Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beginner's Mind Revisited

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few."
-- Shunryu Suzuki

"Imagination is more important than knowledge"
-- Albert Einstein

Our modern culture is one in which expertise is honored and rewarded. To move up in the corporate and academic world, more and higher degrees and certifications provide increased credibility and respect. Certainly, professional development is an honorable pursuit.

Nevertheless, many of the worlds wealthiest people never completed college. So, achieving a high level of education is not necessarily a prerequisite to professional accomplishment. In fact, a single-minded drive to become an "expert" can actually hinder accomplishment.

Expertise requires the adoption of paradigms. In order to establish what "expertise" means, one has to set boundaries and structures around a field of study, to observe patterns and create a model that is accepted by general consensus.

The very nature of the system that establishes expertise creates its own pitfalls. In particular, paradigms create a lens through which all facts about an area of study are filtered. So, when information arrives that may not fit the paradigm, the tendency is to reject, change or reinterpret the information in a way that fits the prevailing wisdom.

History is full of examples of great scientific minds whose theories or discoveries were out of line with the prevailing paradigms. Some of these individuals were put to death -- or threatened with death -- for their ideas. Yet, history proved their ideas to be correct; it was the "experts" following prevailing wisdom that were misguided.

So, does that mean one should not pursue expertise? In a sense, yes. If expertise is the goal, rather than a means to an end, then your pursuit of gaining an intimate understanding of a paradigm may cause you to reject, change or reinterpret information you receive in order to fit the model that defines an "expert" in your field.

Great knowledge combined with a "beginner's mind," however, will help you to see new possibilities in an area where you have a great deal of experience. That is one of the great balancing acts of leadership: how to acquire and use knowledge and experience, while at the same time, be open to answers that lie outside of the paradigm of your "expertise."

Einstein is an example of a great leader who found this balance. He had developed significant knowledge and experience in his field and was an expert. Yet, he was able to set the paradigms aside and look at possibilities far outside the prevailing wisdom. Though his own description of the process he used doesn't explicitly state employing a "begininers mind," that is precisely what he did. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." And so it is with leadership.

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