Why is saying ‘I don’t know’ so hard to do in business? Perhaps we want to be seen as experts rather than people who are continually learning. Levitt and Dubner note in Freakonomics that this is one of the most destructive forces in business.
I am a professional mountaineer and mountain guide. As a leader on skis or in crampons, I feel at home. I think I am good at getting the best out of my team in this mountain environment. After 30 years plus, I already know a lot: I’ve done my 10,000 hours and some.
The danger for any expert, of course, is to slide from ‘unconscious competence’ to ‘unconscious incompetence’. Black box data, revealing experienced airline captains ignoring the concerns of junior pilots shortly before fatal crashes, illustrates the point well.
A lot of success in the mountains, both surviving and reaching summits, relies on good decision-making in a dynamic environment influenced by many variables. Trying to have a fresh open mind when travelling in familiar terrain or with a familiar team can be a big challenge. You climb the same mountain often, but today you fail to sense a subtle change in snow conditions and therefore the potential avalanche risk. You climb with the same partner all season, but today you fail to recognise they’re distracted or mentally tired.
Knowledge is powerful, but being able to embrace the ‘beginner’s mind’ is one way to avoid complacent decision-making, whether in the mountains, in business or in life.
I am a beginner surfer. I know a bit about tides and respect the ocean, but there is so much I simply don’t understand. I’ve only surfed a couple of times and it normally involves a lot of exhausting swimming and very little standing on the surfboard. Being a beginner at something means, in theory, you can only get better. I was recently in Sri Lanka where I thought I’d give surfing another go.
In truth, it was just as tough as I remember, and after an hour I emerged washed up onto the beach. I held my hand up, admitting that I needed help! Someone recommended a local legend and surf coach named Lucky. The following day, surfboards strapped to his tuk-tuk, we headed to the beach.
Lucky’s patience was impressive. He stood in the sea with waves breaking over his head, holding my board then instructing me when to paddle, when to get up. When I reappeared from the foam and got back to him he gave a precise debrief and tips on what to try differently.
Lucky’s carefully delivered nuggets on correct body position helped me to stand up more times on a surfboard than I ever imagined possible. I thrived on his modest praise. But perhaps the biggest takeaway was learning to be a student again: remembering to have an open mind; to listen carefully; to process his feedback; not to put too much pressure on myself. Crucially, I asked lots of questions, no matter how dumb I felt. Rather than being ashamed to be a beginner I enjoyed what Orson Welles named ‘The gift of ignorance’.
Those few days in Sri Lanka reminded me of the value of the beginner’s mind – having an attitude of openness and eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when considering something.
In the mountains and in business, the landscape and people are ever changing. Sometimes it can be valuable to think like a beginner.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki.