The Beginner’s Mind at Work

by Benson Hendrix

Cup of tea
Image by moonlightbulb

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”

One of the concepts in Zen Buddhist philosophy is the idea of the “beginner’s mind.” This is the idea that people should approach a subject with excitement, an open mind, and no preconceptions, regardless of how much knowledge they have gained about a subject.

When someone gains experience and a certain comfort level with that expertise, they might run into the “expert trap.” Starting to think of themselves as “experts,” or “guru-ninja-superjedi-badasses.” Experience is a wonderful thing to have, and is necessary in both personal and professional growth. When it becomes closed-minded, there is the risk of prejudging a situation. When this happens, people can miss potential solutions that don’t immediately present themselves, or don’t match what their expertise tells them.

In an Internet age where everyone is considered an expert in something, how do you resist falling into this trap?

  • Mindfully look for opportunities to move out of your comfort zone, by trying something new (whether it’s a new strategy at work or a new hobby at home). Try to recapture what it’s like when you experienced something new, and keep that feeling with you when you start to fall into the “expert trap.”
  • Don’t stop asking “why can’t we do …?”
  • Failure will happen from time to time. Respect and remember the lessons you learn from it.
  • Don’t get bogged down by the tools. They are only important for helping you achieve your (or your organization’s) goals.

For a communicator, with the added benefit of the plethora of “social media” tools (from video to audio, and blogging to Facebook, livecasting and beyond), the toys for this childlike creativity have never been greater. The chances to mix and mash a unique way of telling your organization’s stories has never been easier (Don’t let the ease of these various tools take away from the primary goals of your project. What’s your ROI? How do you measure success?).

By keeping your options open, you are allowing yourself to best respond to the circumstances around you, instead of assuming you know how those circumstances will progress, or that you can bend outside forces to your will. When these feelings start to emerge, please take a moment to reflect on “The Cup of Tea”:

    One day a university professor visited a Japanese Buddhist Master to ask him about Zen. The master served tea to his guest. When the professor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring, spilling tea out of the cup and onto the table.

    “Stop! The cup is full!” the professor said. “No more tea will go in.”

    The master paused and looked at the professor.

    “Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

# # #

Benson Hendrix is an Albuquerque-based public relations professional and perpetual student. When not pondering technology, public relations, social media, higher education and other topics at, Hendrix can be found writing about rugby at


  • Great stuff – especially the part about not getting bogged down by tools. So many folks are stuck on “Shiny Object Syndrome” and fail to be goal-oriented or objective-oriented marketers. Then they wonder why they can’t get it right.

    • Hey Dave – That’s a really good point! We all love shiny objects and the potential they have, but we need to remember that all tools had their “shiny object phase” at one point or another and at the end of the day they’re still just tools to help you achieve a goal.

  • I couldn’t agree with this any more. Geoff: This reminds me of the meeting we had after the Social Good Summit last year – I think your friend was surprised when I totally disagreed with her point about deep engagement w NPOs…(I being the newbie and she the expert:) Let’s catch up soon! Great post Benson

    • Thanks Scott! It sounds like this struck a chord with you! Sometimes the experts are stunned when others without their expertise throw out a new way to look at an opportunity.

  • Fantastic post, Geoff. I find that folks who are new to my industry are always surprised when I call myself a student or express my desire to learn new techniques, despite being fairly visible in the industry trade magazines and having 11 years of work under my belt. I always feel like I’m still just at the beginning of my adventure, and if what I’m doing feels to comfortable, I’m on to learn something new to add to my experiences. Thank you so much for the pithy post that I can then send along to inspire others to take up this openness. :)

    • Thanks BD, it’s great to still feel like you’re at the beginning of what you’re doing, keeping an eye out for new and creative ways to grow your mind. It’s like Ferris Bueller used to say, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

  • One of my college classes was Introduction to Shakespeare. It was taught by a man who had been teaching and studying the subject for over three decades (still incredibly lively). The best thing about the class was that he never injected his opinions into our discussions. He only guided what we were saying to get to the points he wanted to address. And he always, always professed to learn something every semester from the students.

    At one point in a discussion, he said, “You would think that after all these years, I know a great deal about literature, but I don’t. My knowledge,” he turned and made an almost microscopic point on a white board that was the whole width of the classroom, “is about that size.”

    All that being said, you’re right. Arrogance can get in the way of learning something you hadn’t known, or finding a solution, or even getting an opportunity that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

    • That’s a great example of someone not letting their own ego step onto what someone else may have a different take on, or stopping people from making their own discoveries. Thanks for sharing that!

  • In the beginning of reading this article I was missing some of the points because my mind wanted to tell the zen tea story here in the comments. 

    I was completely missing the points you were pointing out in your post. 

    Thank you Benson for reminding me to adhere to one of my favorite sayings… “I never said anything I didn’t already know.” 

  • Hey Geoff – with content as good as this from your guests you should take an extra day of vacation. Great stuff Benson – something I always struggle with remembering. But I do love learning and that helps.

    • Thank you Rick! Loving to learn is a great thing, and there are so many wonderful things out there – so much knowledge to be packed into a lifetime, as Henry Rollins once said.

      • Seriously, I’ve been in this business for 35 years. Sometimes I need to stop and think if I’m being old fashion and ignoring new things and I love that. The day I think my tea cup is full is probably the day I should stop being a consultant. What I miss most by being mostly retired is the daily challenge of young, smart people. We must keep learning if we’re going to be any good at communicating. 

        This post was a great reminder. Thank you.

  • Benson, you are consistently among the most open-minded people around. Thanks for pouring!

  • Great post! I read your post at first time but i already can say that it is very original and unusual as for me! Thanks!)

Comments are closed