As a long-time high achiever, Susan* was comfortable with big goals and taking on new challenges. She was respected in her chosen profession and regularly sought advice from her colleagues when feeling unsure. She had worked for the same company for a long time and, in that time, had successfully transitioned between several different roles. Susan was smart, worked hard and was good at mentoring others to help them develop their skills and careers. Then, she was unexpectedly restructured into a different job.
Susan reached out to me a few weeks into her new role as she wrestled with the change. She was feeling anxious about her performance and worried she wasn’t learning the new skills fast enough. In particular, she was comparing herself with other colleagues who Susan felt were faster and better at completing the key tasks of the role than she was. Susan was worried she was letting her team down, to the point where she feared her role could be in jeopardy.
Susan’s experience will be familiar to any of us who have changed jobs, whether that be a voluntary choice or the result of a restructure. Most of us like the comfort of what’s familiar and we enjoy feeling confident doing tasks we have built up expertise in over time. While some people particularly enjoy the excitement of what’s new or the novelty of starting at the beginning again, many of us find grappling with unfamiliar demands especially anxiety-provoking.
Author Tom Vanderbilt described this experience of starting something new as requiring a “beginner’s mind”, a concept that has its origins in Zen Buddhism. He wrote his musings on the “beginner’s mind” after spending a year taking up new hobbies, with less than successful results, compared with his daughter who was, at the same time, becoming proficient at a range of new skills. While adults are still more than able to learn new skills because of our brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to rewire itself in response to new challenges), we are often slower and clunkier to learn than our children.
In his book, Vanderbilt suggests four approaches to ease our “beginner’s mind” transition:
1. To engage in learning for learning’s sake, we should not put pressure on ourselves with audacious goals. Instead, start small. 2. To learn from mistakes, we should not mindlessly repeat the same actions over and over. Instead, we want to be more focused and analytical by reflecting on what we did right and what we did wrong. Psychologists call this “deliberate practice”. 3. We should make sure our practice is varied, rather than doing the exact same thing again and again. Mixing up how we practise our new behaviour forces the learned patterns in our brains to become more flexible, allowing us to cope better when new and unexpected challenges arise. 4. And lastly, we should try our best to learn from other novices, rather than comparing ourselves solely with experts. It also helps to teach the skills we are learning to other novices. This is because we learn best when we know we have to pass the knowledge on.
From exploring these approaches with me, Susan identified that, as an adult, she had actively avoided trying anything new that she feared she might not be competent at. This was certainly a pattern at work, and it was also a trend in her choice of hobbies and other life experiences. The one exception for Susan was when she took on the challenge of raising her children. In fact, rather than comparing herself to the parenting “pros” in the books, Susan surrounded herself with other “novices” by meeting up with other new parents when she had her first child. Other the years, rather than giving up when she and her partner found parenting hard, she gave new strategies a go, reflecting on what helped and sharing in the highs and lows of parenting with loved ones around her.
When trying to change behaviour, psychologists often work with clients using a strategy called “graded exposure”. This helps by gradually making us feel more comfortable with anxiety, or other uncomfortable feelings, by slowly practising things – starting with the easiest and working slowly towards harder ones. This approach is often very successful but takes time.
Given Susan’s fears about losing her job, we decided we needed to start big and tackle her fear head-on with new exposure opportunities. So we set Susan a steep challenge to deliberately step out of her comfort zone and embrace that beginner’s mindset. This meant finding new hobbies outside of work that she wasn’t confident she would be able to master and stick with them.
Susan took up sewing, a hobby she hadn’t been near since high school. She was surprised to find she had some muscle memory from those torturous classes at school. However, she was still a novice and had to watch plenty of videos online to figure out how to do anything. Holding her beginner’s mindset helped her to try to enjoy what it feels like to learn, rather than drop into frustration. She also practised how it feels to accept mistakes and to have a go at teaching a friend how to sew. It hasn’t been a smooth path – Susan herself described her learning as “less than gracious” and recalled with humour the times that she wanted to throw a tantrum about how hard it all felt. To her credit though, she continues to sew.
Our next experiment was to see how she might take this mindset into her new role. For this, I coached Susan to let her colleagues know she was feeling anxious about her performance and ask for feedback. Importantly, we discussed the difference between seeking feedback and seeking reassurance. Collecting reassurance is a double-edged strategy. While it can be comforting and help us to dial down our anxiety, reassurance also protects us from the discomfort of not being good at something. We explicitly identified that Susan’s goals were to embrace the experience of being a beginner rather than her usual method which was to fast-track herself towards goal mastery. Collecting quality feedback from her colleagues at work helped Susan to take baby steps of progress, while alleviating her fears of losing her job any time soon.
At our last conversation, Susan described herself as a beginner’s mind “novice”; the learning still isn’t comfortable for her but it is helping her understand that she can take a different approach. Most importantly, she’s more open than ever towards trying new things.