Beginner’s Mind: How Two Amateurs Beat An Expert With Millions in Funding

wright-bros-gliderFellow Riskologist,

The year was 1903.

Two lowly bicycle builders from Ohio entered a fierce race to build a revolutionary machine. Their main competitor, Samuel Langley, was a well-respected astronomer, physicist and inventor, who received $70,000 in grants ($2M in today’s dollars) to complete the project.

Of course, since the bicycle builders were complete beginners, nobody took them seriously. Everybody was betting on the expert to get the job done.

But after burning through all the free money and many failed attempts, Langley gave up the project, defeated.

The whole world was watching, and the New York Times reported the machine “might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.”

But just nine days later, the two bicycle builders from Ohio completed their self-funded, amateur contraption and—with just a few spectators looking on—made the first successful manned flights in history.

Their names, if you haven’t guessed by now, were Wilber and Orville Wright; better known these days as the Wright Brothers.

If you ever wanted to take on a project that seemed out of your league, their story has a lesson for you.

How did they succeed where expertise and funding failed? What was their secret?

Read on to find out.

Beginner’s Mind: How To Become Your Own Expert

Wilbur and Orville Wright succeeded because they were not weighed down by years of “expertise” and theory that lead them down the wrong path. Instead, they were able to look at human-powered flight from the mind of beginners. They explored ideas others waved their hands at.

When you’re learning and building something unfamiliar, you have the incredible opportunity to create something remarkable. Your brain is creating connections to the things you learn using the information you already know from other parts of your life and not relying on rules and theories you haven’t learned yet. This happens automatically, but over time—as you learn more—it stops. You must purposefully return yourself to that state to get the benefits.

For a brilliant example of beginner’s mind in action every day, visit almost any place where children congregate and do creative things. Kids are constantly surprising adults with the way they learn new things by taking something they already know about—how to organize the number of toys they have, for example—and applying it to things they need to learn—like how to read a clock or count money.

Adults rarely make these kinds of abstract connections that inspire major breakthroughs because by the time you’ve grown up, it’s been pounded into your head there’s an official way to do everything, and that’s the path you must follow.

But it isn’t true! Major breakthroughs are almost always made by outsiders who force themselves to look at problems from a beginner’s perspective to find new pathways. Don’t be afraid of something new. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to learn in a brand new way.

Create Something Unique By Mixing Things You Already Know

Where did The Wright Brother’s ideas for the airplane advancements they made come from? Many came from what they already knew as bicycle builders. The biggest breakthrough they made was in creating a system to control their plane in flight with rudders, the pitch of their propeller, and flaps on the wings.

Langley and other experts dismissed the idea as too complicated for any normal pilot to be able to control. But being in the bike business, Wilbur and Orville knew the same argument had been made ages ago (and quickly disproven) about the feasibility of a bicycle. So, they pressed on. The result was a maneuverable aircraft—something the world had never seen.

You can do the same. You have a lifetime of knowledge and experience you’ve gathered from different pursuits. If you want to start something new, it need not be discarded! Instead, cultivate beginner’s mind for yourself and try to think like a child. How can you take what you know from one area of your life and apply it to your new pursuit. If you don’t, you risk creating a carbon copy of what’s already been done.

  • Want to write code, but have only ever written essays? Anyone can learn the rules of a coding language, but you can take your expertise from essay writing to organize your code in a way that’s more useful and easier to understand or extend.
  • Maybe you’re learning to be a painter, but you’ve spent your life so far waiting tables at restaurants. Are there customer service rules you could apply to selling your work? Maybe you once saw a plate of food with a great color palette you can mimic in a painting.
  • Want to be an athlete, but your experience lies in management? Take the rules you’ve learned for creating a great work environment and motivating your team to becoming a great coach for yourself or others. Take the things that improve your team and apply them to improving your conditioning and skill.

Beginner’s mind is a beautiful thing that allows you to look at problems from a different perspective than someone who’s been doing it for years. As a result, you’ll come up with new solutions that work better and faster.

But you must cultivate the practice in yourself because it’s easy to ignore and miss out on all the benefits. And don’t forget you can also apply beginner’s mind to something you’ve been working on for a long time. Just ask yourself:

If I were to start all over again, what would I do differently? And what other things do I know about that I can apply to this?

Yours in beginning again,