Sometimes Your Expertise Might Be Exactly What's Holding You Back

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"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." From Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

I remember my first onsite meeting with my first consulting client who was not a doctor. I had been a medical management consultant and transition analyst for more than ten years, and a medical manager for five years before that, but most of my experience with computers came from crawling around under a desk, phone clamped between my shoulder and my ear, while some exasperated help desk staffer tried to talk me though plugging a printer cable into the right port. So being introduced to a room of IT professionals as “our new consultant” was terrifying.

All I could think in that moment was, “I know NOTHING about what these people do all day.”

Related: Finding the Right Questions to Ask to Resolve Your Company's Issues

Then I remembered what Dr. Wiklund said about why he hired me, in spite of my lack of medical experience; “You knew business, you knew systems, and you knew people. I figured you’d see my practice with that experience and intelligence, but with a beginner’s mind.”

I had to go to the library to find a book on beginner’s mind, the Internet still being a thing of the future, and I learned that what he expected from me was an attitude of openness, a lack of preconceived ideas about how things had to be, and a wealth of questions that started with, “what if” and “why not.”

That’s exactly what he got. I know there were days when if I’d asked “what if” or “why not” one more time he might have been tempted to fire me. But when I left his practice for a nationwide consulting firm five years later we had almost tripled his revenue.

So I looked around the conference table, at people who were not doctors, nurses, or medical managers -- people who did work I couldn’t even imagine and spoke a language I couldn’t understand, and I said something like this; “I don’t know much about what you do here, so I’m going to start by asking questions about what you do that will help you discover possibilities for you to do it more effectively, efficiently, and profitably than you’re doing it now. Some of those questions are going to be stupid, and go nowhere. And some of them are going to be stupid and go somewhere you never thought you could go. Are you game?”

The truth is, I don’t remember what I said. I’m sure it wasn’t eloquent. It’s hard to be eloquent when you’re shaking in your high-heeled pumps. But whatever I said to them that day, asking “stupid” questions is still a large part of what I challenge my clients to do.

As entrepreneurs, we love new ideas. But as human beings, we shy away from the unknown. We’d like to believe there are some immutable truths about business, about our industry, about our lives.

I’m not saying immutable truths don’t exist, certainly they do. But chances are that whatever you believe is limiting the growth of your business (or anything else in your life) is based on a false premise, not an immutable truth.

Related: How to Find Your Money Zen

What we think we know for certain is usually what’s keeping us from discovering what we need to know in order to do what we want to do.

A professor once visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.

“The cup is full!” said the professor. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said the master, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

That’s what I want you to do; empty your cup. Release your opinions and speculations, ideas that are based on what you think you know, what you’ve been told is true, what has always been accepted in your industry, in your business, in your life.

Change your assumptions to questions. Instead of saying, “We know can’t do that because this is true,” ask yourselves, “What would be possible if that weren’t true anymore?” Instead of saying, “But no one has ever been able to make that work,” ask “Why hasn’t anyone been able to make that work, yet?”

Be your own consultant. Pretend you don’t know much about what you do, and start asking the questions that will help you discover possibilities for doing it more effectively, efficiently, and profitably than you’re doing it now.

What if?

Why not?

You don’t have to sit on the floor with your eyes closed to apply Zen to your business; you just have to approach your possibilities with a balance of experience, intelligence, and beginner’s mind.

Related: Master Your Zen to Improve a Startup's Cash Flow