Shoshin and the power of being an eternal beginner in the workplace

Shoshin: Why it helps to be an eternal beginner at work

Zen Buddhism is based on “shoshin,” which translates as the “beginner’s mind.” According to this age-old concept, adopting the stance of a lifelong newbie is the best way to advance and evolve. Often used in the study of spirituality and Japanese martial arts, shoshin can also be applied to your professional life.

Shoshin. Even for those who don’t speak Japanese, this Zen Buddhist concept seems to slide off the tongue with little effort. The two kanji characters that make it up are 初 or “beginning stages” and 心 or “heart,” in both spiritual and physical terms. Typically used to denote an original intent or beginner’s resolve, the word “shoshin” can therefore be read as “first heart.This intense feeling, somewhere between near susceptibility and unbridled enthusiasm, can come up when you take your first foreign-language course or when you’re nervous about a new relationship. But it can also describe how you feel when you embark upon your professional career.

Maybe you remember your internship. You were probably terrified but eager to learn, a giddy child among seasoned pros who had been at the company for years. Back then, your “professional heart” was most likely still humble and honest. Over the years, your career took off and developed. Now, nothing surprises you anymore. You always know what to do and when to do it. What’s more, you find the awkward interns slightly annoying. Some might say you’re good, while others claim you’ve lost your shoshin. Just like those old-timers you came up against as an intern, you’ve stopped learning. Intellectually and professionally, you’re at a standstill. But fortunately for you, you can get your shoshin back.

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French Buddhist Olivier Wang-Genh, master at the Ryumon Ji temple in Alsace, has been practising shoshin since the 1970s. “We call it the beginner’s mind,” he says. “It’s central. As every moment is new, our whole life and our relationship to the world are enshrined in this newness. That’s why we must always discover things and act in the present as if we were doing everything for the first time. And that’s exactly what we’re doing, for each moment is unique and will never exist again.” For Zen Buddhists, ignoring this impermanence leads to habits and prejudices.“There are so many things that make us forget that life is right here, not in the past or future,” says Wang-Genh.

The first way shoshin can be used in the workplace is to embrace your eternal beginner and put all failures to good advantage. Everyone makes mistakes. But when it happens to seasoned professionals or experts, they feel guilty because they are normally so self-assured. Beginners, on the other hand, will continually question their behavior to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes twice. Practising shoshin can help your mind stay young, lively and flexible. It thus wards off one of the biggest obstacles to learning: the ego, which is so easily flattered by the accolades and successes experienced over the course of your career.

Warren Berger is an American journalist and speaker. He specializes in the secrets behind today’s most creative companies and public figures. According to Berger, practising shoshin in the workplace is simple. Once a week, alone or preferably with a few colleagues, you can “apply the principles of shoshin to your operations or industry practices. During these sessions, try to see things with a fresh – almost foreign – pair of eyes. Ask very basic questions such as ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ Be open to all possibilities, even the most uncommon.” Over time, he says, the beginner’s mind will develop until it becomes second nature.

Being a perpetual beginner allows you to be open and lively while remaining careful and humble. All of these qualities are highly valued in the workplace. Biographers looking to explain the genius of Steve Jobs often point out his dedication to Zen Buddhism. According to legend, his designs were inspired by core Zen practices and ideals, including selflessness and meditation. In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, even presents shoshin as an excellent way to deal with the randomness of the creative process. But how did a concept that advocates stillness and humility become an integral part of the super-competitive Silicon Valley?

Your position as a manager and your past successes are no guarantee that you will solve a new problem or outdo an ambitious competitor. Those who think they know everything – so have nothing left to learn – are extremely vulnerable. The beginner’s mind can save you from falling into this trap.

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Innovation and constant struggle

California’s titans of capitalism have been singing the praises of Zen Buddhism for decades. So shoshin is obviously fashionable in Silicon Valley. According to Berger: “This way of thinking is popular because it’s viewed as a source of potential innovation. Innovation often comes from a fresh look at a familiar problem. Viewing something from a different perspective often helps you see possibilities and solutions that others may have overlooked.” In other words, you might create that one killer product to become rich, famous and powerful – qualities that Buddhist monks don’t normally aspire to. But shoshin doesn’t just help with creation. It’s also a great battle companion.

An integral part of the philosophies behind many martial arts, shoshin promotes the practice of lifelong learning. In the late 2010s, a few cunning fighters revolutionized the basics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.“It focused heavily on the leg locking system,” said author Alvin Ang, “and world-class black belts were getting destroyed because they didn’t know how to defend themselves.” With their countless medals and titles, they’d made the critical error of thinking they had nothing left to learn. This could easily apply to the business world. A hard-won management role and a score of past successes are no guarantee you will solve a new problem or outdo an ambitious competitor. Those who think they know everything – so have nothing left to learn – are extremely vulnerable. The beginner’s mind can save you from falling into this trap.

Another way that shoshin can be used in the workplace relates to keeping a level head about your achievements. You can’t be your own judge. No matter how developed your talents may seem, they will always be undermined by the biases and flaws that escape your notice. Practising shoshin helps you remember this weak spot. And as a result, it will be easier to stay humble, competitive and eager to learn.

Some may feel discomfort at the very idea of using the principles of Zen Buddhism as a weapon for career advancement. However, according to Wang-Genh: “Some people start to practise meditation to combat migraines, to sleep better, or improve their concentration to become more efficient and earn more money. Why not? The initial motivation is what it is. It’s neither good nor bad.” For the Zen master, practice will take care of the rest. “It naturally leads to discovering that your initial motivations were limited, selfish or narcissistic. And it naturally leads to overcoming them. So, let careerism be the reason you go to the temple – but stay for the pleasure of true Zen, with all its selflessness and generosity.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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