What if you could start again, at the very beginning?
As we enter the New Year you may, like millions of others, have committed to making some changes. You’re motivated to stop doing something or to start doing something. You may even have decided to re-invent yourself completely. Whatever the degree that you have determined to transform, you want a partially, or more completely, new you.
And the good news is, as my good friend and colleague David Pilbeam reminds me, you can re-set the clock in this way at any time, not just in January.
So, why do these efforts often fail to bring about the changes that we seek? Why is that by the beginning of February we are so often back to being the old form of ourselves, the new version of us already a distant memory?
Well, whilst our brains are plastic and can be shaped, as humans we also have a tendency for stasis – to remain where we are – in order to conserve energy. This tendency to remain, is wholly understandable, especially for leaders in organisations that operate at a relentlessly fast pace.
So, how can we overcome this tension between wanting to change and wanting to stay still, and push on, to transforming ourselves and our behaviours successfully?
A Beginner’s Mind
I’m a great fan of the benefits of adopting a practice from Zen Buddhism called shoshin. This mindset from ancient Eastern philosophies, requires practitioners to adopt the mindset of a beginner or novice. In order to do this, you will need to drop all pretensions of expertise or former knowledge and assume you have no understanding of the situation, person or challenge in front of you.
Having grown up with this idea, central to much of what I did as a teenager and young adult whilst pursuing my career as a judo international, it is something I am very familiar with and can vouch for its usefulness in making positive change permanent.
Why is it important?
Adopting shoshin will bring many benefits that will be key to helping you make transformations that you want.
Firstly, and most importantly perhaps, truly adopting the novice mindset keeps you open to learning, in order to improve. It stops you being shut off to new ideas or novel ways of thinking and being on the assumption you know it all already. Through this approach you are always learning, applying that learning, then reflecting and trying to improve further.
It has probably already become clear that such an approach can also be adopted as a never-ending process, which ultimately leads, if you choose to allow it, to a form of mastery or expertise, because you have adopted a long-term approach to improvement. This is key of course, if you are trying to develop yourself as a whole person. And also, in my opinion, such an approach helps you make and maintain other changes, which may seem more superficial but are no less important.
For example, if you want to lose weight and get healthier, then you could adopt a strict ‘diet’ for six to eight weeks, visiting the gym frequently and once the requisite number of pounds have been shed, you go back to how you were eating and behaving before. You are chuffed at your efforts and this is accompanied by a feeling you’ve arrived and achieved what you wanted to.
Guess what happens next? The pounds come back and your fitness declines.
But what if you adopted shoshin and learned all you could about nutrition, how what you eat affects you personally, what exercise you like to do and how it helps your overall health? By taking this approach changes you could then make will have a much better chance of remaining in place.
There is a beautiful and useful paradox here too: You don’t literally have ‘no experience and knowledge.’ You will of course, be able to draw on your deepening understanding every day, so that you can make increasingly informed and wise decisions, whilst remaining fully open to being wrong, to learning new ways of looking at things etc.
How to adopt shoshin?
I have three key steps to help you adopt shoshin. There are others but I have found these to be particularly useful as a starting point:
i. Ego and humility
You are going to need to drop all pretence at expertise and knowledge and stop trying to be the smartest person in the room (how exhausting is that as a leader? … and how annoying for everyone else!) Be open – genuinely so. Be humble enough to ask and seek clarification.
ii. Whenever you start something new
The next time you are required to start a new project, to deliver a new output or meet a new person, the tendency is to short-cut the sense-making process by comparing and contrasting what is in front of us with a library of things we have already done. But if you can suspend this learned behaviour, you will find that adopting shoshin will be really useful in seeing things afresh.
iii. Daily practice
I think it is possible to limit adopting shoshin for specific events and learn how to do so effectively. Another great way to add to your practice is just to do so many times each day. Instead of offering a view immediately, try waiting until you have displayed a bit of humility and curiosity. Ask some questions and listen patiently and deeply to the responses. You’ll be surprised at how easy and rewarding such an approach can become.
I wish you all the best for the new year and success in making the changes you want to make.