Alex Konrad’s recent Forbes profile of Salesforce founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, paints a picture of Benioff as relentlessly curious — always looking for new ideas, knowledge, and inspiration to help him build the most successful company possible.
Benioff calls this approach to business “beginner’s mind.” It’s a concept from Zen Buddhism, and it describes constantly seeing the world anew, as if you didn’t know anything about it.
The Forbes profile is hardly the first time Benioff’s spoken about his “beginner’s mind.” Earlier in 2016, for example, he told The Wall Street Journal: “I kind of try to let go of all the things that have ever happened so far in our industry, which is a lot of stuff, and just go, ok, what’s going to happen right now?”
In fact, it’s the same strategy that the late Steve Jobs, himself a lifelong student of Zen Buddhism, brought to his work at Apple. As Jeff Yang wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, Jobs emphasised the need to develop a beginner’s mind in order to eschew the constraints that cause us to come up with old answers to difficult problems.
In his 2015 book “One Second Ahead,” Rasmus Hougaard, managing director at the Potential Project, argues that a beginner’s mind is crucial to success in business. He uses Nokia’s major loss to Apple in the early 2000s as an example of what can happen when you don’t stop to see the world with fresh eyes.
Hougaard highlights a somewhat amusing 2007 statement from Nokia’s then-CEO, who said, “From a competitor perspective, the iPhone is nothing but a niche product.”
Hougaard cites “cognitive rigidity,” which happens when we automatically recall what we’ve seen before in order to explain what we’re seeing right now, as one reason why adopting a beginner’s mind is so hard. He cites research that suggests mindfulness training can help us overcome cognitive rigidity, specifically by finding better, if less immediately obvious, solutions to problems.
One simple strategy Housgaard recommends — which is especially useful for those who don’t have the time or resources to devote to structured mindfulness training — is thinking about situations in your life you typically see negatively and trying to apply a beginner’s mind to them. Maybe that’s your boss’s negative feedback, or maybe it’s a rival team’s new product.
The idea is to step back — even if just for a moment — from your automatic judgments and see if there’s another way to evaluate the experience.
You don’t necessarily have to be a billionaire CEO to benefit from having a beginner’s mind, but it’s a technique that can make you more creative and innovative in your everyday work, so that you have a better chance of eventually getting there.
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