Why I always try to be a beginner
The Beginner's mind is a Zen Buddhist way of approaching learning that will help you learn new things faster and avoid getting stuck.
The Beginner's mind is a Zen Buddhist way of approaching learning that will help you learn new things faster and avoid getting stuck.
Meeting friends from school (or old chess) days is always an interesting experience.
Some friends I can barely recognize because they matured, learned, and improved so much. Others have the exact same opinions, viewpoints and are stuck in life.
But why do some seem to absorb new things like a sponge and steadily improve, while others get stuck with the same habits and beliefs they got (mostly) from their parents when they were teenagers?
I believe a big part of the answer to this question lies in the so-called “beginner’s mind”.
In this article, I’ll tell you my interpretation of the “beginner’s mind” and how it connects to chess improvement.
The beginner’s mind is a concept I know from Zen Buddhism.
It is translated from the Japanese word ‘Shoshin’ and is sometimes also referred to as the ‘Zen Mind’. A common definition is:
“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would."
Another lovely sentence connected to the Beginner’s mind is the following, printed in the book “Mastery” by George Leonard.
Think of it as the natural state of a baby when it learns to walk. The baby is not afraid of failing and soaks up all it can. If it falls down, the baby simply gets on his feet again and repeats the learning process.
There are no time limits and no barriers for too many errors.
No shame in failing.
And no stupid pretending to actually be smarter or better than it actually is.
This is the preferred state of learning anything. Also, Chess, even if you are a GM.
The reality often looks totally different. From a young age, we get strong influences from the people around us. With social media, these possible influences have blown wide open.
Over time, we form preconceptions, beliefs, and opinions we often perceive as the ultimate truth.
If we hear something opposite to our well-loved beliefs (that we believe are truths instead of (un)informed opinions), we immediately go into defensive mode.
At this point, we are as far away from the Beginner’s Mind as possible.
The problem with this approach is that once we believe we know the truth, we can’t learn anymore. Instead of widening our knowledge, we only defend what we believe to be true.
This leads to permanent stagnation in life. We will only accept people with the same fixed mindset, as we feel deeply attacked by people that think differently.
Altogether this usually leads to a pretty horrible life.
Yet this is the default thinking of so many humans. It was also mine not a long time ago.
Noël aged 18 would have probably read this article and choked the first time after reading ‘Zen Buddhism’. My belief back then was that Zen Buddhism was some kind of “woo-woo bullshit that simply doesn’t work in the real world.”
Even without ever reading seriously about Zen Buddhism, I would probably have closed this article and never come back to “such a weird dude writing about Zen Buddhism”.
If you have the same belief, then please don’t make the same mistake I have done many times in my past. I have massively profited from opening up my mind and giving a chance to new approaches.
You don’t have to become a Zen Buddhist, nor do you have to fall in love with Buddhism.
But you still can profit from some of the Buddhist wisdom and apply it in your daily life.
I vividly remember dozens, if not hundreds, of discussions I had with my girlfriend on extremely stupid things like directions. Just because I was not ready to be wrong, or a fool, I would insist on my first instinct, even if that was wrong.
Instead of being grateful for her opinion, which would often save us a lot of time and nerves, I perceived her help as an attack.
My automatic response was doubling down in the wrong direction until it was obvious even to a blind man that we were on the wrong track.
Only then was I able, with a big heartbreak, to accept that I was wrong.
I would usually find some super weird excuse just to protect my ego.
After many years of working on it, these things still happen, but less often.
Now I’m usually happy to hear other opinions and being proven wrong.
Because whenever I am proven wrong, I just learned something. I know a bit more than I knew before. This is a great thing.
This approach is so much better for my learning ability. But not only that. It makes life much more pleasant. After all, I can avoid 80% of unnecessary fights because I don’t mind being wrong.
The idea to write this article came after recently playing a board game with my girlfriend and another couple.
As Alessia and I played this board game already many times and the other couple got introduced to it by us, we tried to help them play the game a bit better.
Or in other words, make it a more fair competition.
Occasionally I would even tell them that it was now smart to play against me because I was in the lead. But I soon realized they were as far away from a Beginner’s Mind as I was some years ago.
Each and every try to help them was perceived as an attack and ended in a huge discussion.
Either they “didn’t care about playing this game well” or they said that “the game is anyway only luck”. On another occasion, they were “fed up to be shown our superiority”.
This is like getting advice from a chess GM and saying he tries to show his superiority. It is damn obvious that somebody who played a game hundreds of times before will know some more things than you.
Whenever I did something smart they said “Noël is so lucky, he always gets the right combinations”. Again, similar to Chess players missing a combination and telling their opponent was lucky.
Their inability to look like a fool stopped them from improving.
Even if I shared my whole strategy they would still go for their own plans, saying “I know what I’m doing”. Whenever the strategy ended in disaster, they were simply unlucky.
By the way: alongside “I don’t need help”, “I know what I’m doing” is the biggest red light. These phrases are usually used to avoid accepting that one has made a mistake.
If you hear yourself saying this several times, then you know you should change something.
Similarly, if a loved one refers to these 2 sentences often, you might want to introduce this person to the Beginner’s Mind. But be careful of the way you do, because they will most likely perceive it as an attack.
Now that you have some real-life examples, let’s move to chess. The Beginners mind suits you whenever you want to learn something new/more.
Chess is an endlessly complex game, and no human being will ever fully understand it.
The best Engines are further away rating-wise from the World Champion Magnus Carlsen than he is from a 2000-rated player (a 2000 Rated player is roughly #25’000 in the World!)
Knowing it all for a human being is impossible when it comes to chess. But yet many Amateurs and professionals struggle to keep an open mind when it comes to chess improvement.
I will focus on three main areas I have seen many bad examples of fixed mindsets:
There are many different approaches to Chess improvement. Some are better, some are worse. But there is not one single best one and all the others are crap.
Different coaches have different approaches. So whenever you change a Coach, you need to make sure to apply the beginner’s mind.
What I mean by that is:
You will have some beliefs about chess improvements that you got from your previous Coaches.
Your new Coach will most likely make you do things you did not hear of before, or even suggest things your previous Coach said are bad.
If you are not careful and (sub)consciously take your previous beliefs as the ultimate reality, this new Coach never even gets a chance.
Even if you decide to follow his advice, something inside you will have already decided it should not work.
And surprise surprise, if you tell yourself (sub)consciously it won’t work, IT WON’T WORK.
So instead of reluctantly accepting advice you already dismissed deep down, approach the new Coach with a totally blank page. Be open like a baby when it first learns something.
No preconceptions. No beliefs or ‘truths’.
Just be curious and try to learn as much as you can.
Make sure to first invest a lot of time and energy into finding the right Coach, so that then you can 100% trust him/her.
Ask questions because you are curious to understand the Coach’s thought process, not because you heard something different and want to prove him wrong.
This especially also applies to parents of talented kids. Find a coach and don’t interfere with his teachings. Give him/her a fair chance and at least 6-12 months to see if the Coaching has an effect on your kid.
If after these 6-12 months of full trust & immersion into the Coach’s idea you feel that this is not the right approach for you, you can still think about trying out another Coach.
But before you think about changing, you need to give him/her a fair chance!
I remember many discussions with weaker Chess players from Switzerland who simply couldn’t open up their minds to take my well-intended tips.
I’m sure I can still improve in the way to give those tips. Helping people without making them feel inferior is definitely important. But I truly also believe that a problem was their non Beginner mind.
Once I discussed an opening after a game with my opponent. He played some inferior line and I basically refuted it over the board. Yet he was extremely reluctant to accept any advice, because “he analyzed it 2 years ago”.
He was so sure of his old analysis (with a Computer 10x weaker than mine and an old version of Stockfish…) that he insisted that the opening was totally fine.
As he already came to a definitive conclusion about the opening before we started to talk, he wasn’t ready at all to learn anything.
Things change very fast. There are no ultimate truths in chess. So stay flexible, trust your instincts but be aware that you might be wrong.
Other examples always come up if I talk about getting help in any way, such as from a:
I’m well aware that not everybody NEEDS these specialists. It depends on your goals, your time investment, and your financial situation.
But what I am sure of is that everybody can LEARN from these specialists.
Way too often somebody tells me “I don’t need a Coach because…” or “I don’t need a Sports Psychologist because…”.
Bullshit! Maybe you don’t WANT help, but you could definitely profit from it.
I have a friend who is on an eternal quest to the GM title. Yet he did not accept (or ask) any advice from me even when I did exactly what he failed to do for years.
Nor does he think a Sports Psychologist or any other expert listed above could help him solve the problem. He just keeps doing the same things he did for the last 10 years and hopes for a different outcome (GM title).
Since starting the blog and being more active on Twitter I already saw many similar mistakes. People with limited success tell themselves “I don’t need a Coach, I know what I am doing”.
While it is absolutely fine to decide against a Coach because of limited time or limited financial resources, thinking you know what you do and a Coach can’t help you is just wrong.
Messi, Ronaldo, Federer, and LeBron James have one thing in common: they still work with several Coaches daily. Now if they still profit from having a Coach, then you certainly also do.
I get it. You spent a lot of time on your favorite opening. You also won some super nice games with it. So there can be a certain emotional attachment to it.
But if your opening is now basically refuted, you need to open your eyes and ears and accept it!
This is vastly a problem of the pre-computer generation. Or of people that fall in love with a Youtuber/Streamer and just follow their fun openings blindly.
In the pre-computer era, you could basically play anything, even on a higher level.
Most games would not find their way into the database. Even if, it was practically impossible to refute even the weirdest gambits with human analysis only.
Now times have changed. Everybody has access to the strongest Engine for FREE. You can even use extremely strong Cloud Computers and do high-level analysis in a matter of minutes.
Yet it amazes me that many players stick to their beloved crap openings, even after being punished several times. Sometimes it is a lack of time or simply laziness.
But more often it is because these people don’t have an open mind when it comes to their favorite opening.
What gave you so many pleasures now suddenly should be bad? IMPOSSIBLE!
Want an example? Here you are.
In 2017 I played a strong IM who plays always the same openings.
For several decades now.
5 months before our game he had the position in the Diagram already.
He has several other games in the same line. As white has many interesting and very good ways, the games split up in different directions. But I was 99% sure that I will get this position if I start with 1.e4:
The Computer shows a big advantage here and it is not surprising. White will regain the pawn on g4, have an amazing outpost for the knight on d5 and his king is surprisingly save on g3.
I basically only had to play 5 moves until my position was totally won:
White is preparing to invade the Kingside with Qe3-Qh6 and by putting a knight on f6. The only black counterplay is Na6-c5, which will be countered by b4 with the white Queen still on e3.
Stockfish is evaluating the position as +7! Black resigned a few moves later.
Checking his games now makes me even sadder. He managed to change this sub-line for another bad line in the Sicilian he played already. In the latest game white had a +2 advantage after 10(!) moves.
Having a Beginner’s mind whenever we try to learn something is crucial. A beginner’s mind means:
If you fail to have a beginner’s mind, you won’t be able to learn new things.
“I know what I’m doing” and “I don’t need help” are two red-light phrases that indicate a state of mind far away from the beginner’s mind.
In case you want to work on having a beginner’s mind, I will leave you with some great resources:
To conclude this article in the right way, I want to stress that this is my personal interpretation of a beginner’s mind. I’m sure I can still improve a lot.
P. S.: If you liked this article, then you would certainly also like my weekly exclusive chess insights. Sign-up here and make sure to be on the lookout for my emails on Friday!
Editor's note: This is our most favorite article written by GM Noel Studer in his excellent Nextlevelchess.blog, where it was orginally published.
And we're deeply greatful for letting us have it on our Blog too.
Where do you think you need to apply the beginner's mindset to grow faster? Share your thoughts in the forum.
Originally published Dec 26, 2022