Live And Learn – Cultivating The Art of Insight (Insight)

“The work will teach you how to do it.” – Estonian Proverb

Whether we are aware of it or not, circumstances around us are always in flux. Changes are not always cataclysmic – in your face and impossible to ignore. Changes also sneak up on us as we’re coasting along in ‘same old same old’ mode.

What was once new and unique becomes old hat. Technology shifts expectations. Products and services become old school. The market changes direction, and clients go with it. A new generation calls for a fresh approach to leadership.

Our ability to stay relevant, creative, and innovative – to adapt and adjust – to jump the rut – rests in the knack of approaching life with Beginner’s Mind – that moment to moment ability to learn as life unfolds.

This article describes the nature of beginner’s mind, why it matters, and three practices that will help you put it to work in your life and your organization.

What Is Beginner’s Mind?

Spend time around an infant or a toddler, and you’ll witness firsthand, the marvel of ‘live and learn’ in action. Children are fearless and relentless in their attempts to master new skills and make their way in a new-to-them world.

Think back to early challenges in your career, your first attempts to master a skill like driving a car or riding a bike, or your introduction to parenthood. You may recall how it felt to hold rank amateur status. Everything was fresh and challenging. Everything called for a concentrated effort. And, everything consumed your undivided attention.

The thing that is unique about the early stages of learning a skill, or an art or a profession is that we have no choice but to approach it with Beginner’s Mind.

We bring an attitude of openness, eagerness, optimism, creativity, zeal, and a lack of preconceived notions about the subject at hand. It is in the state of Beginner’s Mind that we are most open to new learning and fresh insights.

Why Does It Matter?

As we grow in skill and experience in our professional and personal lives, we become more masterful. Many things become familiar. It’s easy to fall into a ‘Been There..Done That…Seen It All’ mindset. Holding on to Beginner’s Mind becomes a challenge and fresh insights are few and far between.

And, that’s a problem, because it’s fresh insights that spark creativity and innovation. Fresh insights keep us engaged in growing our skills and deepening our understanding. And, fresh insights fuel new possibilities that lead to changes in our behaviour and new habits for success.

Environments that value learning – that make time for it and place a priority on it – are places where people keep learning. We’re intrinsically motivated to do this. Motivational expert, Daniel Pink, notes Mastery – the ability to learn and grow in skill and understanding – as one of three core motivators – right up there with Purpose and Autonomy. And mastery doesn’t just happen in a classroom. It unfolds in the laboratory of everyday life.

Learning engages and motivates employees, and the resulting transformation helps organizations stay competitive and relevant.

How Do You Cultivate It?

Reclaiming ‘Beginner’s Mind’ rests in three practices: granting permission to pause for reflection, exercising your powers of observation, and developing your skills in questioning. In short: Step Back, Tune In, Dig Down.

1. Step Back

Grant yourself and others permission to pause for reflection. Very little learning takes place without a commitment to reflection. Time out to think can be tough to cultivate in a world that prizes relentless busy-ness. But, pausing to think is where it all begins.

It’s only when we make room to reflect on what is happening that true, deep learning takes place and new habits take hold.

Learning organizations are fueled by individual action. Employee willingness to make time for learning is influenced by the example set by organizational leaders.

Do leaders encourage time out? Do they model that behavior themselves? Is an investment in reflection considered to be a giant waste of time or important, legitimate and necessary? Is reflection spoken of with respect or disdain? Are stories shared that reinforce the value of stepping away from the action to consider the options and imagine the possibilities? Are fresh insights and new ideas honored and celebrated?

All these things influence whether or not people throughout an organization feel secure in cultivating the practice of making time to think.

Good times to step back are at the end of an activity or an event, or at a break in the process, where there is a natural punctuation point for review.

2. Tune In

Once permission to reflect is in place, tapping into insight depends on noticing what’s going on around you and within you. Exercise your powers of observation. Use every sense that makes sense – starting with looking and listening. Don’t ignore your spidey sense – that often elusive intuitive messenger that chatters away in the back of your mind or the pit of your stomach.

Pay attention to more than the ‘facts’ of a situation. Take the time to notice your reactions and the responses of others as well. Throughout our daily activities – as we work on projects and interact with others – emotional responses are an important indicator that signal an opportunity to tune in and explore what’s going on.

  • Excited or delighted? There’s probably something awesome at the root of the experience that you might want to repeat and experience again.
  • Frustrated or stressed? That’s a likely indicator that you had expectations of outcomes that were thwarted by how things unfolded.
  • Angry or disgusted? Whatever occurred likely offended one or more of the values you hold to be most important.
  • Worried or fearful? Chances are good you are facing the potential loss (real or imagined) of something that means a great deal to you.
  • Envious or jealous? Could be an indicator of something you aspire to as a goal for yourself.
  • Stuck and discouraged? The familiarity might suggest a life lesson you haven’t yet mastered, being presented for you to learn yet again.

3. Dig Down

Having paused to reflect, and tuned in to an opportunity to learn, develop the skill of asking great exploratory questions. Try experimenting with a few of these forms.

* ‘What’ To The Power of Two
Tune into the experience that is unfolding or event that just took place and ask yourself so what and what now:

  1. So What? What just happened? Why did things occur that way? What does it mean? How did you feel?
  2. What Now? What is the lesson to be learned? What rule of thumb or point of wisdom does it suggest for the future? How and where will you put this insight to work?

* After Action Review
Sit down after an event is over, with a paper and pen, and ask yourself these three questions.

  1. What went well?
  2. Where did things go wrong?
  3. What did you learn for next time?

* Looking Inward
This set of reflective questions is inspired by Stephen Brookfield, an expert in critical thinking. Ask them as you look back on a specific incident or experience. See where they take you and what you learn:

  • When was I most engaged?
  • When was I most distanced?
  • When and by what was I most affirmed?
  • By what was I most puzzled or surprised?
  • What was the single most important thing I learned today?
  • What would have made this experience that much better?
  • How will I capitalize on these insights in the future?

* Mindful Moment of Awareness
Here’s an approach to use in the heat of a moment. When you find yourself caught up in the emotion of an event, pause, step back and work through this series:

  • What is happening right now?
  • What do I want right now?
  • What am I doing right now to prevent myself from getting what I want?
  • How might I make another choice and move on?

Don’t let life’s lessons pass you by. Be as active as possible – not only in living, but also in learning. Mindfully and intentionally build fresh approaches and new habits based on what you learn along the way.

© Patricia Katz, MCE CHRP HoF, is a Canadian speaker and author who works with organizational leaders to ease the load and fuel the spirit. This best selling author of 5 books shares her wisdom weekly with thousands of readers of her e-zine, Pause. Sign up for Pause, and learn more about easing your load at Contact Pat for programs and publications at or 877-728-5289.