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Experts Can Find Value in a "Beginner's Mind"


As physician business or medical practice owners, we are equally likely to go from youthful idealists starting out in practice, or our newly discovered nonclinical business, to blasé and even somewhat jaded practitioners of our crafts. By approaching our work instead with the Zen Buddhist concept of a "beginner's mind," it instantly reveals a marvelous perspective with which to step back and re-evaluate our businesses, and even our lives. Here's how.

As a mom and first-time parent, I marveled at my tiny daughter's curiosity about and interest in the world. Her quest for knowledge was insatiable and her ability to sit absorbed in what she was doing at the moment enviable. Now that she's 8 -- “Eight and a quarter, mom!” said with a sigh and an attitude -- she seems to have morphed into a smart, verging-on-sassy pre-tween who's beginning to think she knows it all and is sure her mother is quite moronic at times.

As physician business or medical practice owners, we are equally likely to go from youthful idealists starting out in practice, or our newly discovered nonclinical business, to blasé and even somewhat jaded practitioners of our crafts.

I came across an article on the Zen Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind" this week that instantly revealed a marvelous perspective with which to step back and re-look at our businesses, and even our lives.

First, let's all agree on what we’re talking about here. I like to think of a "beginner's mind" as one that is innocent, free of expectations, judgments and biases. It's a mind that still retains the ability to explore, while filled with curiosity, wonder and even amazement. "What’s this? What's that all about? I wonder what that means?"

It's the opposite of an intellectual, you-can't-teach-me-anything, self-satisfied confidence.

These then are my five ideas on how we might apply our beginners’ minds to our businesses:

1. Focus on One Step at a Time. When faced with the decision to start a new business, change physician careers, or even refocus on our existing medical practices or businesses, we immediately leap to the daunting future question of how we can make that Huge Big Thing happen.

My daughter didn't figure out what was going to take for her to run a marathon while plonked on the ground in her diaper. She just got up and took her first tentative steps. Unconsciously, instinctively, she knew the rest would take place later.

Tip: Boil down your big new adventure to what little steps you can take immediately; then do it over and over again.

2. Fall Down Five Times, Get Back Up Six. Back to our metaphor of learning to walk: A newly-minted toddler is filled with determination and drive. She takes a step or two, falls and gets right back up again. It takes days and even weeks before she masters 10 yards. When did you last apply your drive and motivation with such intensity and dedication?

Tip: Be willing and open to learning. It's okay not to get it right the first time.

3. Keep Your Mind Willing. Martial arts offer us many insights into the beginner's mind. In fact, a more literal translation from the Japanese is a "receptive mind." I take this to mean a mind that is open to not knowing the answer right away, to sitting with ambivalence or ambiguity and being okay with that, or to be willing to be surprised by the as-yet-undiscovered answers. The willing mind encourages intuition.

Tip: Take the pressure off yourself from having to have all the answers about your business right away. Have fun with the discovery instead.

4. No More “Have To’s.” Or musts, or can’ts, or shoulds, and or shouldn’ts! Those are other people's ideas for how to live your life. By now, you have your own inner wisdom and moral code and this is enough to guide you. Your beginner mind is free to choose its own path, and your business or practice will blossom in response.

Tip: Toss the habitual "have to" response. Choose your own destiny.

5. Let Go of Being the Consummate Professional. This is going to sound both heretical and paradoxical, as I so often encourage my clients to position themselves as experts in their marketplace. What we're talking about here is different. We're talking about our drive and need to perform as the Consummate Professional -- someone with tip-top knowledge -- in all the areas of our lives. Parenting, spousing, doctoring, running our homes, even at play! We don't allow ourselves to not know.

I came across this quote from an article that really resonated: “It’s difficult to let go of being an expert. Because it means confessing that we really know nothing. What we know belongs to the past. Whereas this moment, now, is new and offers its unique challenges. If I let go of being an expert, I can listen to others with an open mind. Then I can find that even a beginner has something to teach me.”

Tip: Letting go of knowing everything allows you to be open to new learning.

As you move through this next month, I encourage you to explore the experience of your beginners mind. How do you really listen to your own inner voice? How does it feel to break the big tasks and goals into teeny little steps? What's it like to stay focused on the moment in front of you and not stray into worrying about the future? I'm setting myself this intention. Please join me… And let me know how it goes!

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
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