How to be a Good Beginner

Illustration by Jasper Kipp. Learn more about our illustrators.

How to be a Good Beginner

Frequently, our work has us digging into topics that we know little about. We think of our expertise as being in process design, which means we work with clients across a wide variety of topic areas and have the great pleasure of getting to learn about everything from how schools run to wealth building to climate change research. 

We have deep respect for and love working with people who are experts, either through lived experience or deep study and official credentials. These are folks who truly know the history, details, and context of specific topics and challenge/opportunity areas! Yet, getting up to speed in an area that’s new to us can feel intimidating at first. We’ve developed some approaches that we use to jump into a topic that can be helpful anytime you are working with people with deep content expertise. We also like to use these techniques for topics that we’re familiar with, helping us step back and frame our approach with fresh eyes. 

Airing our biases
When we’re jumping into a new topic, we spend time identifying what biases we’re bringing into the work. Typically, we do this in conversation with each other, but sometimes we need to make it more tangible—using our post-it skills to map what we think we know and what we know we don’t know. For example, when we work on projects on college campuses, we are careful to identify that we’ve both spent a lot of time affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis, which is a different place than other schools. Self-reflection about our own experiences and narrow views helps us to ask better questions of people who have both expertise and lived experience that is different from our own. 

Keeping a beginner’s mindset
As we go through the process of human-centered design, we are constantly reminded that we’ll never know as much as the people we’re working with, whether they are living the experience daily or have some particular expertise that gives them deep knowledge. Rather than trying (and failing) to catch up, we seek to use our new-ness as an asset. What can we notice or question or clarify that others overlook? So while we deep dive into a project, we strive to maintain our beginner’s mindset even as we become more fluent and aware. After a year of working on a topic, we will still raise new, and perhaps obvious, questions in order to uncover underlying assumptions, beliefs, or priorities. For example, while we’ve become more familiar with the flow and process of being a principal in the St. Louis Public Schools, there’s still so much we don’t know. Each new work session with a principal is an opportunity to learn from their deep knowledge and expertise. Having a beginner’s mindset allows us to fully hear someone else’s perspective without filling in assumptions about what they’ve experienced. Even if we think we know enough to take a guess, we’d rather ask the naive-sounding question so we can hear their actual true answer directly. With a beginner’s mindset, we’re also able to imagine a wide set of possibilities without feeling too tied to what’s expected, because we can imagine beyond the constraints that experts know all too well. 

Updating our lexicon 
It can be hard to deeply understand a specialized area just because of the language — whether it’s acronyms, jargon, or implied mental models. When we enter a new space, we take note of the special language and seek to clarify it for ourselves. That might look like pausing a conversation to ask the meaning of an acronym, or doing secondary research to become familiar with common jargon. As we learn, we update our communication to integrate this new language, both to support clarity and as a signal of respect as we engage in this area as beginners. We still need patience as we’re learning, but starting to use the right words shows we’re listening and encourages people to tell us more. 

Visualizing to loop back and validate 
Our partners are our greatest assets when we are entering into a new topic. One of our first tasks is learning from them, and we spend time listening, talking with the whole team, and designing activities to prompt for their storytelling and experiences. From this information, we create things that show what we’ve heard and use those to ask for their feedback, edits, and clarifications. This process of reflecting back what we’ve heard for their confirmation and editing makes the process of listening a loop, rather than a straight line — and helps us clarify if our emerging knowledge aligns with their reality. 

What do you do to jump into new topics and learn from different kinds of expertise? Leave a comment, or send us an email at

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