I used to think I knew a little bit about the zen concept of shoshin, which is better known as “beginner’s mind.”
Approaching a subject with beginner’s mind means “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.”
I tended to pride myself on being fairly open-minded about things.
But that was before I learned that someone close to me suffered a series of mild strokes. Since this occurrence, I have come to the realization that I don’t know squat about beginner’s mind.
The stroke has changed this person in many ways. She is currently paralyzed from the chest down. She doesn’t always recognize the people who are close to her. She struggles to carry on everyday conversations. In many ways, her thought patterns and processes have reverted to those of a toddler. In the days and months ahead, she will relearn many things.
In many ways, she is beginning a new life. She has no option but to embrace shoshin, “beginner’s mind.”
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. — Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki
We marketers love our experts. We love best practices. We turn to our peer networks to talk about what works in marketing, branding, social media. We love to share articles like this recent one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Top 10 YouTube Videos Posted by Colleges, and What They Mean, because they provide practical, useful takeaways from a reliable third party that we can use to justify our own decisions. (In the case of YouTube, the key takeaway from this article is that traditional lectures by professors don’t generate high traffic, but compelling lectures by celebrities do.)
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. I have nothing against consulting experts. Why go through the pain of going through a series of missteps when others have already created a trusted path that we know works? Still, in light of my loved one’s recent diagnosis, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we tried to relearn an aspect of marketing that we think we already know?
For instance, I’ve been pretty comfortable over the years in the realm of media relations. Based on my background in journalism and years of experience in PR, working with journalists, I think I have a good idea of what works. I think I know what ideas and stories may be newsworthy to reporters.
But what if I tried to approach media relations with beginner’s mind? What if I decided to set aside what I think I know about this area in order to rethink media relations? As this essay on beginner’s mind explains:
People don’t allow themselves this stance of “I don’t know” often enough. This is because we always know, or we always think we know. Most of the time when people think they know, they don’t really know at all. All they know are their past impressions of the situation that is happening now, the conclusions they came to on previous times, or judgments about similar events or circumstances that happened once upon a time.
Living with “I know” is a tremendous handicap that keeps us out of the present, and living in the past. It doesn’t allow us anything new, no surprises, no insights, no discoveries. It doesn’t allow us to unlock and understand any of the mysteries of the present moment, and it keeps us frozen in the judgments of the past.
One entrepreneur writes about taking a beginner’s mind approach in the early stages of product development or marketing brainstorming. “When you’re teaching or communicating new ideas to someone, it’s easy to let your own assumptions and knowledge get in the way. Instead, look at it from a clean slate, like a beginner (which is really hard to do).”
What would happen if we truly embraced beginner’s mind as marketers? Are we brave enough to do that?
I don’t know.
But perhaps not knowing is a beginning.
Photo: Childlike dreams by babetteart on Flickr.
P.S. – More pertinent than marketing for my beginner’s mind adventure is learning about stroke and its affects. The loved one who has suffered this series of small strokes is herself in some ways a victim of my and her family’s “expert” assumptions that the symptoms she was exhibiting were of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Looking back, I wish I had known more about the signs of stroke to look for. So I leave you with this list of warnings signs of stroke as a public service announcement of sorts. They are from the website of Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who chronicles her own recovery from a stroke in her book My Stroke of Insight, which I’m now reading.
S = Speech, or problems with language
T = Tingling, or numbness in your body
R = Remember, or problems with thinking
O = Off-balance, or problems with coordination
K = Killer headache
E = Eyes, or problems with vision
8 thoughts on “Marketing and beginner’s mind”
Andrew, Sorry to hear about your friend. My Dad had a series of small strokes. The effects weren’t as dramatic, but it’s certainly something to watch out for. And at one point I even lost the use of my whole left side due to brain lesions – it’s hard to relearn to do things for sure.
I know it’s a cliche to talk about balance, but if you keep up the ‘what if’s’ you can fight the hubris of experience. I personally have a hard time with ‘best practices,’ I think thy’re short hand for ‘I don’t want to (or can’t) explain it to you.’ Practicing an open mind means we have to get our hands dirty so we’re never too far away from a subject to understand how it flows from the inside out.
Take care. Tal.
Tal – Thanks for sharing your insight. I tend to agree with you about trying to keep balance. The other cliche that comes to mind is that one about experts building the Titanic but amateurs building the ark.
I had the pleasure of studying with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi many years ago. Two memories: being whacked by the paddle when I was drifting during shesshin (he somehow always knew) and the Zen question: “How do you get a snake through a length of bamboo?” The answer: “The snake has to want to go.”
Rob – I’m impressed! Hope he didn’t whack you too many times.
No more than I’m sure I deserved. And always on the shoulders, never at head-level. The other thing I remember is that–at the end of a three day intensive session–he kind of deflated a little bit and said “now I can go be a baby.” He’d been passing gallstones or something of the sort the whole time yet seemed entirely peaceful and roshi-like. Ah, the power of centered focus…
Great post, Andrew. This is stuff I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, not due to a stroke in the family, but because we have a very bright 10-year-old son who “knows” things far too often and easily. My wife and I have been looking for any and all ways to unlock him from his “know-it-all” tendencies and to embrace and explore the possibilities of “not knowing.” I’m sorry, but I can’t report any great successes (yet).
Dan – It sounds like you might have a tough row to hoe with your son. But as bright as he is, certainly at some point he’ll come to the realization that there’s so much more to learn, and that his know-it-all perspective is not the only or necessarily best one. (I sound like a know-it-all expert as I write this, which is especially silly considering I don’t have any kids.) Good luck!
Andrew, I know how tough dealing with the effects that a stroke has on a family. I think this is an innovative way of looking at the “beginners mindset” and comparing it to a topic like a stroke