The Benefits of Thinking Like a Beginner

When you find yourself stuck in your career, the only way out is to change your perspective.

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Like most people, you’re likely to find yourself stuck from time to time. Really stuck. The kind of stuck where you’re mired down with mud flying from spinning wheels that are only digging you in deeper. Sometimes it happens in your career, sometimes in other aspects of your life, and occasionally everything bogs down all at once.

These times of high-intensity stuckness are no fun. They’re filled with frustration and anxiety that builds as your wheels spin and you sink deeper. But if you look back on these moments later, you’re likely to see at least one positive result.

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At some point, you have to give up the illusion that you have a clue. You have to acknowledge that your way isn’t working. You’re forced to get out of your own way and become more open to changing your approach, perspective, and assumptions. And that’s the only real path to getting unstuck.

The overflowing cup

There’s a story in the Buddhist tradition about a spiritual seeker who came to a guru asking for insight. The guru could see this seeker was rather full of his own ideas, so before they started talking, the guru offered him some tea. As the cup filled, he kept pouring so that the tea overflowed.

When the seeker protested that the cup was full and there was no more room for tea, the guru drew a parallel between the full cup and the seeker’s mind. His point was that the seeker’s mind was so full of what he thought he knew that there was no room for the guru’s insights.

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The benefits of a beginner’s mind

That story offers a helpful image of what happens to us so frequently. Except in this case, the cup full of tea is a mind full of assumptions, preconceptions, and rigid ideas about what we know and how things work. There’s no room for the new ways of seeing things that could pry us loose.

Beginner’s mind is about creating the space you need for something new. When you set out to learn something you know nothing about, you start at the beginning. And because you don’t know anything about it, your mind is empty and receptive. That’s beginner’s mind.

But you don’t have to be brand new to something to benefit from the concept of beginner’s mind. Ultimately, it’s about momentarily setting aside your beliefs, assumptions, and ideas to make room for new and potentially better ones.

A beginner’s mind has plenty of room for new ideas and approaches. It offers space for your career to evolve. It gives you opportunities to let go of thoughts and beliefs that aren’t working and make room for the new insights, ones that are necessary to avoid stagnation.

My own bugaboo is a completely misguided feeling that I can do it all, that I have it all figured out and, if I just push a little harder, everything will fall into place. That’s fine when things are going smoothly, but when I get stuck, that just digs me in deeper. Reaching that “I don’t know” place helps me open up to new possibilities.

Someone else’s mind might be filled to the rim with negative beliefs about what’s possible, or limiting beliefs about themselves. A great example of this is the pushback I sometimes get about how unrealistic it is to expect to love your work. When beliefs like that fill up the mind, how likely is that person to be open to ways to bring more energy into their days?

[See How Perfectionism Hurts Your Career.]

How to create a beginner’s mind

You can make beginner’s mind a regular part of your approach to your career by asking yourself these questions:

• What limiting assumptions am I making? Could there be other ways of seeing this?

• What do I believe about this situation? Could there be other ways of looking at it?

• What am I missing?

• Where am I pushing hard with no results? What is missing?

• What don’t I know that I need to learn?

• What are some different possible perspectives on this situation?

• Who could offer me a different perspective?

Asking questions like these creates space for new ideas and approaches.

Experiment to see if anything else works better

This is all easier said than done. We tend to get attached to our way of seeing things, even if it doesn’t work. And it’s hard to separate existing reality from the reality we create in our minds.

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To get started, try simply experimenting. Approach it with a sense of, “I wonder…” Tell yourself, “This way of seeing things feels real, but it’s conceivable that there are other more productive perspectives as well. I’m going to experiment to see what I can find.” Then start asking yourself the questions listed above.

Experimenting isn’t about calling yourself wrong and making wholesale change. It’s about letting go of the rigid attachment to your current perspective and approach and exploring to see if anything else works better. In the worst case scenario, you’ll decide that you were right all along. But it’s more likely that, by combining perspective shifts and action, you will discover at least some ways to break the logjam.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.

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