Beginner’s Mind

Gareth I. Jones
6 min readApr 26, 2023

To become the best at what you do, you need to regularly trust your beginner’s mind.

Photo by Ahmed M Elpahwee on Unsplash

As you get better and better at your craft, your mind will learn from the lessons and prevent you from making the same mistakes again. This is a useful survival technique, but it can work against you.

That first experience of a visitor can have a big impact, they are the beginner in this context.

If you see boxes on your shop counter, or paperwork where it shouldn’t be, or scruffy walls, any of these things, and you remember how these things happened, you can excuse things that can develop into bad standards.

It doesn’t matter if you know that those boxes are getting picked up later on that week, for someone coming in without that knowledge it looks messy.

This can apply to your website or app, if you’ve got a section that isn’t quite finished, you can’t assume visitors will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Approach everything with a beginner’s mind. Every time you walk into your office or shop, imagine it was the first time you ever did that. See everything as a brand new customer, client, or employee would see it.

The beginner’s mind is the approach that allows you to see the things that you might have become blind to, or tolerated because there’s a convenient excuse.

As the beginner’s mind becomes a long-lost memory, you might start to take fewer risks or learn the wrong lessons.

I miss the naivety of the early days of starting a business.

It was an advantage, dressed up as a weakness.

The creativity that comes from experimentation with no preconceived notions can be boundless, and with each lesson, failure or test you can smooth the rough edges but lose some of the spikiness that you need to really breakthrough.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

This lesson came to me through the excellent Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.

Beginner’s mind is about experiencing everything as if it were the first time. The curiosity that comes from the first time you ate a peach, or the first time you felt the bubbles of champagne on your tongue. It’s the recognition of this fleeting moment, and fully savouring an environment as if you hadn’t seen it a thousand times before.

This perspective can bring you inner peace if you follow these lessons, but as an entrepreneur or creative it can help to ground you back in the experience that you so passionately care about.

The rituals that get worn away from what you do to save time, money, or energy but which when removed take away the spirit of what makes what you do so powerful.

I’ll write more about rituals one day, but these things that you might undervalue or ditch when you no longer experience them with the same wonder, or when you take them for granted, can be appreciated afresh with beginner’s mind.

Without going too far down the Zen Buddhist entrepreneur cliché route, there’s a lot that can be gained from appreciating that nothing exists but momentarily in its present form and colour.

Everything that we take for granted is temporary, and that realisation can help us to appreciate what we might otherwise falsely treat as mundane.

There’s another lesson in this about making Tuesdays matter, but those mundane moments are massive opportunities when seen from a different perspective.

This can also have a real positive impact if you’re feeling anxious or uncertain about a specific challenge you’re facing, or a crucial meeting or thing you have to get through. Beginner’s mind can help to reframe this as a moment for curiosity, and that approach can give it a different feeling. Instead of dreading a confrontation, you can learn about the other person’s perspective, or learn about how you will react when you’re in it.

This might sound idealistic, but it has given me some real strength in scenarios that could have turned messy but have instead turned into key moments where you can build long-term trust and loyalty.

Beginner’s mind can unpick any prejudice or preconceptions, and allow you to see the truth in a situation, not just what you perceive to be the case.

These perceptions can often lead us to take the wrong approach, or can turn confrontations into battles. More often than not, you just need to step back and understand what both sides are looking to achieve, beginner’s mind can help with this.

I Don’t Know

This can help you to see more clues, which can start to build the bigger picture. I’ll write more about looking for clues in the future, but as an entrepreneur this is a big part of your job. Look for the clues that tell the truth, not the evidence that backs your judgment. Beginner’s mind can help you to avoid making foolish mistakes this way.

If you use it in the right way, you can build the vulnerability into what you do when working within your team. Instead of needing to be the person who has the answers to every question, you can respond to a lot more queries with “I don’t know”. This can signal to your team that it’s ok to not jump to conclusions and act like we already know everything.

Turn those questions into “what do you think?” and you create a new space for new perspectives. That perspective might similar be an “I don’t know” but that helps too because it tells you truthfully what the situation is.

Frequently minor disasters get worse by this insecurity that drives people to feel they need to know all of the answers and move fast to solve problems. In my experience, this often just leads to more complicated problems.

We’ll talk more about this in a future post on experimentation and being more scientist.

Pulling Threads

Pulling on the thread can help you to untangle seemingly complex situations.

You need to develop the skills of a journalist. Learn how to get people to share their truth, so that you can better understand the reality of the situation.

You need to listen, and learn how to do it effectively.

Know when to pull the thread, how to pull without getting it more knotty, and when not to pull.

Sometimes you might not realise there’s a thread to pull. Sometimes you don’t know that someone has a valuable bit of information for you, and often they don’t realise how important it is to give you that information.

Sharing that information doesn’t cost either party anything, but we forget the value of what we know. And we also regularly feel we fully understand the whole picture, because this is what we know.

The beginner’s mind changes the default. You don’t know it all, you believe there is more to know.

That’s the beautiful part of this. There is always more to know.

This happened for us recently where we negotiating on a property and couldn’t understand why the other party was holding so firm on one small point. They shared one detail about the plans for the property over the next decade and all of a sudden everything clicked into place. We didn’t know that we didn’t know this detail, and the other side didn’t realise how valuable it would be for us to understand this point.

Beginner’s mind allows us to keep pulling the thread, keep asking the simple questions, keep looking back at the spoon or the peach and asking why it is just so.

Work out the open questions that get people to share with you, but don’t learn this as a trick. You have to be genuinely curious, otherwise it is shallow and false.

I recently read a piece by the excellent Matthew Syed about his love for John Cleese. In it was this:

Cleese’s curiosity was stunning: in the first half-hour he asked about my life, world-views, attitude towards religion, relationship with my parents, political views, you name it. This is a man whose thirst for knowledge, to understand what Jean-Paul Sartre called the “inner world” of others, was limitless. He nodded, and encouraged, and laughed, and prompted, and smiled, and offered so much warmth that three hours passed in an instant.

This telling of authentic and genuine curiosity shows how, when done so effortlessly well, it can enable people to open up and share sides of themselves that no other people have ever explored.

This connection of souls builds more than trust and rapport, it builds a kinship that shows you see them.

If you can lead with this curiosity, this vulnerability, this desire, and this beginner’s mind, you can build something that benefits more people and brings a lot more joy, than if you just do what you think people want and pretend you’re an expert.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.