After twenty years as an investigative agent, I was asked to be the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. It sounded like fun—even a little glamorous since I would be interviewed by local and national news media. So why did I hesitate when offered the job?
I realized that I would be moving from being the senior agent on my squad, and knowing everything about my job, to a new situation where I knew absolutely nothing. None of my former skills as an investigator had prepared me to handle probing questions from reporters, represent the FBI in news conferences, or prepare for live television interviews where I needed to come across as witty, credible and polished.
I am the type of person who comes up with the best retorts about twenty minutes after the question is asked—I needed to learn how to think quicker on my feet.
I was a beginner, starting over with a manual and basic training. My pride balked at being referred to as a trainee—my secretary, assistants, and clerks knew more about handling the media than I did!
I had to learn the ropes from the bottom up. It was tempting to feel humiliated by my lack of experience; instead, I felt humbled by all I had yet to learn.
There was no resentment, only a slow understanding that we are all students of life. Like all leaders, I needed to understand why having a beginner’s mind was important to my future success.
Here are four reasons leaders become great when they keep learning:
Keeps Ego in Check
The ego is always asking “How will this make me look? How will I benefit?” Ego looks for ways to prove it is right and others are wrong.
The beginner’s mind does not need to prove or disprove anything. It has the humility to hold “what I do know” with “what I don’t know.” Holding this kind of tension leads to wisdom and not just easy answers.
When we keep ego in check, there is room for the wisdom of others to get in (click to tweet).
We are able to listen more deeply, learn with an open mind, and adapt new skill sets.
When we allow ourselves the luxury of trial and error, like a child learning to walk, we experience a feel-good neurological response that can be stronger than the ego. When tackling new and difficult challenges, we experience a rush of adrenaline, a hormone that makes us feel confident and motivated.
It takes courage to move out of your comfort zone and into your zone of discomfort, where you feel awkward, clumsy, and alone. This can be especially difficult for leaders who feel they need to continue to hone their core competencies, but our comfort zone is a tremendous enemy of peak performance.
When leaders get into a comfort zone, they strive to stay right there—where they have found success. But it is the average leader who stops at success, because success and peak performance are often two different things. Whole lives are spent reinforcing mediocre performance.
It takes courage and mental toughness to continually move in the direction of your biggest goals and ambitions and not stop at success.
The more accomplished we are at something, the harder it is to learn (click to tweet).
Once we become experts in our field, the need to learn is no longer either urgent or necessary. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will fuse our skill with our identity.
Walking into a discomfort zone and risking failure threatens to unravel our identity. Our reaction to learning something new is often fierce and visceral because it can strike at the core of who believe ourselves to be.
Once we choose not to learn, however, we risk stagnation. Unfortunately, the only difference between a rut and coffin are the dimensions.
Enlarges Core Competency
Moving out of our core competency leaves us feeling vulnerable and weak as leaders. We’ve become inured to having the right answers and confidence in our choices.
A beginner’s mind, on the other hand, is flexible and agile as it leaves behind old assumptions and gropes for new ways to move forward.
This is exactly the mindset we need when confronted with obstacles and adversity! We may not be able to rely upon our developed skills when facing a new barrier or challenge, but if we’ve continually and deliberately placed ourselves in situations that are beyond our core competency, we are more prepared to deal with them.
With experience and practice, we can predict our response to the unknown with greater accuracy. This is another important component of mental toughness—the ability to choose our response when confronted with the unknown rather than simply react to our circumstances.
A beginner’s mind is opening up to the possibilities of what might be. It is a non-grasping, patient, and confident understanding of what it means to live our fullest potential. It is having the mental toughness to always be humble, and always strive to reach peak performance.
How you do anything is how you do everything (click to tweet).
How do you motivate yourself to move out of your comfort zone and into a zone of discomfort where you can learn new skills?
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