Start where you are, and practice.

I was a bit nervous when I came into my first week of coach training a few years ago, feeling excited but self-conscious and wanting to make the right impression with this new community. I had come to this place through a long, meandering path of circumstances that seemed to be steering me along a path, but I still had some elements of fear and doubt about whether I would fit into this new arena. I’m intuitive and I pick things up quickly, so I have a tendency to slip into student-expert mode in these settings, to be the pupil with the compelling insight and demonstrate my competence in order to validate my presence. In effect, I trap myself in this space of feeling the need to be seen as expert even from the outset.

Near the end of the first day we broke out into small groups to conduct our first supervised coaching sessions. We each took turns coaching one another using the techniques we had learned that day, receiving feedback from the other students and the instructor. Our particular group was supervised by Eddy, one of the program’s founders.

Now, the thing to know about Eddy is that he has a presence unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever met. He’s got a way of speaking that makes even the most mundane comment seem profound, and there’s a certain sense of playful and knowing mischief about him. His deep voice and soothing Zambian accent convey his wisdom with such immense gravity, like a combination of James Earl Jones, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi.

So as we all filed out of the room after the practicum session ended, I found myself walking next to Eddy trying to think of something clever to say that would sufficiently impress him.  There I was, walking next to the sensei and laboring over my thoughts, when he turned to me and said, “you know, not everyone goes on to hang a shingle and become a coach.”

I was absolutely clear on what he meant; that there are many ways to use the skills and discipline of coaching in the world beyond the path of simply going into business as a coach. But what I heard in my head was something more along the lines of, “you know, you may not be cut out for this. You don’t belong here. Your “I’m an expert” routine isn’t fooling anyone and you should probably just give up. You’re going to die broke and alone living under a bridge with nothing to show for your whole miserable failure of a life.” I don’t recall what I said to him in response, only that I had a feeling of being utterly lost and deflated in that moment.

Later that night I sat in my hotel room reflecting on the day. Should I just give up? Was I trying to go down a path that didn’t fit me? It had all felt so right leading up to this moment, and yet there I was facing this moment of peril. Slowly, it dawned on me: I had been so busy trying to manage everyone’s perception of me that I had failed to fully show up. What had led me to this experience was having a connection with my heart and mind manifest in a sense of purpose. What I was doing now that I was here was pushing that aside in order to try and look the part. I was a measured, muted version of myself in the classroom and it was undermining my success. I had a serious gut-check moment and realized that if I were to have any hope of success I would need to stop trying to manage the perception of others and simply be present in the moment, in all my uncertain, unknowing, imperfect glory.

The next day I had  a moment to bring this up with Eddy. I told him about my realization and that I had fallen victim to my desire to seem like an instant expert. He looked at me, and with so much kindness and insight said, “Why do you want to be an expert? You’re a beginner.”

I can not overstate the value of that simple statement.

Beginner’s Mind

The concept of beginner’s mind is not new or novel. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki wrote about it in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in 1970. The concept itself is far older. The idea is that as a beginner, we are in a pure state of experience. We have not accumulated the cynicism and disappointment or preconceived notions that come with time spent at any endeavor. We are able to absorb new information with objective curiosity and wonder, like a child when they first come into contact with each new experience in life. Everything holds the potential to be fascinating and wonderful. It is only our judgment that makes one experience better or worse than another.

With this beginner’s mind comes a particular kind of power. When we enter an experience with clear eyes, we are open to every option. Often, it’s the beginner or the newcomer who offers the innovative solution or the profound perspective. They are not bound by the structure of perception that forms around us as we progress deeper into our work. The beginner has an objective authority free of the corrosive effects of politics, agency and expectation. To attempt to bypass this stage of our development is to disrupt our own potential and leave possibility untended.
Practice makes more practice

While all this talk of remaining in a beginner’s mind is lovely, at some point we do need to begin to seek growth and move toward a more expert level in our leadership. As leaders, our role is not simply to become experts or authorities in our own right. To truly lead, we must seek to increase the expert capacity of our people and organizations. We want to inspire and provoke change, growth, and mastery at both the individual and collective levels. But how do we go about this?

Change is not a singular event, nor is it a result. In any context, change is an ever-evolving process that can often be more circular than linear. Whether the change being sought is personal, professional, singular or implemented across a large system, the value of consistent practice is perhaps the most crucial element of any effort. That consistency of action is best incubated in miniature and consistently modeled. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that we will not make mistakes. The very nature of practice is that we will take missteps on our path to mastery.

If we want to create a pattern of consistency, we as individuals must learn to be consistent.  A simple enough concept, but one that can quickly become challenging if we lose sight of our beginner’s mind. We blow things out of scale, make them daunting by causing them to seem too big, too overwhelming. If I want to make a change, I have to become a CHANGE EXPERT, if I intend to create consistent behavior in my system then I must be UNFAILINGLY CONSISTENT IN EVERYTHING I DO.

While these bold ideals may be admirable, they’re really just excuses. They serve as roadblocks and escape hatches that excuse us from achieving progress.

“I can’t start now because I haven’t mastered it.”

“I’m not an expert, maybe I should just quit.”

“Changing my system is hopeless. It’s not working now, and it probably never will.”

The power of consistency isn’t derived from our ability to apply it unilaterally across every domain of our lives. It is much simpler, much more subtle. Consistency is simply about doing one thing repeatedly until it becomes habitual and produces predictable results. It’s true power lies in our ability to use this practice to intentionally normalize our experience so that we can better understand and develop ourselves and those around us.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it gives us data. When we experiment we have an opportunity to test our ideas. When we experiment consistently, we become more comfortable with the nature of innovation. With a beginner’s mind approach, we can actually reroute our neural pathways to associate experimentation not with fear and uncertainty, but with hopeful curiosity and excitement. We can program our brain to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the beginner’s stance, and to use that as a platform for robust learning and development. We must practice so that our practice becomes consistent.

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Start where you are

There are many ways to establish an attitude of consistency. One that I’ve found particularly useful involves a simple daily practice that can be done in just a few minutes when preparing for the day. You can do it with no training or experience, and you can start exactly where you are right now. It involves finding your message, building a sort of mantra.  It should be simple, and it should represent the principles that resonate with your heart.  It can be conceptual or tangible: “embrace uncertainty” or “eat more vegetables.”  It doesn’t matter which, as long as it is meaningful to you and supports your goals in developing mastery.

Once you’ve found your message, say it aloud.  Make it yours; by voicing it you give form to the thought.  Commit this message to your awareness for the day. Then, at various times throughout the day when you find yourself with a moment, recall your mantra.  Close your eyes, take a deep cleansing breath and speak the words in your mind (or out loud if you’ve got some privacy and it won’t make anyone think you’ve lost your marbles). Remember your intention.  What do you wish to be on this day? What are the principles that guide you? Where are you in your process?

While this kind of self-affirmation exercise may seem like a bunch of new age foolishness, it has been proven to be effective in lowering stress and improving problem-solving ability. I consider it a sort of on-the-spot meditation practice, allowing me to bring an element of focus forward into my day. It brings me back into the moment of what I’m doing, reeling me in from the unproductive stresses of projecting myself into the future.

So if you’re at the beginning, start at the beginning. Be the best beginner you can – ask questions, try things, make mistakes and try again. Don’t waste your time rehearsing poses for your victory photo; start by being in position when the starting gun goes off. When you take one step toward the universe, it takes ten toward you.  Start each day with just one step in the direction you wish you were going.  Before you know it, the view won’t be so far off on the horizon as it once seemed.