Project Practitioners > Beginner's Mind vs. Know-It-All

Beginner's Mind vs. Know-It-All

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki


The beginner’s mind is a scary place. At this stage, people do not know much. The technical side of an industry, the process of an organization, or the knowledge of the profession are all unknowns. This emptiness requires filling.

Picture the beginner’s mind like an empty cup ready to be filled. The contents may be coffee, water, whiskey, and so on. Depending on the contents, the outcomes differ. Coffee caffeinates providing the energy to make it through the day, water hydrates, and whiskey starts as a good time and ends hazily.

The quantity of contents turns someone from a beginner’s mind to a know-it-all. A beginner starts to accumulate knowledge, techniques, and approaches. Their cup begins to overflow. Inputs become oversaturating and lessen over time. As Suzuki stated, the possibilities are fewer. You have entered a know-it-all mindset.

The beginner’s mind allows for new experiences to be taken in constantly. There is never enough knowledge to gain or master. The possibilities are endless because the loose ends have never been tied before. With experience, pathways are developed, and dots are connected. A beginner does not see this. He or she continues to be baffled by how much knowledge and resources are available. Again, the know-it-all mindset creeps in more and more.


Application of the Two Mindsets

This point is emphasized during a podcast with a mixed martial arts champion who coaches wrestling named Ben Askren. Askren has some wrestling schools that prepare students to compete at a professional level. For competitions, he distinguishes between the beginner’s mind and the know-it-all.

He requires the beginner’s mind for practices and any other out-of-competition activities. In the beginner’s mind, he thinks students learn techniques and strategies the best. They are receptive to his teachings and remain open-minded as to their effectiveness.

Askren stresses the importance of a know-it-all mindset for competition. Instead of relying on being told what to do at every step, he wants his students to react as if they know it all already. Not thinking about each step along the way creates a fluidity of movement. Confidence exudes in a know-it-all. This mindset during competition leads to better performance.

Now, let’s apply this to the project manager. In all likelihood, you have a boss or a senior manager. This individual is ranked higher because of experience, knowledge, achievement, and so on. He or she is a great person to enable your beginner’s mind. Learning from this person advances your skills and gives you the tools to be a better manager.

At some point, obtaining skills, knowledge, and experience is not enough. You must be able to apply this to a room full of beginners. Taking a beginner’s mind into a beginner room is a disaster.

Think of a kickoff meeting. You gather the team to discuss the upcoming project. Instead of giving information and receiving feedback, you ask the team what the project is about and how to go about performing. Your role in this meeting should be the know-it-all. You are giving your team the next steps to create a successful project outcome. A beginner’s mind is best suited for the initial discussions with senior leaders who think the project best suits the organization’s portfolio.

You take the information from senior leadership (beginner’s mind) and deliver the message to your team (know-it-all). In most cases, I rail against the idea of being the smartest person in the room. This approach embraces the beginner’s mind for always learning and never constraining yourself. However, as the leader of a team and manager of a project, you will need to convey a message and be the smartest person in the room for a moment.

If you do not embrace the know-it-all mindset, the message will be unclear and clunky. You will possess the information and know-how yet your performance suffers from not switching your mindset from beginner to know-it-all.



The beginner’s mind is for learning and creativity while the know-it-all mind is for performance. Balancing the two of them is an art form. Being objective about your role in a room is important.

In a kickoff meeting, you are the know-it-all. This mindset does not literally mean you have all of the information, but you do need to show confidence in the information you possess. Deliver the message clearly and concisely.

A room full of executives may lend itself better to your beginner’s mind. You become a sponge soaking up all of the information you can. It may not be project specific, but knowing how others lead teams and handle conflict can help you in the future. However, if someone asks you a question, you switch to the know-it-all mindset.

As time goes on, far too many people lose their beginner minds. Years of experience and being through similar projects warps a person into the know-it-all mindset for good. The situations are similar, so outcomes are known. This approach is dangerous and static. To maintain fluidity and agility, a beginner’s mind is required.

Again, a beginner’s mind allows for limitless potential while a know-it-all creates boundaries. Find the balance to reach those next level goals.

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