Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind: Book Review

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The Book

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

The Review

I first came across the actual term beginner’s mind when reading through the ‘Wear The White Belt‘ chapter of Apprenticeship Patterns although it was often mentioned to me on one of the first projects I did at ThoughtWorks a couple of years ago that people liked teaching me things because I just took the information in pretty much without questioning.

I find nowadays that I analyse what people tell me way a lot more and then compare it against what I already know to see if it adds to my understanding. In a way this is useful but sometimes prevents me fully understanding ideas since I have already judged them.

I started researching beginner’s mind a bit to see if there was anything written on the state of mind required to maximise learning and this was the book that kept being mentioned so I decided to get a copy of it.

It is fundamentally a book on Zen and a lot of the stuff around that area didn’t make a lot of sense to me but I think there were some general ideas which can be applied to learning in general.

What did I learn?

  • One of the early chapters sets the message for the book with the following quote:

    In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the experts there are few.

    Straight away it gets to the point which I think describes the problem that we have in software development once we’ve done a few projects and accumulated a set of ideas of the best way to deliver software – we often stick to those ideas and aren’t open to the idea of better ideas being out there.

    On the other hand as Fred Brooks points out there is no silver bullet so perhaps this also explains why there is often skepticism when new ideas are described since its quite likely that potential negative points of these approaches have either not been described or not yet discovered.

  • The author raises some interesting ideas around how to get the best out of people by suggesting that the best way to do this is to let them do what they want but to watch them. Although he then went out to reference this back as a metaphor for controlling our own thoughts I was reminded of the Netflix culture slide show which I came across lately in terms of how they give employees freedom but expect them to act in the organisation’s best interest rather than expecting employees to follow a lot of rules.
  • One thing I really liked was the emphasis on listening to what someone says ‘without having your own idea [in mind]…forgot what you have in your mind and just listen to what he says’. I think one problem we can run into when listening to other people is that we extract the bits of what they say which fit in with what we believe – something known as the confirmation bias.

    I actually found an old post of mine which lists some mistakes we commonly make when listening to others speak. It makes quite interesting reading.

    Another quote from the book sums up a more useful approach:

    See things as they are, observe things as they are, let everything go as it goes

  • He goes on to suggest that we should have no negative or positive feelings towards what someone says to us and that we should give up our preconceived ideas and subjective opinions which I didn’t think made much sense in the software development game since a lot of what we do is about assessing the merits of different approaches.

    The beginner’s mind entry on the C2 wiki makes more sense by describing Ward Cunningham’s approach:

    You can generally tell when you’re dealing with someone who really knows their stuff by the amount of reference they make to the way it has always been done. Folk like our own WardCunningham seem able to ditch all that stuff and approach each problem as if it were completely new and they had never done anything like it before.

    Then, when they have a solution, they’ll either recognize it as a Pattern in the standard lexicon, and leverage readymade tools, or not. But they never come in armed for bear when all the customer needs to catch is clams.

    It seems like we only initially need to have an empty mind while we are taking in the new information and then we can make use of the knowledge that we already have later on.

  • The author suggests that ‘when you do something just to do it should be your purpose‘ which seems somewhat similar to the idea of focusing on the process in Agile instead of always on the outcome of what we’re doing.

    While a result focus can be helpful I often notice that important things like the quality of what we’re making get dropped by the wayside if we focus too much just on completion.

    I do think there is some need to focus on whether what we’re doing is actually improving us (although the book advises against this) and I recently came across Chad Fowler’s idea of always asking ‘Am I better than yesterday?‘.

  • It is pointed out then when learning zaizen we cannot expect rapid progress but instead that we will progress little by little which I think is pretty much the same in software development.

    With nearly all skills a lot of practice is needed – as Talent is Overrated points out – we don’t just become an overnight sensation but need to work our way through the Dreyfus Model for each skill gradually improving our level.

In Summary

Although this book is about Zen I still found some interesting ideas about learning and I guess its always interesting to read something a bit different.

I’d be interested in knowing if there was a book that covered beginner’s mind purely from a learning point of view instead of Zen if anyone knows of any titles!

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Written by Mark Needham

August 12th, 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in Books

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