Beginner’s Mind

Photo by Nicole Green on Unsplash

When was the last time you felt like the child in this picture? There’s a large chance he’s a bit unsure about what’s going to happen when the pitcher throws the ball, but he’s determined to handle it. He’s new, doesn’t know much yet besides the fact that at some point if the baseball gods send him a fly ball, he’s supposed to catch it. And then he has to figure out what to do with it. Oh my!

Starting anything as a beginner is tough work. For some people, their expertise in one area makes it uncomfortable to try something new, something where they are not the expert, confident and capable. Remembering what it was like to be new, inexperienced, and yes, even incompetent in a new sport, hobby, task or job is incredibly challenging. If you don’t think so, just try to teach a novice something you can do without thinking about it. Being a beginner is tough and many people shy away from the experience.

And then here come our Buddhist friends and practitioners of Buddhism and suggest that perhaps the beginner’s mind is something not to move beyond, but rather to cultivate. What’s up with that?

A few weeks ago I was facilitating a workshop that included Bolman and Deal’s book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Bolman and Deal.  The book opened with a discussion of the idea of mental maps as crucial to our ability to analyze the organizations we are part of. To illustrate this point, I listed five number pairs and asked people to tell me what they were. One participant thought they might be sports scores. – they were right. Then I showed them five shapes and asked them to identify them – they were all sports fields – and then to match a number pair to the shape.

Everyone got the baseball field and the basketball court and picked a reasonable choice for the right score. Only one person got the cricket pitch and cricket score. People play cricket in his home country. No one else had any idea that a cricket match lasts for days and 188-187 is a reasonable score. Without the mental map of previous experience, they had no way to solve the problem.

So which is it – a mental map or a beginner’s mind? Which do we need to be successful at new ventures. Obviously I think it’s both. Learning something new is much harder, sometimes nearly impossible when one doesn’t have a mental map to fit the new lessons into. But that map can also leave us with preconceived notions of what will work and what won’t. To develop new ideas, processes. or options, we need to find ways to approach even our most familiar questions and problems with a beginner’s mind. It can help to think about our work as if we don’t already know the solution, if we can imagine new possibilities.

The more experienced we are in a task or area the more challenging, and more important, it can be to practice a beginner’s mind. Today I started my new job and while I have lots of experience as an administrator, none as a nurse or in an academic college. One of my many challenges is to balance all that I know about working in a university with all that I need to learn about this particular job in this particular college at this particular time. That needs a beginner’s mind. The combination can be powerful. I “simply” have to remember that it doesn’t matter how many campuses I’ve worked on and with or how many processes I’ve developed. What matters is that I can imagine new options to meet the needs of this campus now.

As the most well-known part of today’s quote says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.” Our expertise is important and hard won, but don’t forget the importance of our ability to approach things like that boy on the field. He’s ready for anything. He’s open to learning and trying something new. Can we be like him?

Take care,


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