiliar projects that will allow you to break new ground. You can look for these types of challenges outside of work as well.

Learn from mistakes. Hold quarterly “mistake meetings” during which the biggest errors of the past quarter are discussed, emphasizing what was learned from them.

Experts will make assumptions about what they have to do and won’t ask questions before they make a decision. This could lead to a narrow view of the situation that might inhibit new or better solutions.

Research has shown that intellectual humility, the capacity to recognize the limits of our knowledge, can powerfully improve our thinking and decision making. The capacity to reconsider our preconceptions and open our minds to new ways of thinking may be increasingly important in today’s rapidly changing world. In the BBC article “How a Beginners Mind Can Help You Learn Anything,” Dave Robson cautions us to “cultivate that beginner’s mindset where nothing is certain and there is everything to learn.”

Beginners have a world of possibilities before them. On the Better Up website, in an article titled “5 Ways to Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind,” Maggie Wooll explains that there is no right or wrong way of doing something, only endless options. The beginner mindset approaches problems with fresh eyes and creativity.

Wooll presents five ways to develop a beginner’s mind.

  1. Ignore the stories past experiences tell you. Question all your assumptions.
  2. Take inspiration from children. Ask questions like they do: what is this, why is it this way, how does it work.
  3. Slow down, take yourself off autopilot, and pay attention to rediscover every aspect of a task.
  4. Remove the word “should” from your vocabulary. Let go of outcomes and keep an open mind.
  5. Put your ego on the back burner. Let go of the need to be right.

I hope I’ve got you thinking…with a beginner’s mindset, of course.

Elizabeth McDaid SVP, Leadership & Management Resources, The Council Read More

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