Beginner’s Mind

When I was really sick with cancer in 1994, I was freaking out emotionally. My emotions were super volatile – some days I was upbeat and in a fighting spirit and some days I was scared shitless and paralyzed with fear. My doctors eventually told me that I needed to get on a more emotional keel. It was a long journey and I would burn out with these ups and downs, and this “burn out” could make my condition even worse.

I tried everything to “calm myself down.” My initial tactic was to watch as much television and movies as possible – I watched every episode of The Simpsons, Wings, and Seinfeld – all on VHS. I watched the OJ trial, the NBA finals, the car chase. I hoped that by tuning in, I could tune out.

None of that worked. So one day a nurse practitioner suggested that I meditate and do yoga. She talked about the “mind-body connection” and how your mind and emotional self can affect your physical self. Again, this was 1994. Yoga (and now meditation) weren’t as mainstream as they are now. For me, this stuff was for the hippies, freaks and geeks. Not for me.

But I got so desperate that I finally succumbed. I went to some Meditation sessions, did some Yoga and read “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I also read his book, “Whereever You Go, There You are.”

I basically became a believer when I read that professional athletes used mindfulness and meditation as a tool to develop and harness focus and composure in times of stress. In his first book, “Sacred Hoops”, Hall of Fame basketball coach Phil Jackson talks about how he incorporated mindfulness into the dominant 1990s Chicago Bulls. Even Michael Jordan – the archetype alpha male – bought into this hocus pocus. I learned that mindfulness wasn’t about tuning out and some pollyannish belieft that “everything is ok.” It’s actually the contrary – it’s about tuning in, staying in and accepting the moment. And developing this focus is like developing any muscle in your body – it needs to be strengthened through deliberate practice.

I eventually read a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, a renowned Buddhist monk. I’m not a Buddhist (more like, a non-practicing Christian) but the secular lessons really resonated with me. In short, Suzuki said that “[i]n the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the experts mind, there are few.” This is a corollary to the concept of mindfulness and the power of staying in the moment.**

When I first started investing in 2007, I didn’t know anything about it. And it was daunting as hell. Some of my peers had way more experience operationally and as an investor. So I tried to keep a “beginner’s mind.” This was at times really hard because it meant asking really dumb questions and looking pretty clueless in the process. But it also helped because I wasn’t burdened with unhelpful biases. And those dumb questions actually questioned some “best practices” that were hardwired only because of legacy and not because of common sense.

A lot of these “best practices” are being challenged today with developments like crowdfunding, JOBS Act and the like. Things are changing quickly. These developments won’t displace the current systems but they will be a powerful force much like e-commerce was a powerful force in overall commerce. Having a Beginner’s Mind mindset is helpful for me and the most useful way to develop that is through meditation.

**As a disclaimer, I meditate about as often as I exercise – which is sporadically and erratically.