117: Beginners Mind: The Key To Disruptive Innovation

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

When I was in high school I, as probably many others did, found my families religion a bit wanting and did a little dabbling in a number of different “ways”, spending most of my time reading up on and learning about Zen Buddhism. There was something about Buddhism that I liked, the human centered approach mostly, the idea that you were the focus of your life and followed your own rules, not ones put down by some higher being we may or may not know exists. Additionally, I loved the meditative aspects of Zen, the practice of zazen which has adherents (or aspirants) sit and meditate, clearing your mind of all thoughts, attempting to attain a completely empty mind or at least filled with only a single thought or concept, but ideally completely empty. I even wrote a book, way back when I was in sales, about using zazen to help you chill out when the phone wasn’t ringing with orders. (That’s right, I wasn’t always about disruptive innovation.)

One of the most famous books on the subject “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” starts out just like the above. simply with the statement that when someone comes to a practice, any practice, of which they are unfamiliar, the possibilities are endless. It doesn’t matter what it is: could be Zen, could be golf, could be snowboarding, could be coding. Your mind is fully open because you literally have no idea what is right and what is wrong, when it comes to the practice. Only when you start learning what to do/what not to do, is when you start closing your mind off to what is not possible. That’s when you lose touch with the part of yourself which can lead to disruptive innovation.

In my humble opinion, Beginners Luck is real. When someone has no rules, no restrictions, on what they are doing, no matter what it is, they make moves and decisions which can create amazing innovations. When you come to something completely new, with no preconceptions whatsoever, you are able to make breakthroughs in areas people who’ve done things for years never even thought of. Once you get into it, that’s when the rules bog you down, that’s when it seems that truly disruptive innovation is out of reach. But it’s not, really.

The fact of the matter is that we can all go back to that moment. We can all “clear our minds” and go back to being a beginner. We can all go back to when we started and bring back that beginners mind, bring back that childlike curiosity we had when we first started doing something. Bring back that optimistic, sometimes slightly crazy person who started by believing that anything was possible. This is the way back to disruptive innovation, through beginners mind.

For some it may be difficult, but it is possible. Being able to get back to that open state is key to coming up with new ideas.