I remember that first day.
A new job, many years ago. I was 23. And it was at a university college.
I knew nothing. I didn’t even know where I was supposed to go. After a combination of happy accident in finding the right door, the right floor, the right room, and asking for help, I was shown to the new desk I’d be using and given a tour.
I was totally qualified for the role, and I’d beaten 72 other people to get there. But I couldn’t have felt less like an expert, and I couldn’t wait until I did.
It can sometimes feel awkward, can’t it? That clumsy, embarrassing feeling of not knowing what you’re doing in a new job. But we also know that it’s to be expected, right?
It took a good few weeks before I no longer felt like a bumbling idiot, before I could confidently help our customers, before I understood the jargon and felt like a competent, functioning professional.
But what I also recall, strikingly in fact, is how lovely it was to be new at something. To feel full of possibility, ready to learn, excited, everything filled with a sparkly kind of promise. To have no expectations of myself about getting things right, or assumptions from others that I’d know anything. There was no need to be an expert.
It was delicious.
We’re all beginners sometimes
It’s a journey we all take in one way or another.
Children learn and grow into experienced adults. New recruits become wise old hands. We all move from beginner to expert, along a trajectory of learning.
But somewhere along the road to becoming an expert, it’s really easy to forget that it’s good to be a beginner.
And that can lead to a whole load of terrifying things when you’re contemplating a career change.
Not least because the whole process of career change feels scary and new. But also because you’re contemplating leaving a career where, for all its faults, you know what you’re doing, and starting again in something different.
Don’t get me wrong, experts are awesome.
Experts spot and fix things, run things, advise with authority, prove things, theorise and implement, hypothesise and design. Experts keep our metaphorical worlds spinning.
But with this unspoken trajectory permeating almost every area of our lives, this emphasis on becoming and staying an expert (let’s call it expert-ism), it’s no wonder that we overlook the powerful benefits of being a beginner, especially in career change.
In career change, expert-ism can sometimes show up like this…
- You find yourself seeking ever more information, combing job ads, researching every possible avenue, writing off ideas as soon as you find a negative, all from the safety of your desk
- You make decisions that, if you’re honest, are based on assumptions that you’ve never taken action to prove or disprove; and opinions that, if you’re honest, probably belong more to your family and friends than they do to you.
- You’re tying yourself up in thought loops and everything feels like a frustrating dead end, even though you haven’t actually ‘done’ anything about your career change ideas yet.
- You feel embarrassed about sharing your career change woes and admitting to your friends and family that you’re thinking about filing for ‘career divorce’, so you furtively Google everything from personality tests and career matching services, to how long it takes to retrain in that new industry you keep finding yourself drawn to, and shutting your laptop as soon as anyone comes within over-the-shoulder reading range.
If you’re nodding, I’m guessing that, like most things in life, you figure that if you can expert up about this career change stuff, you can probably figure it all out on your own and then you can make it happen (and present it all as a fabulous done deal, with a big ‘Ta-DA’).
You’ll tie yourself up in knots trying to have your career change worked out, decided on, planned out and guaranteed in every possible way before you even attempt to get out there and do something in the real world, or connect with actual people.
But what if we’re supposed to start this journey of career change with a blank canvas?
- What if we’re supposed to not know all the answers, or where we’re headed, when we set out?
- What if you could set out with that same sparkly sense of promise, ready to discover and be surprised, with zero expectations, maximum openness and curiosity?
- What if you could blast wide open the possibilities available to you for your shift, and feel lighter and more playful as you explore them?
- And what if you could talk authentically about not having all the answers yet, and use this as a means to connect powerfully with people who might be in a position to help you?
- You might have heard of the term Beginner’s Mind before, but allow me to walk you through applying it to your career change…
What is Beginner’s Mind?
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.”
Zen Buddhism teaches the concept of ‘Beginner’s Mind’, or Shoshin, as a positive quality of mind, something to be nurtured and cultivated.
It’s a state where you…
- Have zero expectations about what might happen
- Are free of preconceptions about how anything works
- Are filled with curiosity to understand things
- Are open to possibilities (since you don’t know what might happen)
Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, describes the challenges of Beginner’s Mind like this:
“The older we get, the more we’ve been betrayed and hurt and disappointed, the more barriers we put up to beginner’s mind. We must never presume that we see. We must always be ready to see anew. But it’s so hard to go back, to be vulnerable, to say to your soul, ‘I don’t know anything.’
My 5-year-old daughter Chloe, like most young children, is a master of Beginner’s Mind.
She woke up once and decided she wanted to have breakfast in her Gruffalo costume, which she duly did.
She told me later that day, with earnest face and great seriousness, “I can breathe fire, ‘cause I got powers.”
She likes to pretend she’s an archaeologist, digging for dinosaur bones; then, she’s a doctor, fixing my sore elbow / arm / knee / tummy, with a blood pressure ‘check’ and an imaginary spoonful of Calpol.
We go to the park and she’s a shopkeeper, selling me an ice cream from the top of the slide (apparently all ice creams cost £40, who knew?).
And then she’s a knight, riding around on her hobby horse (which is sometimes called Galahad, and sometimes Penninger, depending on what mood she’s in).
I could go on.
Her endless capacity to ‘be’ things is fluid, dynamic, imaginative, hilarious, and deliciously wonderfully playful.
She doesn’t expect to know anything. She doesn’t have to. She’s five.
She’s fascinated by the length of our shadows under streetlights as we walk back from the childminder’s; recycling; washing her own hands; what it might feel like to be a firework; pirates.
She has no idea how things work. She’s wide eyed with wonder and captivated by everything. The world is brimming with possibilities to explore.
She learns by doing. And then repeating. And then repeating again. And again… until she’s done it to her satisfaction and engraved the process onto her mind.
I’ve found that as I watch her play her way as a masterful beginner through her new and exciting world, there’s much I can learn from her.
Because, while Chloe doesn’t have to worry yet about paying the mortgage, or a five year plan, or choosing the most competitive energy supplier, or any of this adult-ing shizzle that consumes such a large chunk of our mental bandwidth, she, like most young children, has a natural connection to the concept of Beginner’s Mind that it’s easy for us adults to lose.
There’s nothing quite like watching a small child play to teach you about being a blank canvas, about clearing out what we think we know, so that there’s space for new things to be possible.
And it makes me wonder, when did we adults get so serious about what it’s possible for us to be?
Maybe it’s right around the time when we start looking for answers to this big question of ‘career’. Maybe it’s when we’re at school, choosing subject options; or at a university careers fair; or when we think of our parents and want them to be proud of us…
There’s a principle I work on with every single one of my 1:1 career change clients.
And this lies at the heart of both Beginner’s Mind and the journey to find fulfilling work…
Not-knowing in career change is not only OK, it’s a good thing.
Let me explain…
In career change, it can sometimes feel essential to know exactly what your new path will look like.
But the capacity to not know and get into action with exploring anyway, to be curious and fascinated by the world around you gives you the opportunity to see old problems in new ways, to find wonder in things you’d never really noticed before.
This can help you find creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
When you throw off expert-ism and give yourself permission to play with your ideas, to be silly and laugh, because nobody is expecting (least of all you) for you to get things right, it allows you to lift off the pressure of avoiding failure, and to explore things more lightly and with more fun.
Beginner’s Mind creates fertile and receptive ground for learning, exploring and testing. When you are no longer holding on to being the expert, and having everything ‘right’, you can challenge everything you’ve assumed to be true.
And chances are, what you think you know isn’t the full story anyway.
When you embrace not knowing in career change, this is what happens…
You get into action even though you don’t have all the answers
You test out your ideas for yourself in low-risk ways, (rather than depending on second-hand opinions, or stuff you’ve read online), which means you get to find out for yourself what work fits you, without having to take any gambles with your resources. You learn that action precedes clarity on your career change direction, not the other way around.
Because you’re curious and interested, instead of fearful and embarrassed you reach out to those in new lines of work whose roles fascinate you. And when you do, you’re authentic. This means that the people you meet are struck by your passion for finding work that fits, your enthusiasm for what they do, and your ability to listen and learn. Because your vulnerability is so human, they instinctively want to help you.
You keep all your ideas in play
You know that you don’t have to ‘know’ / decide. When you hit a dead end, you don’t throw your hands in the air and give up; you pivot. You learn that choosing a new career direction isn’t really about choosing one thing and by definition closing off the rest, but about waiting to see which idea emerges out of the possibilities as a front runner for now.
You follow your sense of wonder, and exploring your ideas becomes an adventure
Because, like my daughter Chloe knows, the world is AMAZING, when you choose to see it that way. And when you start to apply that to your career change and see it like the magical adventure that it can be, that’s what it will become for you.
If you want to bring in more beginner’s mind into your career change, try this:
1. Know that you make assumptions and have blind spots
Notice where you make assumptions about the career change ideas you have.
“I’d never make the salary I want in X field”
“I’d like to be a teacher, but I wouldn’t like to do marking at home.”
“X role would be stressful.”
Do you absolutely know, 100% that those things would be the case, or is it possible it’s less black and white than you’d thought? Are there alternatives you haven’t considered?
2. Test everything
Run small, low-risk experiments to test your ideas.
If you think an industry doesn’t have enough opportunities to develop, talk to someone doing it to see if that’s true.
If you think you might enjoy X field, see if you can shadow someone who’s actually doing it to see for yourself
Collect real world evidence to test what you think you know.
3. Practise vulnerability
Get comfortable with not knowing.
Practise reaching out to others who might be able to help you, owning that you don’t have all the answers yet, and asking for their assistance anyway.
Know that career change can be fun.
Although career comes tied up with serious things like earning a living, and making an impact on the world, it doesn’t have to be serious all the time.
Ask your friends to help you stay light in your explorations.
Test ridiculous ideas. Explore things that make you feel joyful. Challenge yourself to do bold things that feel exciting and inspiring.
And look for that childlike sense of wonder along the way.
5. Shake up your routine
If, as I expect (since you’re here), you’re looking for some way to snap out of the rut you’re in, and break into work that makes your feel alive, (and awake), then you need some kind of injection of new input, of new ideas — a rush of adrenaline in the system, so that you can feel some new-ness and create the conditions for Beginner’s Mind to flourish.
So do something different!
Try a new activity. Take a different route to work. Speak to someone new everyday and be genuinely curious about them.
Push your comfort zone and shake up your routine and see what happens when you do.
6. Seek help
Being a beginner means that you know it’s OK to ask for help
Whether that’s letting a friend in on how you feel, joining a community of career changers like you or seeking out a guide for the journey, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own.
Communities exist because we know that we do better together. Use them.
Are you struggling to get started on your career change journey? Are your own fears keeping you stuck? If so I can help. Find out about my Elite Squad, one-to-one career change coaching programme here.