In the realm of experts, there exists a fascinating contradiction when one is brought into an environment filled with deep knowledge in various domains, be it consumer products, finance, or technical expertise. Stepping into this expert territory, I found myself embodying what could only be described as an empty vessel, brimming with openness, curiosity, and a hefty dose of ignorance — a state often referred to as “Beginner’s mind.”
This journey was most apparent during my time at AT&T Labs Research, where I was paired with a researcher known for not suffering fools gladly and inducing cognitive dissonance in unsuspecting new hires. I’ll refer to him (somewhat ironically) as DB, since his fondness for using perplexing acronyms only added to the challenge of navigating this new world of telephony, networks, and internet protocols. DB’s teaching style revolved around the phrase “You should know that,” which rapidly became the central tenet of his “teachings.”
In a fairly short time, my vessel runneth over with “you should know that’s,” leading my Director to bring in a more technically adept colleague to assist me. This move didn’t sit well with DB, and he called his Director in our presence to announce that two “colleagues” had “invaded his space” and were refusing to leave.
Despite this initial disconnect, I was set free to roam the halls of the Labs, collaborating with other “Principle Technical Staff Members” on a plethora of projects that involved telephony, novel instant messaging clients, search interfaces, NLP-driven email clients, sentiment analysis tools, 3D world, and internet music applications. My collaborators included notable computer scientists like Vijay Saraswat, Amit Singhal, Julia Hirschberg, Michiel Bacchiani, among many others.
What began as a dread-filled experience became a wonderful sandbox of creativity. I found joy working with my quiet, focused peers, who appreciated the value of my PhD thought process — where the “h” had as much to do with humor as it did with heuristics. I worked with them to move their thinking from what they were building into a more liquid, collaborative space. We delved into user scenarios and designed consumer-friendly interfaces, leveraging cross-disciplinary insights and I sketched up ideas to help push the boundaries of their inventive applications.
I once again encountered DB’s gruff presence when I served with him on the Intellectual Property Review Team. By then, I had embraced my role as a self-proclaimed “Principal non-technical staff cartoonist” and better understood my value to the Labs. The fear of being the least knowledgeable person in the room no longer plagued me. Instead, I embraced the power of beginner’s mind — offering a fresh perspective, exploring unconventional ideas, experimenting without the fear of failure, and helping fresh shoots bloom out of all they had cultivated in their Lab work. In many ways, this was the formative experience that set the stage for the work I do today.
Now, as a teacher at both Columbia and NYU, a strong part of my mission is to instill the importance of an innovative and adaptive beginner’s mindset. In a fast-paced, ever-changing world, the value of this approach is increasingly evident.
Embracing beginner’s mind has been an illuminating journey into the power of ignorance in unlocking creativity and innovation. Much later, when completing a project with Delos, Larry Weiss — whose work spans directing the development of Citibank’s consumer services, inventing Cocoa Pebbles, and UNDEROOS, and a ground-breaking consumer research tool — put into (kind!) words how playful adaptability acts as a force multiplier to the innovative process:
“Being around you is so very thought-evocative… Most of us worry about survival, not growth. So our responses tend to be defensive, fight or flight. There is a much smaller cohort of chameleons who worry about growth; poor wretches who react to stimuli in ways that make them vulnerable, they risk to grow. You are a fairly extreme example of the growth chromosome of our species. Too many of us make for dangerous mutations. Too few of us we become dinosaurs. You are the best I’ve worked with.”
On my penultimate day at the Labs, DB surprised me with an unexpected visit to my office. He said, “Zamchick, stand up.” I stood up, and he continued, “I ought to give you a bloody nose.” Puzzled, I inquired why. His response was both filled with annoyance and heartwarming, “Because all these people say they worked with you and did great things.” I asked, “Were they people you loved and admired?” He nodded, then turned and left with a simple “Good job Boss.”
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