The Importance of Being Coachable

We all want to get better. We want to master our craft and to excel in what we do. However, I recently learned that this path to mastery, like many things, does not have a finish line. George Leonard, in his book Mastery, alludes to the tale of the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, to illustrate this notion. When Kano was on his deathbed, he brought his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried in his white belt. To Kano, lifelong learning and a beginner’s mindset was indispensable. Leonard concludes that there really is no point where the apprentice finally becomes the master. We are always the apprentice and we are always on the path of mastery. To maximize this progress, we need to commit to loving and desiring learning and improvement.

And this concept is very in line with the idea of the growth mindset, coined by psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset. She writes the following to describe this approach she prescribes:

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and exercise.

And this type of thinking has been proven in the brain:

When we adjust our mindsets to accept that we can improve ourselves through new habits and thought processes, we can embrace the role that coachability plays in our lives. Throughout our lives, our brains are able to respond and adapt to new stimuli to form new neural pathways. When you understand that you can grow beyond where you are at now, it makes sense that you would be willing to take new advice and expand your current scope of understanding. The growth mindset embraces this unlimited human potential; through deliberate efforts, you can literally change the way your brain functions. Being coachable is an integral step in unlocking this potential.

To get started, you have to develop this willingness to be open and flexible; to convince yourself that there is an unbelievable amount of learning and experience we have yet to encounter; that people have so many of their own unique pieces of wisdom that can be extremely useful in our own growth. I played basketball growing up and in middle school, I had this disgusting two-handed shot that was just the way I had grown to shoot. Coaches and friends tried to get me to change my approach, but the stubborn 6th grader I was thought I knew it all and that what I had always been doing was right. Plus, I felt like, by that time, it was already too late to make such a change. I ended up not making the team that year and eventually had the resolve to alter my shot and to work hard with a shooting coach to do so.

Looking back now, it seems so obvious that I was doing something so fundamentally wrong and that immature 6th grader should have known better. Why didn’t I just realize that these coaches had been exposed to the game of basketball for so much longer than me and probably knew what was best? Why didn’t I just make the switch because I was so young and had so much time to work on this new skill? And I think these are the questions we need to ask ourselves in our lives today. At the time, I thought that all of my experience had led me to know what’s best. While it sounds silly coming from a 6th grader, I think that without a conscious mindset towards being coachable, we can sink into this thinking at whatever stage in our lives we’re in.

What I’m saying is that I think pride can get in the way of our path to mastery. When you have the understanding that you have not seen it all, met every person, read every book, tried every ice cream flavor, etc it’s easier to see how important it is to be willing to adopt new ideas at any age. By essence of the tiny, tiny experience each of us has of the world relative to what is out there, it only makes sense to embrace the power of possibility. This idea that everything we’ve seen or experienced to date is just a fraction of what is out there is such a motivator to try new things and is a sign of hope for the future.

Intellectual curiosity is also an important step in becoming coachable. When we approach the world with a beginner’s mindset and ask questions about ourselves and the external world, everything becomes new. Curiosity is why some people see opportunities everywhere and are open to following and trying many paths. As we explore different approaches, we can develop clarity of what truly matters and stumble upon our passions.

“Lucky people just try stuff.” — Richard Wiseman, author of Luck Factor

I want to emphasize the mindset that being coachable does not mean trying to become the master. The better way to frame our quest for progress is to have the intention of leveling up. I like this mindset because it is applicable regardless of where you are in your journey. When our mindset is focused on how can I get to the next level rather than how can I get to the finish line or where I am supposed to be, we’re are able to fuel our ambition without delaying gratification. Moreover, this highlights the fact that we don’t want to abandon all of our growth to this point when we learn something new or hear a suggestion. Instead, we want to be open to these ideas and use them as a way to take ourselves to the next level, not start from scratch. This way, if you take a suggestion or listen to a new idea, you’re not telling yourself you are wrong or not at the point of mastery yet. You’re saying that you are trying to take that next step in the constant quest of growth, whether that’s to level 2 or 100.

The hard part about this is that it requires taking criticism, which means being vulnerable. It is much easier to do so when you are committed to this long-term journey toward growth. What you are doing now does not define you. It’s not who you are. Buddhist philosophy teaches this idea that nothing is inherently fixed about ourselves, not even our identity. We can do whatever we want to do and become whatever we want to be. Hence, it would be foolish to grasp tightly onto who we are right now. When someone criticizes the way you’re doing something, you don’t need to take it personally because that’s not you. Reframe it as a potential opportunity for growth and explore new ideas openly. Develop a willingness to think critically and be skeptical about your own beliefs and practices.

To summarize, there are really two extremes to our reactions to new ideas: being stubborn: holding on tightly to everything we have learned to this point or being fickle: dropping whatever we currently do to follow every new idea we hear. The reaction I prescribe lies somewhere in the middle: we want to always be open to new ideas; to accept that there is inevitably more out there than we could have experienced or learned up to this point and to have a healthy questioning for our current beliefs and practices; to listen to new ideas and potentially incorporate them in a constant effort to “level up.” This means that our mindset is not focused on finding the “correct” ideas so that we can abandon our learning to this point, but rather on discovering the new ideas that will work in conjunction to the progress you’ve already made. With this strategy, I think you will always be able to both appreciate where you are at on your journey and allow yourself to take advantage of the billions of opportunities for growth that the world has to offer.

If you would like to read more about the concept of mastery and the importance of a growth mindset, check out the following books: Mastery and Mindset.

If you would like to read some of my other articles that are relevant to this topic, feel free to check out any of the following on appreciating the process of life, taking action, stepping out of your comfort zone, and more.

If you’re interested in keeping up with everything I’m learning and thinking about + my recommendations for tools, books, articles, and videos related to personal development, feel free to check out my newsletter here.

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