Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki

Just about every day – and sometimes several times a day – I get to hear an entrepreneur tell the story of their company: who they are, what they’re up to, why they’re excited about it. As I listen, I’m aware of a battle between competing mental processes.

My first impulse is to filter what I’m hearing through my mental inventory of patterns from all the companies I’ve invested in, worked at or gotten close to, looking for similarities and differences that will help me understand the story I’m hearing. But as powerful as this pattern-matching process can be at producing insight, its logic seeks to limit and constrain, and as an early-stage investor my success depends in large part on opening up new possibilities.

So I’ve been working on nurturing a parallel thread in my mental processes, and the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind captures it better than anything else I’ve come across. In this mode, I consciously try to listen to each entrepreneur’s story as if it were completely new, and to experience their idea as a customer might, encountering it for the first time.

For my purposes, neither of these processes alone is as effective as the two together. The pattern-based approach is an extremely powerful way to filter out execution risk – weaknesses that stem from the *way* the founders are going about building their business. Cultivating beginner’s mind is a great way to recenter on the business idea – imagining what it would feel like to encounter the product or service as a new user, without knowledge or judgment of the mechanics or economics behind it.

My continued reliance on patterns means I’ll probably never become a Zen adept, but the more I use it the more I appreciate that Beginner’s Mind is by far the more joyful method: the world always looks brighter when anything seems possible…