A Beginner’s Mindset Leads to Breakthroughs

By Poornima Vijayashanker

I was recently at lunch with my good friend Noah Kagan, who is the founder of AppSumo. He was visiting for a few days, so we got together along with a few others to talk shop.

I enjoy learning from Noah, and consider him an expert in a number of areas: marketing, blogging, and business to name a few. And he’s definitely helped me throughout my career. In fact, Noah was one of the people who inspired me to start blogging on Femgineer back in 2007!

During lunch we each went around the table sharing some of the issues we were facing in our business, hoping to glean expertise from one another.

When it was Noah’s turn, he mentioned how it’s easy to get caught up in thinking you’re an expert, but it can actually hold you back in your thinking and approach to solving problems in business. Noah was working hard to have a beginner’s mindset, and being open-minded to new approaches.

I thought about what Noah said, and realized that it can be hard to have a beginner’smindset. Your experiences both good and bad influence your judgment and decision-making.

How then can an expert have a breakthrough moment?

I dug in a little deeper to really understand what the beginner’s mindset means, and how to regain it. Here’s what I discovered:

1. Beginners are in learning mode. Experts have been learning for a while, and if they feel like their field hasn’t changed all that much they stop learning. This is can be problematic for an expert. To keep that beginner’s mindset even an expert needs to continue to learn and evolve.

2. Beginners ask a LOT of questions. Experts just know the answer, hence there’s no need to ask questions. But a beginner is just learning, so they need to ask questions! Beginners ask themselves a lot of questions and if they don’t know the answer they approach others.

Yes sometimes the people they approach are experts… But the best beginners don’t just take what the experts says at face value, they dig in deeper, and ask: why?

3. Beginners are open to learning from anyone, not just experts. Often times experts seek other experts. But beginners are open to learning from anyone. It doesn’t matter how much older or younger someone maybe, as long as they are a good teacher or mentor.

I’m constantly learning from people who younger than me because I know the approaches I have learned and honed maybe outdated, especially when it comes to technology.

4. Beginners make a LOT of mistakes, because they are open to trying new approaches. Experts tend to avoid mistakes. They’ve already experienced the pain, and want to avoid it as much as possible, especially if they see even a small sign of it.

While mistakes can be painful they are important to the learning process. An expert, has to leverage learnings, but still be willing to take a risk. One way to do that is to ask ourselves: what mistake did we make before that we can learn from and apply here to avoid making it again, while still taking a risk? Or how can we change our approach going forward?

You might still be wondering how to develop a beginner’s mindset, so hopefully the story of one of my mentees, Elizabeth, who has 10+ years of experience building software will drive the point home.

I’d definitely consider Elizabeth an expert when it comes to software architecture. Elizabeth had spent a lot of her career outside of Silicon Valley and working on some older technologies. She felt like it was going to hold her back from having new experiences and growing as an architect. Elizabeth wanted to move to Silicon Valley to have a new experience and broaden her skills as a software architect.

She slipped into a beginner’s mindset and decided that she couldn’t take the same approach to getting a job that she had in her hometown; she wanted a mentor who was from the area to help her out.

As her mentor I encouraged to come visit first to make sure that it was really where she wanted to be.

She began by attending a major conference in Silicon Valley. While attending it, she sought out people who had previously moved to the area after a long career elsewhere to hear about their approach. She also learned about the latest technologies people were using to build software, and then went home to learn and apply them on a project. Once she had a solid project she was confident about, she reached out to her network to find positions that were available.

It took her about 9 months to make the transition, but by leveraging the beginner’smindset she was able to land an opportunity she wanted at a promising startup.

Now I want to know if you’re an expert at something, and if you’ve thought about how to preserve the beginner’s mindset? Let me know in the comments below!

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