There was a time when the basics were hard. Perhaps going back to basics once in a while isn't such a bad thing to review.

There was a time when the basics were hard. Perhaps going back to basics once in a while isn't such a bad thing to review.

The feeling sometimes makes me blush. I’ll be standing in line to pay for my groceries or walking through an airport concourse somewhere and I’ll get an idea for a photograph or a story or a bit of animation. That’s when it happens. A particular feeling will grip me like a cold wind, like I’m suddenly the keeper of a secret, hiding in plain sight. Usually these feelings do not come when I’ve figured out a complex technical problem—technical epiphanies provoke other feelings (and, truth be told, enormous satisfaction). But when a moment of clarity reveals an intangible truth I feel like I’m suddenly the holder of something rare and precious, that I’ve been entrusted with a promise. That clarity usually comes when I’m not over-thinking an idea, when I’m open to the world and the realities of simply living in it. When I allow myself to interact with my day as if I were an ordinary beginner, experiencing the world as if for the first time, the possibilities are endless.

Expertise does funny things to people. As people develop expertise certain aspects of their abilities begin to decay just as other aspects of their powers begin to expand. Increasing mastery has a way of curtailing many people from seeing opportunities they might not have noticed before, to say nothing of skill development they might have previously pursued.  People start to settle into familiar ways of doing things that helped them achieve their skills. It’s true that expertise suggests greater experience than someone who has never practiced a particular discipline before. Therefore, expertise describes a measure of invested time. When someone demonstrates competence, others immediately understand that those abilities must inevitably be the result of intentional focus, of practice and repetition and hard-won pursuit.  

Shoshin says differently. It’s a Japanese term translating roughly into “beginners mind”, although at its apotheosis it’s a way of acting intentionally that might matter more for an expert than a rank novice. Beginners mind suggests that while a person might retain great skills earned through years of hard work, he or she has not lost the ability to marvel at the simplest idea, at the thrill of something that may have been observed a thousand times before. It’s an awareness that a basic expression— a sustained whole note or an unbroken line of paint or a moment of stillness at the edge of the stage—can contain profound power and influence precisely because it is so pure, so unadorned. Beginners mind facilitates clarity of vision because the viewer makes observations with a clear field of sight. It’s the ability to let go of what you know, to trust that it will still be there when you need it, but to not let it get in the way of seeing something as if it were the first time.

Simple things become wonderful again; complex things magical.

Shoshin has nothing to do with giving up your pursuit of absolute mastery, insight, and acumen. Think of it this way: if you’re just starting out in a complex field like law or real estate or medicine, you’re probably paying close attention to every detail because you know how much it might affect the outcome of your efforts. As you become a master in your field, shoshin reminds you not to get complacent with things you’ve done before. There’s still power in what’s familiar. When you get out of your own way so that you can once again see ordinary things as if for the first time, you’re in a position to influence the universe.


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