How to Break Your Old Thought Patterns and Be Truly Innovative
Your expertise is getting in the way of your creativity. Employ these tools to embrace a beginner's mindset.
Fifteen years ago, I spent about half of my time doing work I considered myself an expert in. I was an experienced software engineer building a product that people actually liked and used. When I was working on the product, I felt confident and competent. I knew what to expect and how to deliver.
The rest of the time, though, I felt like I’d been thrown in the deep end without a flotation device. I was doing marketing, operations, finances and even some ad hoc design work, none of which I’d ever done before but was now my responsibility. Even though JotForm has grown into a bona fide tech company, at the beginning, it was just me on a laptop trying to figure stuff out.
If you’ve ever started a company, this will sound familiar.
At first, I felt like a failure. But, I was more energized than I’d been in years. Every day felt like an opportunity to try something new. That’s the joy of being a beginner.
Beginners see possibilities where experts see problems. We can all benefit from a beginner’s mindset, even — maybe especially — in areas where we’re experts.
The benefits of a beginner’s mindset
A beginner’s mindset can feel counterintuitive, especially if you’re highly accomplished in your field. Isn’t it your job to be an expert?
To make the case, I’ll turn to the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin. Shoshin means letting go of previous assumptions and perceptions to approach a subject with a truly open mind. Beginners have less restrictive thought patterns than experts. A beginner, for example, would never say, “But this is how we’ve always done things.” Being truly innovative means breaking away from existing models and systems, which means you have to unlearn them.
It’s not easy. You can’t forget years or decades of hard-earned expertise. What you can do, though, is lead with curiosity.
Question your thought patterns and challenge assumptions, first by identifying them and then critiquing without judgment. What continues to make sense? What is built on historical data that is no longer relevant?
Move away from solving immediate problems and explore unconstrained possibilities by making “I wish” statements. By disentangling the vision from the immediate roadmap, you can be truly innovative.
Ask the “stupid” questions. It can feel foolish to ask seemingly obvious questions, especially in a room full of experts where the answer feels like it should be self-evident. But, the answers will provide clarity.
By re-examining your decision-making process, you can let go of the knowledge that limits you and discover new opportunities you hadn’t seen before.
Children are really good at learning. It makes sense. Basically everything they do they are doing for the first time. They’re learning to walk, the rules of sports, the basics of math, language, handwriting — basically how the world works and what to do in it. The older we get, the less we need to learn. Our brains become less adaptive, and it becomes more difficult to pick up new things.
The good news: the more you do it, the better you get at it. Not just whatever it is you’re trying to learn, but learning itself. This is because even though adult brains aren’t as primed for learning, they still have neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt to new challenges. It’s like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you use it.
And, learning has benefits beyond the actual skills gained. Those who continue to learn as they age build and preserve their brain connections and stimulate the area of the brain that establishes new memories. This improves memory and cognitive control.
In short, the best time to learn something is before you are 12. The second best time: right now.
Try new skills in different contexts
Imagine you’re at a cafe in Paris. You’ve spent the last two years studying French. You’ve hit the highest levels of Duolingo and can read articles in Le Monde with minimal Google Translation support. A woman comes to take your order and you freeze. Sure, some of this might be stage fright, but this reaction is likely driven by context-dependent skill-building.
If you’re used to studying a language in writing or by yourself, translating those skills to the outside world can be difficult and even feel like a setback. By learning skills in different contexts, you’ll build behavioral flexibility. Behavioral flexibility is the ability to perform in altered conditions or environments. Think about it this way: A novice driver can drive on clear roads. A good driver can drive safely in different weather and traffic conditions. A great driver can adapt to any conditions in any car.
Of course, the expectation isn’t that anyone with a learner’s permit should go off-roading to develop this flexibility. In learning a skill, scientists recommend “repetition without repetition.” What they mean by that is practicing the same skill under different conditions in order to build more well-rounded skills. Try applying your existing skills in different contexts and through different mediums. In addition to building skill flexibility, you’ll also surprise yourself with creative solutions.
Let go of ego
All learning comes with some degree of failure. As an expert, it can feel especially painful to be wrong about something or feel outshone by others. That thought pattern, while entirely understandable, is incredibly limiting.
Learning is both a vulnerable act and a competitive advantage. It can be pretty uncomfortable in the same way that exercise is. The discomfort is where the growth happens. So, what are the pushup equivalents for learning new skills?
Seek out people who challenge your thinking and introduce fresh ideas.
Look for inspiration in different areas. Expanding your interests will enrich your life and cause you to think differently.
Let go of goals and shift your mindset around learning to a lifelong journey rather than one that stops at “expert.”
By embracing a “growth” mindset focused on progress rather than goals or KPIs, you’re giving yourself the space to make mistakes and learn from them.