Continual learning and the “beginner’s mind.”

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak to the entering class at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. The topic was rather mundane, though important: the process students will ultimately undertake to apply for admission to the bar.

Surveying the classroom of new law students, eager to learn and without the fixed (and perhaps even jaded) mindset that can come from years of dealing with the problems of real clients, caused me to think more about the Third Factor for success in law and elsewhere: being a continual learner.

While the neuroscience of learning and its benefits for overall well-being are compelling, being back in a classroom with these new law students made me question whether there is something else that successful lawyers, individuals, and leaders are gaining from being continual learners: the ability to see the world as a beginner.

That value should not be discounted. Cultivating a “beginner’s mind” is a Zen practice that was popularized by Shunryu Suzuki and notably adopted by tech leaders such as Steve Jobs to Mark Benioff.

Suzuki famously wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Certainly, in the disruptive environment of Silicon Valley, seeing the world with fresh eyes allows one to see opportunities and seize them. On the other hand, law is a discipline centered upon the notion of precedent and its application (particularly in our American common law system) and in many cases, the minimization of the risks that experience allows us to predict.

But we should ask ourselves: does the act of continual learning, of challenging our minds with new things to learn and problems to solve, open our perspective to different paths of problem-solving and, importantly, foster the ability to see unique ways to resolve disputes or appropriately plan for the future? Is the combination of substantive grounding and the mindset of a beginner predictive of success?

In my own experience, the highly successful lawyers and leaders we’ve been discussing are often very creative. These individuals can see connections, find paths, and chart courses to solve challenges for their clients. In litigation, they are creative tacticians. As organizational leaders, in law firms and elsewhere, they successfully plan for the future and grow their organizations.

Viewed through this lens, we can see that it is often their creativity, we might even call it their beginner’s mind, which helps set them apart from their peers.

Just another benefit that comes from being a continual learner. Something to think about today.

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