The opposite of mindful management is not mindless management. In fact, a more apt description might be “no mind” management—a state of awareness often described as “beginner’s mind.”
Before they become fully self-aware and acculturated into adult ways, children bring a beginner’s mind to everything they encounter. That’s one reason why they make friends easily, learn concepts readily, and get over their seeming crises quickly. They are unencumbered by much experience and have few preconceptions and biases, other than those that have been passed along from the grown-ups in their lives. They haven’t created the mental filters that shutter full awareness of what’s around them. And if adults leave them alone, they have fun with whatever they find.
When kids make an unfiltered remark that might be embarrassing or terribly naïve, we say, “They don’t know any better.” But they know better than we know when it comes to being present.
Most of us would be horrified to contemplate waking up each day with a beginner’s mind. Begin again? Not so much. Not for me! We spend most of our lives trying to get beyond the beginning and toward some end—the next job or promotion, the next house, the next relationship—assuming these future conditions will be better—must be better—than today’s reality. As Jack Nicholson once said to a waiting room full of fellow psychotherapy patients:
“What if this is as good as it gets?”
But constantly replaying our “self- stories,” our past triumphs and failures, and directing these toward a future where we intend to fix whatever hasn’t worked in our lives or do more of what has—means we’re trapped in our heads, close-minded. We all do this most of the time without even being aware of it. We sense it as an undercurrent of stress or unease, and we check our iPhones to make it go away, except it doesn’t.
This is both personally and professionally life-limiting. As the often repeated Zen aphorism goes: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This is where the trouble starts. And the more people think you know or think you’re supposed to know, the more trouble you’re in as a leader.
My advisory work at Reflective Strategies® often involves helping leaders maintain the open mindedness to be present, to learn from those around them and remain open to the circumstances they encounter. The beginner’s mind never goes away. But you need to give it space to romp around, unclouded by self-narratives and preconceptions about how you’re supposed to think and act.
When you show up at your next corporate retreat and find Play-doh and Fidget Spinners on your team’s table, this is what the organizers are trying to evoke—a sense of playful, unfiltered creativity. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
In Part 2, I’ll describe the three abilities of no mind management.