When news broke that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase were teaming up to tackle the problems facing America’s healthcare system, reactions ranged from excited to skeptical to scared. Healthcare incumbents from Anthem to Express Scripts saw their stock prices drop 3-5%.
But how could three companies with absolutely no experience in healthcare succeed where so many others failed? In announcing the partnership, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos proclaimed that the key to success is to approach the problem with “a beginner’s mind.” So what is a beginner’s mind? And can it really unlock the kind of innovation the healthcare industry to badly needs?
The beginner’s mind is actually a concept from Zen Buddhism called “Shoshin.” Shoshin advocates for being open-minded rather than falling into the trap of viewing yourself as an expert with all the answers. As with many ancient Buddhist concepts, modern science has proven the wisdom in this mantra: self-proclaimed experts are less open to new ideas.
Shoshin was popularized in the west in a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book that not only influenced Bezos, but was also an early favorite of Steve Jobs. If this concept is so powerful that it can spook the stock market and drive Bezos and Jobs to repeated success, then there must be something to it. So how do everyday innovators, people who aren’t already billionaires, adopt this ancient, powerful practice?
It doesn’t have to be rocket science. Here are seven easy ways to get started thinking like a beginner.
Ask for guidance
A beginner’s mind is humble. In practice, humility means asking others for their opinions. This can be tough, especially when you’re dealing with people who know far less about the problem you’re trying to solve. But knowing more isn’t the same as knowing everything. Someone else might just see something you’re missing. The sooner you can swallow your pride, the sooner you can get to a better design.
Love people, not your ideas
Why is it such a challenge to come to terms with the fact that our designs aren’t perfect after all? The answer is attachment. Every innovator becomes attached to their innovation to some degree or another. Our innovations are our babies — literally. (Ok, not literally. I mean figuratively, but I had you fellow grammar nerds going there for a minute, didn’t I?) We poured our soul into our innovations. How could you have a heart and not be attached to something you crafted so lovingly? The key is to direct your love elsewhere. The innovation itself is merely a means to making people’s lives better. So don’t love your innovations. Love the people you’re trying to help.
Read. A lot.
Beginners have an insatiable hunger to learn. On a daily basis, this mean troweling news articles for the latest breakthrough and blog posts for the latest think pieces in various fields. Every month, you’re diving into a new book for an in-depth review of a topic you didn’t have all the answers to before. And every year (at least), you’re finding a conference to go to, not only to hear from luminaries in fields that interest you, but also to network with fellow compadres, together creating meaning out of sharing differing experiences.
Innovators with a beginner’s mindset are also supremely confident. At first, this feels like a paradox. How can someone who actively admits they don’t have all the answers, be so self-assured? Being both open-minded and confident isn’t actually a paradox at all. People who hold onto their ideas firmly, even in the face of contradictory evidence, are afraid to admit that they might be wrong. Confident people are comfortable with being wrong. So, the key to being confident yet open-minded is to embrace ambiguity.
Measure time, not praise
The next key to adopting a beginner’s mindset is to repeat the mantra, “I am not my work.” That’s right, you and your innovations are not the same thing. People giving you feedback are critiquing your innovation, not you personally. But keeping our identity and the success of our work separate is actually very hard. Innovation is vastly different than the production and knowledge jobs our education was training us for. Knowledge jobs have right answers, and production jobs have correct methods, but innovation is very different. It’s creative. There is no perfect, no right design. You’re making things, not trying to come up with what someone else has already determined is the right answer, so your sense of worth can’t come from other's judgements of your innovations. Those judgements are, by their very nature, subjective. Instead, judge yourself on the time you're spending to make people’s lives better.
Practice positive self-talk
Often innovators will take a few minutes every day to calm their nerves and clear their minds (and maybe even more time before a big feedback session). This is really a form of meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to be extremely effective at helping you keep your cool, even under the toughest of emotional circumstances. If you don’t pay attention to your feelings, they can run away from you. “This design could have been better” can quickly spiral to “I’m a terrible innovator” all the way to “Why go on?” Yikes. The trick is to catch your feelings before they go too far down this path and respond to them with more reasonable self-talk, “Could’ve happened to anyone. I’ll do better next time.”
The final hallmark of a beginner’s mindset is experimenting. Self-proclaimed experts are too afraid to try. They worry that if they fail, they will lose the respect of others. But, if you have confidence in yourself, if you’ve embraced the reality that your worth is separate from your innovations, then you don’t have this fear. You aren’t afraid to take risks. And indeed that’s what people with the mindset of a beginner do. They take risks. They try new things. They experiment.
Innovation is all about risks. Innovators try to change the world. But no one can predict the future. The change could totally fail. It’s risky. But if you don’t try, you might miss the chance to make a profoundly positive impact on the world. And that’s the biggest risk of all.
A Beginner’s Mind
Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase think they can change the healthcare industry with a beginner’s mind. And most people believe them. But this mindset isn’t just for rock-star innovators. Anyone can learn to approach problems like a beginner. The key is to practice.
- Ask for guidance
- Love people, not your ideas
- Read. A lot.
- Accept ambiguity
- Measure time, not praise
- Practice positive self-talk
Developing the mindset of a beginner is crucial to being a good innovator. The wisdom of this ancient Buddhist practice lies in balancing confidence with an open mind. Beginners aren’t afraid to take risks. Beginners realize that they don’t have all the answers. People with a beginner’s mind embrace uncertainty and actively seek to learn from others — and their own failures — as much as they can.