“The ‘Beginner’s Mind’ or ‘Shoshin’ is a concept in Zen Buddhism that refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”Shunryu Suzuki
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”Shunryu Suzuki
When we’re children, everything is new. If we want to learn something, we don’t even consider the fact that we’re beginners and when we first start, we are going to be ‘bad’ at it; we just turn up and do it. We make mistakes without caring or even noticing, and we learn quickly and easily through those mistakes and through a relaxed naïve attitude. But many of us become self-conscious and shy away from new challenges and new activities as we get older. Whether it’s fear of making a fool of ourselves, self-doubt or the feeling that as an adult we should already know more than we do, we often have strong reasons to stay home or only participate in activities that we believe we’re already good at.
But what if we were able to positively revel in the state of being a beginner, in being ignorant, in being “bad” at things? This would be the absolute opposite of being a perfectionist and it would be a freeing and relaxing mode to slip into whenever we felt it was needed. This state is known as the beginner’s mindset.
I recently decided to try this out. I had been thinking about how I used to really enjoy the early stages of learning. I remembered my first steps in playing the piano, speaking foreign languages, driving a car, and sailing a dinghy. Compared to now, where I have many years of experience under my belt and often feel shame that I ‘should’ be better at these things than I am, I was fairly free of expectations. I turned up at my lessons, or I sat down with books or videos, I practiced and I held strongly to the belief that it didn’t matter how many mistakes I made, I was a joyful beginner!
Safety aside (being in charge of a vehicle is obviously a responsibility to be taken very seriously right from the start), I actually truly enjoyed the feeling of learning something completely new and not putting perfectionist pressure on myself to be better at it than I was. And how did I do that? Here are the steps that I took to be a joyful beginner, regain the beginner’s mindset and enjoy the process:
How To Develop A Beginner’s Mindset
1. Good enough is good enough and failure is an option
I reminded myself that I didn’t have to be the best at anything I did. This was a big thing for me, just accepting that I could be mediocre and it didn’t matter. And sometimes I wouldn’t even be mediocre. I could be bad at something and it didn’t matter. We all have bad days and we all have things at which we’re good and things at which we’re bad. And we can’t always know the difference until we try. Most of the time it just doesn’t matter and we can relax and enjoy the process. We can try to improve, we can keep trying, but allowing ourselves to be ourselves, flaws and shortcomings included, can be a powerfully freeing way of being.
2. Embrace flaws and mistakes
Flaws can be seen as a sign of beauty, such as a beauty spot. And mistakes are the very fuel that leads us to learn our most powerful and memorable lessons. When I first learned Spanish I made so many mistakes when talking to Spanish people. Some of these mistakes were embarrassing but, ironically, these are the lessons I remember the easiest. I was a little red-faced but I never made the same mistake again and I remembered exactly how I should have formulated the sentence or which word I should have used. And the people I spoke with appreciated my efforts and knew that mistakes were my daily lessons. My accent could have been seen as a flaw too, but many people told me it was attractive and charming. I embraced my flaws and mistakes, using them as assets for learning.
3. Healthy achievement versus perfectionism
I learned and often reminded myself of the difference between healthy achievement and perfectionism. By this, I mean that striving for healthy achievement is the desire to improve the self or to reach a desired goal, whereas perfectionism is the desire to please others, avoid embarrassment or gain admiration. Once I started focusing on self-improvement rather than pleasing others with perfectionism, I could feel a change in my approach to almost everything I learned or tried to achieve.
“You can learn new things at any time in your life if you’re willing to be a beginner. If you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up to you.”Barbara Sher
4. Be joyful and full of humour
So many things in life would be better if we didn’t take them or ourselves quite so seriously. I applied this to my learning process. I had to trick myself into accepting this, as my usual instinct would be to preserve my dignity and not make a fool of myself. So I decided that any beginner mistakes I made were there to entertain myself and others. They were an act of kindness, like a slapstick comedian putting on a free show to entertain a waiting crowd. It worked; I still applied myself and tried my best but with a joyful humor. I found I could just get on with learning and gaining experience without the fear of embarrassment. I laughed a lot and made others smile and laugh too with my mistakes, and learning from them became a whole lot easier.
5. Develop self-compassion
As perfectionism is unachievable, I found that I had to find a way to forgive myself for my mistakes. I noticed that being kinder to myself was a strong way forward. I began to allow my compassion to flow inwards and this gave me more resilience from shame, blame or embarrassment as I tried new things. I also came to realize that most of our flaws or mistakes are of such little consequence that no one else really notices – we can usually just ignore them, or learn from them and move on.
6. Develop compassion
Making my motto ‘we’re all doing the best we can’ really helped me, both to be more compassionate to myself but also to be compassionate to others. I found that reminding myself that no one is perfect and that we’re all learning every single day that we live, allowed me to relax, to be less judgemental of everyone, and overall to take things less seriously. Being kinder to everyone around me helped me to foster a better attitude both inwardly and outwardly.
“If you get back into the beginner mindset, you can unearth energy and a fire that I didn’t know I could even still possess.”Peter Hedges
7. Be realistic
It’s useful to ask what exactly is perfectionism. Is it even realistic? For something to be perfect, there can be no errors, no unforeseen circumstances, and also no creative spontaneity. This is both unachievable and undesirable. It’s unachievable as humans always make errors, there is always something unforeseen. And it’s not desirable as spontaneity and creativity are the spices that add joy to life. Things would be pretty bland without so-called mistakes and creative leaps. So realistically ‘perfect’ could not and should not exist.
In conclusion, by adopting a beginner’s mindset, you can learn anything free of preconceptions and expectations, be filled with curiosity, and become open to a world of possibilities. Joy and acceptance are truly the most freeing attitudes to bring to any learning process. Borrow the easy, carefree beginner’s mindset of a child, and use the tenacity and maturity of an adult. Blend these together and you will learn quickly and easily and, who knows, you might even enjoy it.
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