Discover more from Rethink with Rachel
Rediscovering a beginner’s mind
What can kids teach us about learning?
Rethink is a newsletter for curious people who enjoy thinking differently. If you find value in the ideas, why not consider joining our paying supporters. I really value our Rethink community and all your support.
Dear Rethinkers (and welcome to new members of our community!),
This week’s newsletter is on something close to my heart right now – why as adults we lose the ‘beginner’s mind’. Let me explain.
Last September, I went back to school. Alongside my kids, I nervously packed my pencil case with beautiful pens and sharpened pencils and headed off for my first day at Kew Gardens in London. I decided to finally explore a deep curiosity in landscape design. It was more than an interest in flowers and plants. Since I was at school, I’ve been told that I should be a landscape architect. It was time to explore the identity niggle, “should I have a different career?”
I’m hopefully going to graduate in two months, and I can honestly say, that I should not be a landscape architect! One lecturer told me that people might die if I ever attempted to construct my ideas for complex shadow steps or weird water features.
What I've come to realize is this year has very little to do with what I'm studying; it was about exploring why I wanted to go back to school. I’ve realized I wanted to rediscover the power of a beginner’s mind.
Here is what I discovered about being a beginner as an adult:
It is uncomfortable and confronting.
Learning how to just explore again is hard.
Unlearning how not to focus on the outcome (or the grade) is a challenge.
One evening, whilst struggling with learning 3D modeling in CAD, I burst into tears. “I give up” I dramatically exclaimed quite literally hitting the computer. My daughter worried that I’d truly lost it, went off and wrote me some top tips (see below.)
My meltdown led me to become curious about something. Do adults lose the ‘beginners’ mind? As we get older, is it actually harder for us to learn, to question, and to reimagine? Or do we just get too busy to play and learn?
These questions drew me to the work of Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley where she runs the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab. She’s authored 100s of papers and many books including my favourites “The Philosophical Baby” and “The Gardener and the Carpenter” (appropriate title, I know!). What I love about her work is she takes the beginner's minds of children very seriously. Instead of asking what children can learn from us, Gopnik reverses the question: what can we learn from them?
If you want to learn more about the beginner's mind, I’d highly recommend listening to this podcast episode with Ezra Klein and Alison Gopnik. It’s so good.
So why is it so hard to learn the piano, a new language, 3D modeling or anything entirely new as we get older?
Here is the sobering thought at the heart of Gopnik’s work:
Children’s minds are a lot smarter than adults. They are designed to explore, learn and change.
The adult mind is tuned to exploit what it already knows. Efficient yes, playful no.
This idea of adults being wired to become EXPLOITERS not EXPLORERS struck a deep chord.
What I’ve rediscovered by going back to school is my explorer that likes to be messy, sometimes silly, and who loves to wander around in the unknown. It’s helped me get out of the mindset of being almost too efficient – and to trust the journey rather than fixate on the outcome.
Thoughts? Please leave below.
I’ll be sharing more about what I learned about my year at Kew (not gardening tips, although I will happily share those as well!) in a longer newsletter later this month. To access please become a paid subscriber.
If you enjoyed this newsletter, then do read last week's to discover the concept of ‘bring a brick, not a cathedral’.' A useful tool for becoming more explorer, less exploiter.