During a recent lunch with a well-known venture capital investor, I asked him what is the secret formula behind his spectacular success. His answer was laconic, “Beginner’s mind.”
He explained that in spite of his in-depth venture capital expertise, he still looks at any new investment opportunity with the same child-like curiosity and desire to learn he applied to his very first transaction nearly four decades ago.
His response made me reflect on the countless times in our daily life we miss the opportunity to use this sage approach. Our highly competitive and individualistic culture force us to approach people and situations with an expert’s mind rather than a beginner’s mind. The former, far too often, triggers in us the very familiar “been there, done that” response, which leads us to believe that once we have achieved some level of knowledge about something, there is no longer anything for us to gain.
“Beginner’s mind” is a Zen principle, expounded by Shunryu Suzuki in his classic book on Zen Buddhism titled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In the book, Suzuki teaches that the beginner’s mind is a mind that is fresh, curious, unbiased, awakened to numerous possibilities and void on any preconceptions. This type of mind profoundly differs from the one that habitually governs our daily activities and customary ways of thinking and responding to people and situations.
Suzuki’s central message is that, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Beginner’s mind is about purposefully setting aside our beliefs, conjectures, preferences and existing ideas to create space for new and potentially better ones. When we resolve to learn something we know nothing about, we must begin from the beginning. We don’t know anything about it, ergo our mind is empty and receptive. That’s beginner’s mind.
This should exhort us to never feel as if we have something all figured out when discussing with a client a financial plan or an investment. We must train our mind to be as inquisitive as that of a child, unhindered from bias and unencumbered by our existing knowledge. This will foster in us the desire to listen mindfully to our client or prospect to gain more knowledge and learn about their fears, needs and goals. Ultimately, life never ceases to present us with endless opportunities to learn more.
But, why should we resort to being a beginner when discussing topics or devising strategies that we dealt with innumerable times during our professional life and that have become almost second nature to us?
Having a beginner’s mind approach is of vital importance, because, as we become experts at something, our mind unfailingly leads us to believe that we already know everything there is to know.
Children are a powerful example of beginner’s mind in action. They never cease to surprise us with how fast they learn new things. This is because they embody the view of John Locke—a seventeenth century British philosopher—maintaining that the mind begins as a “tabula rasa”–the Latin expression often translated as blank slate upon which layers of experience accumulate.
Very often in our daily life those layers of knowledge turn into a hindrance to critical investigation and end up curtailing our ability to identify the best option. The beginner’s mind approach is cultivated by being curious, open to hear or observe all that is said or manifests before us without predeterminations. Ultimately, it means tending to a client or a situation wholeheartedly, in the present moment, refraining from rushing to pass judgments or offering solutions until we have absorbed all there is to absorb.
Investing demands beginner’s mind. It is a highly competitive profession. Identifying objective investment strategies to address clients’ increasingly complex needs and situations—amidst fierce competition—is a dynamic process that requires an unusual openness and clarity of mind. Failing to experience greater openness and awareness for new ideas can lead advisers to feel overconfident and prone to implement poor decisions on behalf of their clients.
Claudio O. Pannunzio
President and Founder