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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
“Don’t Be an Expert”: An excerpt from SEVEN PRACTICES OF A MINDFUL LEADER by Marc Lesser

Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader evolved out of Marc Lesser’s work helping to create Search Inside Yourself, a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program at Google. In this transformative book, he distills a lifetime of contemplative practice and business experience into seven simple, powerful practices for optimizing mindful leadership at work, as well as living a full and meaningful life:

  • Love the work
  • Do the work
  • Don’t be an expert
  • Connect to your pain
  • Connect to the pain of others
  • Depend on others
  • Keep making it simpler

We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.

# # #

The word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati. It literally means “to remember” — to remember that you are here, awake, alive, free. To remember where you came from, where you are going, and where you are right now. To remember the pain and possibility of being human. To remember to shift from autopilot to being aware. To remember to bring attention to the minute details and the immeasurable immensity of being alive. To remember to see, hear, feel, taste, and touch as though for the first time and as though your time on earth were limited, which it is. To remember to appreciate your body, mind, and heart. To remember to notice where you are holding back and to imagine what your life would be like if you were not holding back at all. To remember the amazing, mysterious, paradoxical nature of your life, that you were born and that you will die.

What gets in the way of remembering? Fears, habits, distractions, lust, aversion, restlessness, and more. These are all challenges for anyone, including leaders. One particular hindrance to remembering that stands out in the realm of mindful leadership is thinking we’re right. Thinking there is a correct answer and we know it.

Whenever I teach mindfulness and meditation in the corporate world — to health care professionals, to social entrepreneurs, to engineers, managers, and executives at Google, Disney, or SAP — I’m struck by how quickly and strongly the desire arises to compete, to excel, to be the best meditator. During our initial meditation together, I often see people’s effort — extra, unnecessary effort — expressed via a tightening and tensing of shoulders, jaws, and facial muscles. 

Afterward, as participants ask questions about the practice of meditation, two underlying concerns quickly surface:

  1. Am I doing it wrong?
  2. Are others doing it better?

When I answer these concerns by suggesting that an important element of mindfulness meditation practice is dropping our usual judgments about right and wrong, I often see somewhat curious looks as well as a sense of relief on people’s faces. There is no doing meditation wrong or doing it right. I generally propose that people give up trying to be the best meditators. When it comes to the practices of mindfulness and meditation, a central instruction is: Don’t be an expert. 

Nervous Apes Love Being Experts 

It’s safer and easier to be an expert. The default mode of the nervous ape is to scan for threats, externally and internally. 

The questioning, critical mind of the nervous ape often asks:

  • How am I doing?
  • Am I right or wrong?
  • Am I doing well or badly?
  • Am I protected or vulnerable?

To not know when others know, to lack information, and to be seen as unsure is to be vulnerable. It risks someone smarter and more skilled coming along and taking what we want. It risks not recognizing a threat when one appears. As nervous apes, we seek to learn as quickly as possible, and we feel better when we’re certain. Once we “know,” we can relax a bit, since the world becomes more predictable. We don’t have to work as hard to understand, and threats and opportunities are easier to spot. 

The last thing a nervous ape wants is to go back to being a “beginner.” It works hard to become an “expert,” and that status further enhances and enables its continued success. This isn’t just an issue of status, however, and of our reluctance to let go of it. The difficulty also has to do with our sense of survival and habituated modes of thinking. This affects everyone, whether we consider ourselves experts or not.

This practice isn’t about renouncing one’s experience and skills. Rather, it defines what I feel is a productive way to approach nearly any situation: that is, with an open mind, one free of preconceived notions, much like a student or beginner. The attitude of the expert is “I know.” The attitude of the beginner is “I am curious and want to learn.”

This can be a difficult attitude for the nervous ape to adopt, which is why we often struggle with it. And yet, doing so is useful and effective. Our relationship with our self is the basis for all our other relationships, and the practice of beginner’s mind is foundational for learning and for personal growth and development. The practice of beginner’s mind is cultivating a relationship of inquiry and openness with ourselves.

This is what mindfulness teaches: how to respond and engage with openness and curiosity, how to observe while suspending judgment. When we practice mindfulness, we neither agree with a thought or belief nor disagree and react with skepticism. We adopt an attitude of inquiry that neither confirms nor rejects what we find. Either response — whether confirming what already aligns with our beliefs or pushing away what doesn’t align — is often the reflexive mental habit of the nervous ape. It’s generally a form of autopilot. It’s what develops once we believe in our own proficiency and expertise.

All seven practices are about noticing and transforming our habit mind, our autopilot, our asleep mind — the mind that narrows awareness and attention. Beginner’s mind doesn’t require adding anything; rather, it undoes assumptions and habits. In fact, each activity is new and fresh; each moment is alive. We don’t create this; we can only notice it. The term beginner’s mind simply describes our ability to experience what actually is.

# # #

Marc Lesser is the author of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader, Less, Z.B.A. – Zen of Business Administration, and Know Yourself, Forget Yourself. He is a CEO, Zen teacher, and international speaker. He has led mindfulness and emotional intelligence programs at many of the world’s leading businesses and organizations, including Google, Genentech, and Kaiser. He is currently CEO of ZBA Associates, a company providing mindfulness-based leadership trainings and creating community by supporting ongoing groups. Find out more about his work at

Excerpted from the book Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. Copyright © 2019 by Marc Lesser






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