Dug Campbell

A Beginner’s Mind Beats The Expert

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities.

But in the expert’s, there are few.”

The Beginner’s Mind concept is a Buddhist concept (Shoshin) that was made famous by Shunryu Suzuki, a monk and teacher who helped to bring the teachings of Zen to the United States.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about the process of learning recently. That’s come from a few experiments I’ve been carrying out into spaced repetition, some has been as a result of reflecting on talks given by people such as Adam Robinson who studied the SAT exam system in the US a couple of decades ago and worked out the process for how to pass the exams (with the result that the exam system had to be fundamentally overhauled).

Much of learning (school, music, athletic pursuits etc.) comes down to one simple fact: if you want to get good at something, you really need to practice it – it being the specific thing that you wish to do. So if you want to get better at interviews, sit down with people you don’t know asking you random questions beforehand. For music, get great at playing one piece – before you get averagely bad at ten. And when it comes to exams in general, practice by reading the sample questions at the end of a textbook chapter before you’ve even read the chapter. It sounds counterintuitive but the value is exceptionally high for two reasons:

1/ You’re now primed to read the chapter with the correct focus in your mind; and

2/ (Even more importantly) you’re actually practicing how to respond to questions where you don’t know what the answer is.

As an aside: apparently the data from an unpublished study that Adam Robinson carried out shows that male students do better than female students on tests where questions crop up on the day which the test taker doesn’t know how to answer. This is because girls at school (generally) work harder and/or are  more prepared for exams than boys. So when a question crops up that has an unknown answer, girls are often more put off by it (‘why’s this happened when I’ve done all this hard work preparing for the exam?’) compared to boys (‘well, I know I didn’t actually work as hard as I could have coming into this exam so I’ll just muddle my way through the areas I don’t know’).

Back to the original point: a beginner views each piece of learning with wonder, open to the myriad of unknown possibilities that may exist. It comes from Buddhist literature. Whereas the expert looks at everything through the lens of whether or not it conforms to a pre-existing view of the world. As I’ve written before, there are many reasons why experts (self-professed or otherwise) can in fact be damaging (see here, here and here).

So think carefully before you spend your life striving to be the expert that society tells you delivers the greatest personal rewards. At least, if you view learning as a journey for life, and not simply a route to a title.