Beginner’s Mind for Better Judgment

Note: This post originally appeared on Substack. Subscribe here: timk.substack.com/


I had done it a thousand times. Yet I was doing it all wrong.

Legs trembling, torso aching, face drenched in sweat. My mind is confused and racing. “How can I put myself out of this discomfort?” I frantically wondered.

I’m in a windowless room full of aspiring yoga teachers. I’ve signed up for a yoga teacher training course and we’re being led through a sequence we’ve been learning for weeks. I’ve done the sequence dozens of times. I’ve practiced yoga for years and  the poses are familiar to me.

The instructor cues the group, “Inhale, rise to Warrior 2.”

Around the room, in unison arms and legs float into position. Gazes focused, bodies both strong and relaxed. My classmates look purposeful and stoic.

And then there’s me. I try to follow the instructor’s cues.

“Raise your arms, spin your heels, lower your shoulder blades.”

I shift my limbs awkwardly, teetering like I’m on an imaginary tight rope. My classmates must be wondering how somebody so awkward can be in a teacher training.

My form looked nothing like this. Photo: Flickr, GoToVan

A primary task of a yoga teacher is to guide students correctly into poses. However, as most of us aspiring teachers have been practicing yoga for some time, we’re already familiar with the various poses. When a pose name is called out muscle memory prompts us into the pose, even before the teacher provides any instruction. Accordingly, when we’re in the position of teacher, we call out the pose and half-expect people to just shift into the pose.

This is fine if you’re teaching to a room full of experienced yogis. But many yoga students aren’t experienced yogis. What happens then? I decided to try it out.

At our next practice session, I put myself into the perspective of a complete beginner. I’d ignore everything I already knew and would experience the sequence completely through the teacher’s guidance.

The experience was completely different. I had to work harder to listen to what I was told. I got confused about what some phrases meant. I had to think about where to position my body.

A Beginner’s Mind

A beginner’s mind, one where we approach situations as if we’re a beginner, allows us to see gaps, learn new perspectives, and create new connections.

However, the idea of a beginner’s mind seems to be one we may know but practice less. Especially as we get further into our lives and careers. As we gain expertise, we move from a place of learning to a place of executing. Rather, we need to do both – exercise our expertise while we learn anew. 

A beginner’s mind is valuable in areas across our personal and professional lives – from relationships with friends and family, to innovating new products, to leading teams.

We don’t have to literally approach every situation as a beginner to reap the benefits of a beginner’s mind though. We can uplevel our thinking and judgment if we practice what I think are the components of an effective beginner’s mindset: curiosity, humility, empathy.

Curiosity

When we know nothing, we have a desire to understand. Children are relentless in their curiosity and question asking. With one question answered, a child moves to the next iteration and asks another question.

However, as we gain knowledge and experience, curiosity fades. We bring our prior knowledge to decisions. We fill in gaps with assumptions. As we move along in life, curiosity to understand is replaced with conviction to be understood.

As move along in life, curiosity to understand is replaced with conviction to be understood

If we approach situations with curiosity to understand, our minds operate differently. We ask questions. We think critically. We begin to understand.

For example, in yoga I had always sought to move my body in challenging ways, such as touching my toes or balancing on my hands. To me, much of yoga was about the ability to perform difficult postures. It was only after questioning why certain cues were provided (e.g. bend your knees) I learned the goal of a pose isn’t to push into new body contortions, but to rather breathe and stretch within the proper alignment of a pose. Difficult or impressive looking postures are a product of proper yoga practice and not the goal. Posture cues are provided to guide safe alignment and not to help move into impressive shapes. With this knowledge, I was able to understand how to follow and to provide cues.

If we approach situations with beginner like curiosity, we start to see connections we never saw before. We can learn how we might’ve been wrong all along.

“Your assumptions are the windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda

Humility

Our egos, especially as we gain skills and knowledge, can hold us back from reaching the best outcomes or decisions. First, our egos create a desire for us to assert what we know, even when unnecessary, thus shutting ourselves off from learning. Second, our egos prevent us from asking questions. We need humility:

Stop flexing. Start learning.

In the yoga studio of classmates, my inclination was to demonstrate my skill. I wanted to push myself as I hoped for the silent approval of those around me. But when we flex, we close our minds to learning. It takes humility to not show the world how skilled we are, and to present ourselves as a beginner – one who is coming from a place of low knowledge and skill. Our desire to perform is strong. We need to actively suppress this desire and open ourselves to learning.

“Don’t worry about looking good. Worry about achieving your goal. “ – Ray Dalio

Embrace knowledge gaps. Ask questions. Seek assistance.

With high skill, we perceive ourselves as experts and are less likely to reveal or address knowledge gaps we may have. We know we don’t know everything, yet we feel uncomfortable to take action and close knowledge gaps. Worse, we can feel the need to assert an answer even when we don’t know whether we’re correct. To close our knowledge gaps and to ask questions is to publicly admit we don’t know everything. It takes humility to bring knowledge gaps into the open and to ask questions.

Beginners, who only have knowledge gaps, ask questions naturally. To get to the best outcomes, we have to continually acknowledge what we don’t know and seek ways to close the gaps or seek assistance.

Empathy

Once we’ve put our egos aside, we can put ourselves in the position of others. We need to suspend our own beliefs and see alternate perspectives. It’s uncomfortable to step away from what we know, yet that is precisely how we gain insights and understanding. Empathy, in this case known as cognitive empathy, is about understanding the perspective of another person – their thoughts and feelings.

In the yoga studio, I suspended all knowledge I had of yoga poses. I closed my eyes and focused completely on verbal cues from the instructor. From there, I followed the cues as if I was a beginner. Through this process, I realized that certain common terms used in yoga, such as “square your hips” or “knit your ribs in” are jargon disguised as cues. The use of more direct cues with common terms such as “point your hips to the front wall” make much more sense to people.

“Being confident enough to be humble.. is at the heart of effective leadership.

That humility makes a whole lot of things possible, none more important than a single, humble question: ‘What am I missing?’ – James Comey, “Higher Loyalty”

Raise our quality of thinking

The beginner’s mindset is rooted in open mindedness. However, an open mind is just a starting point. An open mind is not useful if we do not have knowledge or skills with which to act. On the other hand, high knowledge or skill with low open mindedness is limiting. We are prone to missing new or vital information. 

Open Mindedness x Knowledge

If we combine open mindedness with knowledge and skills, we increase the quality of our thinking. We increase our judgment and our chances of making the best decisions. With knowledge and an open mind, we drive a positive loop towards increasing our abilities in both areas.

In the past, when I practice taught a yoga class, I’d watch the experienced yogis, for they guided me on how a pose is to look. While beneficial, I realize by doing that I’m not serving the people who need the guidance the most.

Now, in any class I’m in I’ll observe the beginners. I note what they could be thinking, what I’d tell them, and how I could help them have a great yoga experience.

Even if that’s just an acknowledgement of the trembling discomfort of an unfamiliar pose.

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