Let’s take an area, a topic in which you’ve worked for years already. You consider yourself an expert. You’ve seen many cases, you draw conclusions very quickly, you see the patterns and can give very precise advice without thinking. You’re an expert, but I still ask you to take a fresh look at the things you think you know: with the mindset of a complete beginner who doesn’t know much about the topic.  

I believe every trainer colleague would agree that one of the biggest challenges of our profession is teaching people who don’t want to learn. In big companies in particular, many people sit in trainings because someone assigned them to be there. Not because they’re curious and full of questions, or because they’ve realized that they need improvement in some areas. It takes a lot of effort from our side to engage these people, taking away valuable time from the not-so-long training time. The time spent showing these participants that there is something in the topic for them as well could be spent with more practice, another Q&A block, or more detailed feedback. 


Have you ever been this participant archetype? Sitting in the room thinking: “really, why am I sitting here?” Or “perfect, two days thrown out the window again for useless workshops…” Or “Presentation techniques training when I’ve been delivering presentation for years? What new things could anyone tell me?”


Of course I’m exaggerating. But you know what I’m talking about.


If yes, or even a tiny bit, I challenge you to take the beginner’s mindset. I’m not asking you in order to make my job easier. No. I’m asking you because this way, every learning experience might become a more useful, more interesting, and more enjoyable experience for you. I’ll show you what I mean by giving you some more insight into the principles of the beginner’s mindset.


How does a beginner approach a new topic? 


The beginner’s mindset, the “Shoshin” comes from Zen Buddhism. It’s an attitude of turning to something with openness, curiosity, and free from preconceptions even if we already have some knowledge or experience – looking at it as a beginner would approach the challenge.


In the moment of saying “I know this” you close your brain to letting anything inside. Your glass is full and you don’t want to pour anything in it anymore. It’s kind of like turning off all the lights in a big office building: this is how open you will be to letting anything new in, even if it’s new. Because if it’s new or different from what you know, you might need to admit that you don’t know – which is a hard job to do. 

The beginner’s mind is instead like a half full glass: there is already something in it, but there is still plenty of place to fill it up with learning, experience, and personal development. There is place for experiences that you’d otherwise miss if you reject the new information because you say that you already know how to do things. In this case you turn on all the lights in your office building: you become open to receive any kind of information that might be interesting and you’re ready to question if you’ve done it right before. 


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki


Why is it so hard to not know something?


One day I was looking after my niece when a repairman came to our house. My niece was so excited about the process that she asked me every single minute (and here I’m not exaggerating): “What is he doing?” And the question came back again and again. “What is he doing? And now what is he doing?” Even the repairman had to stop from time to time because he was also laughing so much. 


One of the most admirable thing in kids is how much they ask. Who? What? Why? When? With whom? Sometimes they ask questions that are hard to answer. Curiosity is part of their experience every day. This is how they explore the world and learn. 


By the time we grow up, we lose a lot from this natural curiosity. No wonder: not knowing during our school years means punishment. Bad grades, humiliating oral exams, failing tests, being ashamed in front of others. If someone expresses during a class that he doesn’t fully get everything and asks questions, he’s quickly labelled as the less intelligent one. Even if everyone else had the same feeling of not understanding in the classroom. No wonder we are so terrified of not having the right answers, of not knowing.


This also makes practicing the beginner’s mindset very challenging. Unlearning the mindset, the patterns of hiding insecurities, needs conscious effort and practice. You consciously need to make space in your glass in order to make space for exploration. The good news is that this allows you to leave space for learning, development, growth. You train your potential and expand its limits. This way you don’t only train your brain but become more accepting towards yourself. Not knowing not only becomes okay, but becomes the desired state. 


“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” – Aristotle


Three practices to get into the beginner’s mindset


Active listening


When was the last time when you were quiet, listening, focused only on what the other person was saying? A good exercise for the beginner’s mindset is immersing in conversations and leaving all our preconceptions behind, being fully present and alert to what the other says and how he says it. It is actually very hard because our brain immediately starts to comment on what we hear: I agree, I don’t agree, that happened to me as well, I have a story from a friend who had a similar experience… Or even worse we start to think about items from our to do list or whether we locked the front door or not. If we already have some knowledge on the topic we will only hear what justifies our opinion and fits our map of the world. Because it’s more comfortable. Be conscious in hearing messages that you don’t agree with. Don’t try to defend your views, just let it sink in. Instead of waiting for your turn to talk, leave space for the other to express freely and allow yourself to learn something new.


“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – the Dalai Lama

Ask, ask, ask


It’s possible to have a conversation in which you only ask questions. Don’t believe me? Ask a coach! As a coach, for long stretches of the conversations you might be just be asking questions. It’s good practice for you as well. In your next conversation don’t add anything, don’t comment, reply,or share a similar story, just ask questions. Start a journey of exploration and try to understand what’s really in the other’s mind, how do they think. Have genuine curiosity, try to understand and model how they think the world functions, what their thinking patterns are.


Practice during trainings and presentations


The next time you enter a training room, remind yourself: ‘When I think that I know, I close my capacity to pay full attention and let surprising new information in.’


The best challenge would be signing up for a training that sounds like something below your level. If you consider yourself an expert in a topic or know a lot about it, go to a training for beginners and let yourself be surprised. Sit with an open mind and curiosity and search for what’s new, not for what you already know. Pay attention, ask questions, challenge your previous knowledge. Don’t look for confirmation of your already existing knowledge, but for challenging facts and interesting insights. After the experience reflect on the new insights you gained.


The last challenge also allows you to build on your strengths even more, which also allows you to practice a strength-based approach. It’s worth investing in learning about a field that you’re already good in.