Why entrepreneurs should embrace their inner beginner.

I’ve always been a sponge for new ideas. Maybe it’s a lateral thinking thing. Maybe ADD.

I get waylaid in library aisles and bookstores, spend hours at magazine racks, and search online like a kid on a museum field trip—constantly wandering off to poke the dinosaur and honk the horn of the antique car.

I’m a sucker for new thinking, even if it has nothing to do with the job at hand. Actually, especially if it has nothing to do with the job at hand. I have a soft spot in my heart for topics I’m woefully underinformed on. Meeting experts in other fields fires me up like a shot of sugar.

The only downside is that all this activity leaves me feeling like the dumbest guy in the room. Why do so many people know so much more than me? How am I going to learn all this stuff, and the stuff I haven’t even discovered yet? How do I incorporate all these ideas into what I do, without spinning off course? And most important, how the heck do I make money at it?

John Marshall Roberts, a behavioral psychologist and good friend of mine, seemed familiar with my dilemma and offered a solution. He said I should embrace my inner clueless.

“I’m seeing the rise of systems thinkers—people trying to make sense of how everything works and hangs together. They’re specialists, but somewhere along the line they realized what they know is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They’re having their brains blown by the magnitude of it all. The successful ones accept the concept of being a perennial beginner, abandoning their illusions of expertise.”

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Successful entrepreneurs accept being perennial beginners.

The whole thing feels like a Zen concept because it is a Zen concept. It’s called Beginner’s Mind. Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki summarized it: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

The key word here is possibilities. When it comes to solutions for global problems (and how to market them effectively), there are myriad solutions. But our expertise has made us more adept at criticizing new solutions than promoting them.

Accept conventional North American wisdom on climate change, for example, and you accept our only option is to drive the planet into a brick wall. This crash comes with the official-sounding title “climate adaptation.”

Yes, we need to adapt as Mother Nature exacts her revenge for our profligate behavior. But climate adaptation feels more and more like the only option being seriously proffered. Any open-minded beginner could tell you this isn’t the only possibility. In fact, it’s a lousy, stunted way forward.

Any beginner could tell you climate adaptation is a lousy way forward.

Now look at technology. I’m working with one tech startup and am about to launch into another. My title? Director of Keeping It Human. In short, I was brought aboard to poke holes in the wisdom of experts, and ‘dumb things down’ to a level ordinary people can understand. My colleagues (at least when I ask them) say my ‘dumbest guy in the room’ skill is something they value highly. Who knew?

We marketers tend to accept a rather limited role in creating change. We’ve become experts in selling the products our clients tell us to sell. Our expertise has constrained our vision of the possible. We’ve become order takers, thinking our creativity needs to be confined to the 4 Ps. In a world where linear production and hyperconsumption are major problems, throwing up our hands and saying it’s not our department is both a great shame and a missed opportunity for creative thinking.

Why do we keep doing it, then?

I think it comes down to a society that hasn’t yet come around to embracing its inner clueless, instead putting too much emphasis on the opinions of gurus.

This excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming, Marc Stoiber’s new book, first appeared in the Unreasonable Institute Blog February 2nd, 2015.

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