Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

For me, the answer lies in shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of “beginner’s mind.” I first encountered this idea in my early twenties when I read Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. The book starts with this sentence:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.

I was perplexed. It hadn’t occurred to me that being a beginner might have benefits over being an expert. But it’s true: expertise can narrow your thinking. I’ve re-read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind several times since then. The book is the same every time, but I’m different. As I’ve become more competent, it’s become more apparent to me just how challenging it can be to keep an open mind.

The book’s core insight — one that’s made a big difference in my career — is that you can cultivate beginner’s mind, even as your expertise grows. As you become more competent, you can (and must) find ways to continually renew your curiosity. You must learn to welcome circumstances that threaten your ego as opportunities to let some air out of that inflating organ. More importantly, you must commit to ongoing learning. As much as you know, you don’t know everything.

Those of us in tech are lucky to work in a domain that’s continually changing. For example, the ways we built websites twenty-five years ago is very different than how we do it today. So, we have lots of opportunities to continue learning. We also have many opportunities for teaching. Today, it’s not just universities: there are many other teaching venues, some less formal than others. I feel blessed to work with students. They remind me of what it’s like to be in the early stages of the journey. Introducing them to the field also forces me to continually re-visit fundamentals. I keep re-discovering many concepts I thought I knew, which I now see differently because I can compare them to lived experience.

Learning and teaching are some of the ways I hone my beginner’s mind. Theses practices — and the mindset they entail — refresh and renew me. They make my work better. I encourage you to look for ways to maintain a beginner’s mind as you progress in your career. They’ll make a big difference.