The Value of Beginner’s Mind

At Class Day on May 17, I spoke about “Beginner’s Mind,” the idea that one can approach new people, interactions and ideas with an attitude of openness and eagerness and a lack of preconceptions. What follows is an abridged version of my speech.

To our recent graduates, who are now receiving Columbia College Today, congratulations again and welcome to the community of more than 50,000 Columbia College alumni. May all of your experiences be enhanced by the “Beginner’s Mind” that you cultivated at the College.

Dean Valentini

Eileen Barroso

The first time we were all together — the only previous time we were all together — was August 27, 2012, on this very spot, for Convocation. Perhaps the only thing I said that day that you remember is that Columbia Blue is Pantone 292. If you don’t remember anything else I said, that’s OK, because more or less I am going to say the same thing again today.

That Convocation day I was wearing the same academic regalia I am wearing today, but you were not. On that day you were Columbia College beginners, you recognized yourselves as beginners, and to advise you, as beginners, about how to be Columbia College students, I noted the Buddhist maxim, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” I was encouraging you to see that everything you would experience during your time at Columbia College would be of value, rather than just seeing the conclusion — your graduation — as the source of your satisfaction.

You have achieved that outcome, as your academic regalia signifies; you are now Columbia College graduates. You have gained much value from each of your experiences here. But now, as you commence your life after graduation, you are still beginners.

As such, the best advice I can give you as you leave Columbia College is the same as I gave when you had just arrived, to always keep in mind that “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.”

What evidence can I offer to justify saying that yet again? Well, I offer [Class Day keynote speaker] Dean Baquet.

After his sophomore year in Columbia College, Dean got a summer internship at the New Orleans daily newspaper, the States-Item. He liked the job so much that he eventually dropped out of Columbia to work there full-time. Dean is quoted as saying, “Journalism was just an accident. It just happened and I fell in love with it.”

In its coverage about Dean’s selection [as Class Day speaker], Spectator commented on that remark, noting that Dean said it, “as the rest of us [current students] micro-manage our schedules and frantically search for the ‘perfect’ major. If only we could be as lucky.”

But is Dean Baquet only lucky?

No. When Dean decided to leave Columbia College to pursue a full-time job in journalism, he had something other than luck going for him, and he probably still does. He had Beginner’s Mind.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki defines Beginner’s Mind by saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Beginner’s Mind warns us that the “expertness” that derives from our own experiences and those of others can limit our perceptions, our judgments, our understandings and our imaginations. Beginner’s Mind is what allows someone like Dean Baquet to see an opportunity in doing something that others might say one should not do: drop out of an elite college to take a low-paying job as a reporter at a not-so-big city newspaper.

The first lecture in all my chemistry classes describes Beginner’s Mind as the most important thinking in science; it is what drives scientific curiosity. And it is really the essence of the Core Curriculum — learning to question and analyze what we know and how we know it, what we believe and why we believe it, to imagine new knowledge and to entertain new ideas. Beginner’s Mind is the way to happiness, because it focuses our attention on the happiness of the way — not the happiness of the outcome. It certainly has for me.

When I was growing up in a little southeastern Ohio town, if someone had said to me “One day, you’ll be dean of an Ivy League school,” I would have asked, “What’s a dean? What’s an Ivy League school?” Even after five years of actually being Dean of the College, I still ask that question every day, but now consciously with Beginner’s Mind; that is, with a conscious effort to imagine the possibilities of what one particular Ivy League school — Columbia College — can be, what it can do, how it can be better, thinking of every possibility we may not have considered before, and most importantly, asking others about the possibilities that they see.

You can do the same, no matter what you are embarking on, particularly if what you are embarking on doesn’t seem to be quite the “perfect career,” the “perfect graduate school,” the “perfect job.” Look for the possibilities in whatever you are doing. Everything you do is part of the happiness of the way. I hope you will take this with you in the future — that you will have a life filled with new explorations enhanced by your Beginner’s Mind.

Tomorrow, at Commencement, you will relinquish your title of “current student” and take on the title of “former student,” as members of the Columbia College Alumni Association, which we hope will become an essential part of your life. Through the alumni association, we hope you will continue to profit from and contribute to the Columbia College experience, to contribute to the lives of other Columbians — your own classmates, other alumni whose paths you have followed, the students who will follow you in your footsteps.

Yes, your Columbia College road goes on forever, and every stop along the route will be influenced by your experience here. And every sign along the way will be painted in Pantone 292.

Dean James J. Valentini
James J. Valentini