By Brad Beckstrom
Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin) is a concept that’s frequently used in Japanese martial arts and Zen Buddhism. It refers to having an open mind, lack of any preconceptions about limitations, success or failure.
When you dive into something new, there’s a special kind of energy cultivated by beginner’s mind. The excitement of a child with fresh finger paints and a blank canvas for the first time.
Late last year I found myself in a creative slump. I needed something new to snap me out of it. I wanted to cultivate the excitement of beginner’s mind. I needed a major creative overhaul, another book or seminar would not cut it, plus I’d already done all that. Sabbatical? Nope, tried that. I needed something epic, uncomfortable, difficult. I needed to tell people about it, even write about it, share it with the world. I decided to embark on an epic quest.
To start, I needed to think back to the first time I experienced beginner’s mind. Maybe not all the way to childhood, but possibly something as a teenager. I remembered a gift my parents gave me when I was 15 years old. It was a 35mm SLR camera. After the first roll of film I was hooked. I had beginner’s mind. I needed to get that back. My creative quest would involve photography.
Times had really changed since the last time I’d used a camera creatively. Images have become the language of a generation. There are 15-year-olds with iPhones doing incredible work, with a million followers on Instagram. It was a totally different game. Fantastic images are being created and instantly shared using smartphones, apps, and social media. People were skydiving above the Taj Mahal with HDR cameras and GoPros strapped to their head and chest. Would some old dude wandering around cities with an SLR camera matter to anyone?
You know what’s great, I didn’t care, I had beginner’s mind again. This creative quest is not about getting likes or being a professional photographer, it was about a creative journey. In my beginner’s mind, the only person who has to like my photos is me. Charles Bukowski said it this way:
“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
And that’s an abbreviated quote! It goes on for a whole page, including things like freezing on a park bench, not eating for days, trashing relationships, spending time in jail. All things that he did. The most important part of the message for me, though was in the first sentence – to go all the way.
Define “go all the way”
The first question I had was, in a creative pursuit how do you define “going all the way”? How do you know when you’ve taken a journey from the beginner to the master? In that question, I discovered another great thing about beginner’s mind. I can define this however I want. So, if my creative quest was to master photography, I would start at the beginning and define what I was trying to do and what it would take to get there.
Since this beginner is able to define the journey to mastery however he wants, I laid it out this way: I would focus on street photography. Street photography is exploring the human condition through urban exploration. So, that’s what I would do. I want to find something unique and interesting in people and things we see every day but often fail to notice. More importantly, I really wanted to learn to see more. My quest would be to create 100,000 images and publish 10,000 of them from 1000 different places in 100 different cities. I’m giving myself 10 years to get this done and believe it will be 1 amazing journey. You can see my progress here.
In the true spirit of a beginner, I wanted to start publishing my work immediately, not wait until I had images suitable for a portfolio. When you know you’re going to publish your work, you naturally spend more time on it. It allows you to see progress over time and get valuable feedback. Instead of bombarding social media with my beginner’s work, I thought I would add a level of challenge and difficulty to my quest by publishing it on a site popular with some of the best photographers in the world, 500px.com. It’s been said you’re the average of the people you surround yourself with. So, in some odd virtual way, if I surround (not compare) my work with some of the best work out there it will inspire me to improve.
We live in a fantastic time for beginners. If you’re writing, creating photography, art, music, short films, it doesn’t matter, people all over the world are interested in seeing it. Just 20 years ago an artist may have only shared their work among a few friends. And this could go on for decades. Many never shared their work and they were discovered posthumously.
In my case, discovery is not really my concern. My hope is to cultivate beginner’s mind, break out of my creative slump, improve my work, and inspire a few others to do the same.