Freedom of Not Knowing

Photo by  Tim Swaan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Swaan on Unsplash

I was tongued tied! I had spent four months studying Italian and I was unable to ask a simple question while in Italy. I was able to read and understand more than I thought possible. My problem was I was unable to speak the words I had practiced. Crazy as it may sound, I didn’t think of myself as a beginner.

What is a beginner’s mindset?

Beginner's mind is a concept from Zen Buddhism called Shoshin: “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.”

The key word here is a preconception. I froze because of performance anxiety. I was unable to try due to fear of not getting it right. After all my native tongue easily flows without a second thought; at least most days. I expected my brain to respond, in a similar manner, with the knowledge I had acquired.

I have said many times, knowing is not enough. While I technically know how to ask a question or respond to simple questions in Italian, I was unable to do so in real life situations. I didn’t know how to apply my knowledge. Yes, this is an extreme example of being a beginner and expecting that I would easily be able to apply what I learned. I gave myself no freedom to be a beginner.

Learning a new language has taught me a valuable lesson about having a beginner’s mindset. When I truly found myself in a position of being a beginner I froze. It hit me then that I have not been operating with a beginner’s mindset in so many areas of my life.

I can have knowledge and even experience, yet I am limiting myself by setting my own goals/intentions based only on what I know or have experienced. Who would set a goal/intention without knowing what was involved, certainly not me… until now?

In the book Made to Stick by authors Chip & Dan Heath, they call this a curse:

 “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

While in my case it was a matter of using my knowledge appropriately, it is in fact the same thing that happens to us in our careers and in all aspects of our lives. When we have acquired a level of knowledge, we fail to remember what it was like not to have that knowledge.

We forget that it took us time to learn and to apply the knowledge before it became truly known. We get frustrated with people who haven’t had our experience and potentially make judgement about their abilities.

For the purposes of this article, let’s consider only the impact of our perception of knowing ourselves. Are we going into a familiar situation with the mindset of knowing? How often might we be missing an opportunity to learn more about a situation, even if we believe it is like so many of our past experiences. You may be thinking, what is the problem with applying my experience?

Simple, you are no longer open to learning more. You have set your expectation that you know enough to make the right choice/decision. I propose a different approach; give yourself the freedom of not knowing!

What could be better if you were to listen, fully, to others without expectation of where they are going in the conversation. If you do so, you could not be thinking about your response before they finish talking. You would only be listening to their point of view.

What if you were more curious about your own thoughts, reactions or responses? If you do so, you would not be working through what’s next before you reflected on your own contribution to the circumstance. You would be allowing new information and/or perspectives to inform your next action.

If you step into a beginner’s mindset, you would get curious about what you don’t know. You would be fully present to learning more. Letting go of preconceived notions of what lies ahead. You learn to gain appreciation for not seeing what’s coming. Perhaps looking at the bigger picture without the certainty of what lies between where you are now and the bigger vision of what’s next.

As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

When you learn more, without judgement, you will find that you may or may not use your past experience to decide what is the next appropriate action. You may try something new, as you have learned something new that inspires you to do better than ever before.

Not knowing takes courage and it brings an amazing freedom when we let go of knowing.

How can you approach a situation in your career or life with a beginner’s mindset?

Per me, cercherò di rispondere adesso anche se sbagliato! (For me, I will try to respond now, even if wrong!)