What we need now is a beginner’s mind

by Mike Mueller ([email protected]) 917 views 

I am a bit of an outlier in the world of business commentary. Although my feet are firmly planted in the fertile soil of data-driven marketing, I also am deeply rooted in the practice of Zen meditation. When I’m not strategizing with company CEOs and marketing directors, you might find me on a cushion watching my breath.

I find this unlikely combination hugely beneficial not only personally, but professionally, too. On the business side, I obsess over how to help companies achieve their goals. On the meditation side, I let go of goals and the illusion that I can control outcomes. One tries to influence the future. The other tries to accept that the future is an illusion and there’s only now.

Given the time we find ourselves in, a little mixture of both perspectives could be helpful.

To begin with, if you’re waiting for “business as usual” to return in 2022, keep dreaming. “Life as usual” got kicked out the door and isn’t coming back anytime soon.

The changes in how/where we work, what products/services we use, and which businesses we frequent seemed temporary two years ago, but they are here to stay and will only accelerate in the years to come. The phrase “paradigm shift” should be used selectively, but given the seismic shock to our lives and economy these past two years, the phrase is wholly appropriate now.

Here are a few of the changes that are most likely here to stay:

  • Most companies have achieved some level of acceptance about allowing their employees to work remotely, at least partially. They have learned they can still get business done–often with more operational and economic efficiency than before.
  • Tele-med and tele-therapy are more widely accepted as a legitimate way of treating patients, often with similar outcomes compared to in-person visits.
  • E-commerce will accelerate at an even faster pace as many brick-and-mortar retailers never reopen (or shift to a hybrid model) and people who had been resistant to buying online finally begin to change their buying habits.
  • Business travel is forever changed and unlikely to recover to pre-pandemic levels; neither is the commercial real estate market as more employers embrace employees working from home.
  • Our consumerism culture has been knocked off its trajectory—at least for the foreseeable future. The pandemic has caused people to reexamine what is important, and buying behaviors will continue to reflect their evolving values.

So what kind of new paradigm is needed as we begin a new year?

Coming back to Zen, one of my favorite books is “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suziki. Granted, it’s not a book about business or marketing, but it’s very relevant to both.

On the surface, Suzuki, a Buddhist monk and teacher, is speaking about Zen meditation and the need to keep a “beginner’s mind” – one that avoids falling into the trap of thinking like an expert. We sometimes call this a “don’t know mind” too.

What is this thought? Don’t know.
What is this feeling? Don’t know.
What will happen next? Don’t know.

When we meditate, we simply sit and breathe. Every question that pops into our head is answered like a beginner…Don’t know. Holding the question is what’s important, not forcing an answer.

This mindset can be used by everyone, even CEOs (perhaps especially so) who feel like they should know everything. One maintains a flexible and open mind like that of a new employee on their first day. Everything they see and do is new. Every piece of information is new. Every problem they encounter is new. This “don’t know” mind allows us to offer ideas that aren’t constrained by preconceived ideas or assumptions.

A data scientist friend of mine summed it up nicely, saying a “true expert” approaches problems as a beginner and has a strong understanding of the limitations of their current knowledge. With this paradigm shift, business leaders are going to have to approach the future with humility and a fresh set of eyes.

Leaders of companies trying to navigate this new landscape cannot be bound by the rules of yesterday. Instead they will need to question every basic assumption about how they do business. They will need a “beginner’s mind.”

Editor’s note: Mike Mueller is a business growth strategist at Clix, a full-service digital marketing agency. The opinions expressed are those of the author.