“The don’t-know mind… doesn’t fear, has no wish to control or foresee, steps off the cliff of the moment with absolute trust that the next step will land somewhere, and the next step somewhere else, and the feet will take us wherever we need to go.” ~Byron Katie
I am fifty-five years old. I’ve raised a family, been through two divorces, bought and sold four houses, and had a successful professional career. And right now I’m doing one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, which is learning to host in a busy restaurant.
My coworkers range from mid-twenties to early thirties. They are smart and hardworking. I feel like my brain is about to explode.
Why am I doing this? Well, money, for one thing. For better or worse, I can’t go back to my original profession after taking two decades off to be a mom. But another large motivator is that I want to do something totally new and out of my comfort zone, to experience what Buddhists call the “not-know mind” or beginner’s mind.
In my experience, adults older than about twenty-five are exceptionally good at stacking the odds in their own favor. We like to do what’s familiar, what’s comfortably in our wheelhouse.
Let’s face it: It feels good to know what you’re doing—especially when you’re the oldest one in the room!
Throughout childhood and young adulthood, avoiding new experiences is not optional (however much we might resist them). Every year in school we get a new teacher, perhaps new classmates, and continually new material to learn.
Starting a new career, moving into new social roles and responsibilities, all require us to be a beginner, to not know for that uncomfortable initial period.
Our goal in life is usually to reduce this sense of uncertainty and vulnerability as quickly as possible. Resisting new experiences, even the ones we actively desire, makes them still more uncomfortable. If we could crack this nut and truly embrace the vulnerability (and excitement!) of being a beginner, our lives would be more interesting—and a lot less stressful.
The discomfort we feel is pure ego. Ego is the part of us that needs to look large and in charge at all times. It is not a fan of beginner’s mind. Ego tells us we’re in danger when we’re not in familiar territory. Its job is to keep us “safe,” and if that means living a small and boring life, so be it.
I have to actively calm and soothe my ego each night when I report to work, filled with unfamiliar butterflies. I use self-talk that sounds exactly like what I say to my daughter when she embarks on a new experience:
“Just do your best. No one expects you to know everything right off the bat. New things are always scary, but you learn more every night.”
One of the keys to beginner’s mind is humility—a characteristic not highly regarded in this society. We are mostly about pumping ourselves up (there’s ego again). Humility requires us to acknowledge and honor what others know that we do not. For instance, I never knew how challenging restaurant work was before this, but I will never take a server for granted again!
Humility and humiliation are not the same thing. Recognition isn’t a zero-sum game: Genuine admiration of someone else’s ability or expertise does not automatically make me “less than” as a person. In fact, it makes me stronger! To be humble in this sense is a mark of maturity and real self-esteem.
Humility isn’t about falsely running ourselves down, but about seeing ourselves—our strengths and weaknesses—clearly. In this job, it doesn’t matter that I have a master’s degree (there are lots of servers with master’s degrees, I find) and no one cares what my previous profession was. What matters is that I’m willing to learn from anyone with the time to teach me.
Beginner’s mind is all about being willing to learn, which can (and should) happen at any age. But you can’t learn something new if you only do what you’re already good at. You can’t learn if you insist on being the expert. You can’t learn if you’re not willing to get it wrong for a while, to make mistakes—even in public.
The pay-offs are many, although it might be hard to convince yourself of that when you’re full of butterflies and dread. Life is an adventure, and adventures require us to step out of our comfort zones.
Ask yourself: Am I really ready to settle for more of the same for the rest of my life? Isn’t it worth a little discomfort (even a lot) to learn a new skill, meet a new person, or discover a new aspect of myself?
We can ask the ego to take a back seat for a while, and no one will be the worse for it. We can take our courage in our hands, and step out into the unknown, over the cliff, trusting that the next step will land somewhere.
Usually, the worst that can happen is that we will feel uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed. Maybe we’ll actually fail! I’ve considered that outcome and decided that I’ll survive if it happens. I’d rather try and fail than wonder if I might have succeeded.
I hope that I’m providing a positive role model for my younger coworkers; maybe when they’re fifty-something they won’t hesitate to step out on a limb either. I know that I’m providing a good role model for my daughter. She texts me good luck almost every night on my way to work, and says things like, “I’m proud of us, Mom.”
We lose touch with what our children are going through when we get too comfortable with our lives. They don’t put much credence in our advice to “just try it” when they never see us taking a risk. We can’t model courage, or how to handle mistakes and survive failure, if we always stay safely ensconced in our comfort zones.
And the fact is, change will come even when we do our best to guard against it. The safety of a comfort zone is temporary, at best. In embracing humility and beginner’s mind, we really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’ll either succeed, or we’ll learn something—or, most likely, both. It’s a win/win (although you might never convince your ego of that)!