What beginner’s mind is and how can you apply it to your long-term projects
A couple years ago I did something way outside of my comfort zone. I started a certificate program in video filming and editing – in Swiss German, nonetheless, which is not my native language. I still remember the first day. I was nervous if I’d be able to keep up and anxious if the others in the course would like me.
At the same time, I was absolutely thrilled to be there and was curious about all the new concepts and techniques I would be learning. Beginning with the very first lesson, my mind soaked up everything like a sponge, and I was engaged and deeply focused in a way that I seldom experience during my day-to-day life. Since the program included a lot of practical exercises, my classmates and I could try out creative ideas while acquiring the technical know-how necessary for creating videos. If we failed, it was nothing to feel ashamed about but was instead a learning experience.
My experience during those first days of class is a good example of a concept that’s become a bit of a buzzword in creative and business blogs in recent years: beginner’s mind. The concept originally comes from Zen Buddhism and it first found a wider Western audience through the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, which was published back in 1970. As you would expect from its title, the book explains how cultivating a Zen mind is related to maintaining shoshin, the mindset of a novice practitioner. As Suzuki summarizes, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” (Suzuki 2020, p. xxii). He goes on to explain that when you’ve done a meditation practice a number of times, it’s easy for it to become habitual and also for you to feel proud that you have attained something. This ego and lack of focus then gets in the way of the practice itself and thus in the way of reaching a higher state of Zen.
While the original use of the term is undoubtedly spiritual, it’s now also been applied to more earthly matters, especially in creative fields. The idea is that you should maintain the sense of openness, curiosity and playfulness that a child would have when learning something new. This will lead you to new ideas that you might not otherwise have come across if you remained in your habitual patterns of thinking. You’re asked to unlearn what you thought you knew and look at a problem with fresh eyes.
This approach can be particularly helpful if you’ve been working on a project for a long time, such as during the final year of writing a dissertation. When you know your topic inside and out, it may feel like there no longer any surprises or breakthroughs to be found. Your mind may be in a pattern of convergent, or linear, thinking when confronting new information. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if you would still like to find new insights, it might be helpful to shake up your thought patterns.
By trying to get into the mindset of a beginner, you’re forcing your mind into a divergent thinking mode, which can help you be more creative and generate more ideas. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, these concepts may sound familiar, since we’ve already briefly explored them in an earlier blog post on the oblique strategies technique, which has some other suggestions for ways to get you out of a writing block if you’re feeling stuck.
The concept of beginner’s mind should now be pretty clear in theory, but how exactly can you put it into practice? Here are a few ideas of things to try:
- Reconsider an idea you’ve already rejected
As academics we all know that it’s important to question assumptions, but after we’ve been immersed in a project for a long time, it’s easy for some to creep in. When re-reading your notes or writing it can be helpful to ask yourself why you rejected certain ideas and if they possibly do have some merit or bring up an aspect of the problem you should examine more closely. Likewise, it can be helpful to have a conversation with a peer or mentor who has a completely opposite perspective on the research question you’re examining.You can also apply this principle to the ideas you have around the work itself. For example, if you approach the writing process with a sense of dread each day, ask yourself “what if I decided to treat writing as if it were easy? How would that feel and how would I act?”. If writing has become a chore, at least considering that there’s another way to look at it might change your perspective and actually make it feel a little easier.
- Give yourself permission to consider new avenues of exploration
Sometimes when new ideas unexpectedly pop up, it’s all too easy to reject them before they are fully formed. For example, you might think of a new method you could use in your study but then dismiss it since you already have your methodology in place. Or, you might encounter a new area of thought related to what you’re researching but then immediately label it as tangential and decide not to pursue it. These kinds of split-second decisions are certainly not wrong – when you have a big project, you need to make decisions to keep your work on track. However, it can be useful to note them down for when you can take the time to think about them. Even if they do end up being out of scope for your current project, they might be something you want to explore in the future.If what you’re reading often sparks your curiosity, you can use Citavi to keep track of your ideas. Add a comment to the article with your idea and then assign the comment to a group called “ideas to revisit”. You can then create regular tasks for yourself during a period when you’re unlikely to be interrupted (such as a Friday afternoon) to take a look at these ideas again and give yourself the space to brainstorm.
- Leave your ego at the door
If you’re worried about losing face if your thesis is never published as a book or if you’re anxious about job prospects in your field, it’s hard to come up with new ideas. Try to set aside your personal worries during your writing sessions and teaching. If certain ones keep popping up in your mind to distract you, make a list of them as they appear and schedule a time not too far in the future when you will think about them. This may sound silly, but just like with unfinished tasks, as we’ve written about in a recent blog post, this strategy can help relieve your mind from feeling it needs to keep reminding you of something important.
- Rekindle your curiosity
When you’ve been working on a project for a long time, it can get a bit dull. To re-engage with your topic, ask yourself questions. Try to bring back your emotional connection to your work by pausing to consider why certain ideas interested you in the first place or by thinking of the larger implications of what you’re examining. Or, try and compare a theoretical concept to something you encounter in everyday life.
These tips are by no means exhaustive, so I invite you to put your own “beginner’s mind” to work in thinking of other ways you can incorporate openness, curiosity, and exploration into your long-term projects. I’ve personally found this approach to be helpful for fostering creativity and new ideas not only behind the camera but in all life endeavors that have become a bit routine. I hope you will, too.
What do you think about the beginner’s mind concept? Do you have your own ideas about how it could be applied to academic work? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Write to us at email@example.com or leave a comment on the Facebook post for this blog article.
Suzuki, S. (2020). Zen mind, beginner's mind: 50th anniversary edition (T. Dixon, Ed.) (Kindle edition). Shambhala.
About Jennifer Schultz
Jennifer Schultz is the sole American team member at Citavi, but her colleagues don’t hold that against her (usually). Supporting research interests her so much that she got a degree in it, but she also likes learning difficult languages, being out in nature, and having her nose in a book.