The curse of feedback for the experienced mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” ~ Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

When I first started my business, people would give me unsolicited advice all the time. I guess it was obvious to everyone that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would get lots of “help”. Most of it was constructive. Some of it drastically improved my business performance!


But that was at the beginning of the last decade. Now that I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve gotten past the obvious starter mistakes, I don’t get as much unsolicited advice. In fact, I often find myself giving that kind of advice. This doesn’t mean I’m not making mistakes — I’m sure I make as many mistakes today as I did all those years ago. It just means that people are less likely to tell me when they see me making those mistakes.

I wonder if one of the reasons that people are less likely to tell me is because, like many people with experience, I’ve made up my mind on certain issues, and it shows! I’m not really questioning whether I should charge by the hour (No!) or what the best way to hire is. I’ve made enough mistakes that I feel like I know. That’s one of the benefits of experience — I don’t have to analyze every decision — there are things I just know. So when I’m faced with one of those situations, I can just act.

But what if the situation I’m faced with isn’t really the same as the one I learned in? How do I account for all of the changes that business, and the world in general, have gone through? How do I stay open while still making use of the experience I have gained? In short, how do I make sure that I’m staying relevant, that my “map” of the world remains current?

1. Beginner’s Mind

Zen Buddhism cultivates the concept of a “Beginner’s Mind” — where you intentionally put aside your pre-judgements and knowledge in order to experience something for the first time. It involves a discipline of staying in the moment, not rushing ahead to the conclusion, but noticing what is happening at each step.

This is made easier when you are actually actively engaged in some activity where you are a beginner. You have to put yourself into a situation where you are incompetent and uncomfortable. It could be a new sport, or learning a language, or how to play a musical instrument. But the more experience I gain the more helpful I find it to be actively engaged in something where I’m a beginner.

2. Listen, then judge

The Beginner’s Mind asks us to put aside judgment, to stay in the moment and experience things as a beginner. This is hardest to do when I’m the one giving advice. Most business owners make the same mistakes. I tell prospects, “There are ten mistakes that business owners make, you’re making five of them. My job is to find out which 5.” This is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. I can usually tell in the first 5 minutes of a conversation the 3 biggest challenges that a business is facing and I have some strong ideas about what to do for them. But I try to hold back. This conversation isn’t about my expertise — it’s about the prospects experience; which is unique (to them). So I need to wait and hear all that they are willing to tell me before I start drawing conclusions.

3. Be willing to be proven wrong, remain tentative.

Even once I’ve heard it all, I don’t want to make pronouncements. The truth is that I’ve been wrong before, or at least slightly off base. If I tell folks what’s wrong with the force of the ten commandments I’m not likely to get the feedback that I’m a little off — and there goes the chance to make the adjustments that will put me really on target. Instead, I often couch my feedback in tentative terms. “Tell me how this sounds to you…” or “I may not have this totally right, but it seems to me…” This tentative language makes room for the other person to redirect me if I’m off base, or it can make room to get more information out and on the table. All of this is a good thing.

4. Look for what’s working — add it to the “map”

In this rapidly changing world, I’m often surprised by what is working. Business magazines (and blogs) love to write case studies about unusual successes – and I love those! What is going on there that’s surprising? What new data would I have to consider in order to add that success to my map? How could I test that out in my own business before I start suggesting it to others? If I want to stay relevant, I need to be committed to learning.

The blessing of being the expert is that I don’t have to go through the “many possibilities” in order to get to the few that are likely to work. The curse is that I might miss the best possibility because I’ve never seen it before.

How do you keep an open mind? How do you stay open to possibilities that might force you to update your map?

Photo credit: danxoneil (Flickr)

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