Two Travelers on a Boat: A Parable on the Beginner's Mind

(Photo by  Imen Bouhajja )

(Photo by Imen Bouhajja)

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." — Shunryu Suzuki

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

A young girl and an old man were traveling on a boat to their faraway home. For days, the old man spoke, and the young girl listened. The old man told stories of himself and impressed upon her his expertise. The young girl, aware of how little she knew, said to the old man, "Sir, I know what I know is not enough, but is it possible we are going the wrong way?"

"I am not a fool, so there is no reason to doubt," said the old man. "We are close."

More days passed with no land in sight. Worn and hungry, the two travelers laid in the hull of the boat to conserve energy and avoid the sun. Not surprisingly, however, the old man never lacked in energy to teach.

When a big ship arrived and got near the side of the small boat, the old man jumped up and down—rocking the boat—desperate to leap onto the craft. The young girl held the sides of her vessel to keep it from capsizing.

"Pull me aboard at once," the old man demanded. "You need to take me to my homeland."

Amazed by the grace of the large vessel, the young girl asked the captain, "Oh, my captain, may I ask you, how too can I sail my little boat with such mastery as you do your much larger one?"

"It would take too long to tell you," the captain said. "It would be easier to bring you aboard so that I may tell you without haste." 

The captain brought the girl onto the ship.

"I will tell you how we survived out in the ocean," cried the old man. "My talent for overcoming obstacles."

The old man made another try for the vessel but lost his grip and fell backward into the boat.

"You have to take me with you!" the old man yelled.

The large ship bumped into the little boat as it sailed away, turning it over along with the old man.

"Where would you like to go?" the captain asked the young girl.

"Oh, my captain, I am sure wherever we go, there will be plenty to learn."

The old man watched as the ship, and the girl sailed away without him. Left only with his ego to keep him company.


The humility of the learner attracts help. The expert's arrogance makes for quick enemies. The price of keeping your ego alive may be your own death. Do you want to be superior to others or do you want to be alive? The beginner's mind makes all the difference.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):

  • The essential book on the Zen concept of the beginner's mind, read Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
  • The principles of Taoism is to know when to be big and when to be small. The principal book for Taoism is the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
  • The essential book on growth vs fixed thinking is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. It has been one of the most useful books I've ever read.
  • It's human to error, but it takes strength to admit it and grow from it. For this, read Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin by Kathryn Schulz.
  • The secret to billionaire Ray Dalio's success has not only been his ability to admit to his mistakes, but to surround himself with only those people who will tell him when he's wrong—not when he's right. The opposite of yes men. We all know our reasons for thinking we are right. Our blind spot is to see where we are wrong. That's where we need help. Check out Ray Dalio's Principles: Life and Work