On Beginner’s Mind — doing without judgment

When starting something new, like a new habit or discipline, we have difficult sticking to it. We maybe hit it here and there, but we’re inconsistent. This inconsistency causes us frustration and doubt about our abilities. Are we good enough? Can we really do this new thing and stick to it as we wish? Do we possess the discipline? The question isn’t really do we want to. The question is, do we have it scheduled to be performed every day?

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If it is scheduled, it is real.

Scheduled things are real. 7 AM to 8 AM — Gym. Be there. Without a set day and time this new activity is scheduled, we’re just dreaming of change. We don’t really mean it. We’re playing around. Even if you already acknowledge you aren’t very good with changing behavior or starting something new, it needs to be scheduled. Like all things, you won’t be very good at this at first. You’ll miss some sessions. But you’ll still see them on your schedule and the consistency of seeing them will cause you to begin to stick to it. Any new discipline begins this way.

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Weight training is hard to stick to at first.

Note that it is natural for us to not be consistent when we begin something new. It isn’t into our behavior patterns yet. We haven’t developed the neural pathways for the new behavior to really sink in. This frustrates us further because we’re in the early learning stages of the task, feeling our way through things. We have trouble focusing on what we should only focus on: doing, not how good am I. Ideally, we practice with Beginner’s Mind, someone with little experience who simply does the action without judgment. It is the without judgment part that is the other key to doing. We are very hard on ourselves! Few of us can simply do without judging our performance harshly. In fact, if you can do this regularly, it may be a Superpower. Practicing without judgment is key, not to mention a far less stressful way to practice.

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It is hard to be a beginner at golf and embrace the suck.

Golf is a great example of this because so many beginner golfers expect to be better faster than they can be. It also has an early addictive quality to it that makes those new to it want to be out on the course often. Naturally, with high early expectations of their performances and how they actually execute on the course are divergent. Beginners want to be great but they don’t play great. These sky high expectations of performance cause great stress and frustration with their level of play (e.g. I play once a week — I should be better!) When they would have a much better time on the golf course if they simply practiced without expectation. Or, as others successfully do, play for fun. For many people, the point is to be out on the golf course on a beautiful day playing with your friends and having low-to-no expectations of good play. That’s fun. Improvement or even playing well may not be the point at all. This is freeing for the beginner. They’re there to play golf — even poorly — but without caring about performance. A weekend hacker is fun to play with if they’re dedicated to the fun without the harsh scrutiny of their play. Playing golf without harsh judgment of yourself (or others) is a wonderful thing.

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The point should be to be out on the golf course in a nonjudgmental fashion, hanging with your friends.

Beware that doing something with the true mindset of the beginner is not our default wiring. Top performers have high expectations of ourselves out of the gate. We expect to shoot good golf as a beginner. We expect to hit the tennis ball with the consistency of Pete Sampras. We decide we want near-immediate physical results from early January days spent in the gym. We tend to overcommit to expectation and under-commit to doing, to practicing. This mostly comes from a culture of impatience and near-immediate results, not one focused simply on practice.

The irony is that we would get better if we simply gave ourselves the time and had the patience to be OK with the beginning stages. It is ironic because everybody begins several dozen times in their lives. We also tend to forget we sucked at the thing we’re now proficient in and maybe even brag about. We weren’t born with the skill. We had to develop that trait just as we developed our other proficiencies — through dedicated practice. Nobody makes fun of the 1 year-old who takes baby steps, falls down, gets up, persists, and runs through the cycle again. Yet we mock ourselves so harshly when we’re doing the same thing in a new activity while judging and psyching ourselves out of the very act we state we want to improve at. Being OK with sucking for awhile and yet persisting through it to the amateur stage of proficiency is not our speciality. But embracing the suck of beginning is key to improvement.

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We’re better off accepting being a beginner, practicing with nonjudgment.

Disney-Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, says Pixar’s movies always suck at the beginning stages of development. He says there is no way around this. It is natural that they’re bad early on. In fact, he says they suck and stay in the suck stage for a long time, maybe for one year or 18 months. The Pixar team assigned to the project whittles away at the characters, the story, the graphics, the tone and the tiny details until they move it into “non-suck” territory as Catmull describes it. Their goal is never to create something great out of the gate. Their goal is to create something great that spans time, even generations. Steve Jobs’ credo for his early Pixar team was always to “make it great.” He cared about quality, not necessarily how long it took them to get there.

We can learn a lot from Pixar’s patience with their movies and apply it to our own skill development. While it is hard, it is OK to accept being not good when you’re starting something. You’re new to the activity. You shouldn’t expect to be great out of the gate. But through dedicated practice and terrific attempts at nonjudgment, you will improve.

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