Absolute Beginners

Remember what it was like to start in a new job? The rumbling butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the fixed whatever-you-need grin. I was reminded of this last night when our waitress took our orders at the Bowery Ballroom. This girl was absolutely beautiful, and as she apologized profusely for not knowing the menu, I could feel her discomfort and overwhelming need to please. “This is my first day,” she confessed with a nervous smile. We joked a little to put her at ease, and you know what? She was terrific! Throughout the evening, this girl worked her ass off, never once looking tired or like she didn’t want to be there.

How sad I thought, that we all lose this in the end. Eventually work becomes work. But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way? Imagine if you approached each new client/prospect/meeting with that same enthusiasm you first brought to the table? How much better and more fulfilling would your work life be, whether you’re a CEO or a cocktail waitress. Remember the unquenchable thirst you had in the early days of learning anything new? The stay-up-till-dawn-figure-it-out excitement that made you feel alive, even though you were exhausted? That is the beginner’s mindset. It’s also what separates most people who are “good” at their jobs from those people I like to call “genius.” By that, I don’t mean Albert Einstein genius, but the kind of people in whom you generally recognize excellence the moment you see it, whether they are making you a latte, driving a bus or doing your taxes. It’s this clear-eyed ability to see the nuance and newness in each opportunity that will also make you excellent. In Zen meditation, this is called “practice.” Bringing mindfulness to everything you do, so you are seeing each moment with a fresh pair of eyes. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old joke. And the answer is always practice. The other important aspect of the beginner’s mindset is humility: the willingness to look stupid, or risk looking stupid. How much of our time is spent trying to appear “smart” – and how does this cost us in learning terms? A lot! Maybe we should try not to be so smart all the time. That way, maybe we can ask the questions we really want to ask, and we can actually learn something new. As we get older, we tend to forget that learning is a lifelong process. And it is much more than learning from books. I like to think here is no one so ignorant or dull that you cannot learn something from them, if you ask the right questions. To learn is to grow. But it doesn’t end at college, age 50, or retirement. If growth is our ultimate goal, then we must commit every day to the discomfort of sometimes being the new kid on the block, or the oldest kid in class. Are you willing to strap on that apron, fix a nervous smile and say: “Welcome! This is my first day.”