Adopting a Beginner’s Mindset

In many conversations and training sessions, I have heard about the powerful ‘beginner’s mindset’ of children. Here are some typical phrases: 

“Children see the world very differently; they don’t have any biases.”

“Have an open mind, like a child!”

“Children are very creative; they don’t have assumptions like us.”

Very truthfully, I didn’t quite imbibe the meaning of these phrases till I had my own kid. I get the opportunity to observe her closely as she goes about her ‘toddler’ ways. Here are some unique things that I have observed her do. 

She often reads her books upside down. Sometimes, she even pins the book to the floor and rotates around it. 

When presented with a colouring book and crayons, she leaves marks on every page, identifying objects along the way. Instead of the ‘usual’ way of colouring one page as one would expect.

She is absolutely fascinated by an umbrella. She loves to spot them everywhere – on the road, in her books and even behind toys which indicate it is waterproof. And this fascination has got nothing to do with rain or sunshine, which are the primary association of umbrellas. 

My toddler demonstrates all these behaviours because she has no preconceptions or assumptions about how the world is ‘supposed’ to work. She approaches her toys and situations in her own ‘childish’ way. Imagine if we were able to approach the world with the ‘beginner’s mindset? A concept adopted from Shoshin from Zen Buddhism, a beginner’s mindset refers to approaching something with eagerness and openness, keeping aside your biases and preconceptions. 

In the context of learning, a beginner’s mindset plays a crucial role. It’s possible for someone pursuing advanced studies on a subject to feel closed off to new ideas in the domain. There is a tendency to feel: 

“I already know this.”

“I have already tried this.”

Adopting a beginner’s mindset as a learner enables one to be open to different pieces of information coming in without getting caught up in a particular concept or style. 

In our personal interactions, a beginner’s mindset can help us develop meaningful networks. It can prevent us from being biased and following stereotypes. It can prevent us from allowing our preconceptions about people to cloud our judgement. This is especially important when we hire someone or evaluate performance.

In Design Thinking, a beginner’s mindset plays a critical role. When a Design Thinker tries to ‘empathize’ with a user to gather observations and derive insights, it’s very easy for their own understanding of the product, service or experience to cloud the observations.

In the book, Creative Confidence, Tom Kelley talks about ‘traveller’s eyes. Whenever you visit a new place, you tend to spot everything about that place. You feel curious and eager to know what’s going on. You see how people behave, what they do and don’t do. Back home, it would be tough for you to do the same thing.

While a beginner’s mindset is seen most prominently in children, adopting it is surely not a child’s play! Studying the literature around it, I could spot the following primary ways to adopt one:

  • Be Curious: It’s ok to feel wonder and excitement when you are approaching something – however simple it may be or look. Remind yourself to constantly ask ‘why’ which is the bedrock of curiosity.

 

  • Don’t Judge: It’s very natural for us to feel the need to evaluate something, to develop an opinion. To evaluate something, we tend to fall back upon our past experiences, which is when our observation gets biased with our experiences.

 

  • Be Deliberate: It’s not easy to start learning or observing and simply adopt a beginner’s mindset. Be conscious and be deliberate.

So, here’s a fun task for you. Take a look at this image. But before you scroll down any further, list out the first 4 to 5 thoughts that come to mind.

Ready?

Done? Now, reflect on the following questions.

  • Were your observations deeply connected to your own personal experiences?
  • Did your observations have any judgments/ evaluations?
  • And finally, if you had to adopt a beginner’s mindset, what would you observe?

Remember to have an open mind, like a child! 🙂

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