Why ‘Beginner’s Mind’ Is the Key to Professional Growth at Gemini
Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist word that means “beginner’s mind.”
Ironically, shoshin is frequently applied not to beginners, but to experts — because, as the theory goes, the more an individual becomes an expert in a subject, the more close-minded they might become to further learning and innovation.
To illustrate this point, Zen Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki wrote that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
The task in the tech world, then — when seeking a beginner’s mind — is for experienced workers to leave their preconceptions at the door, and to study each fresh issue with the openness and eagerness of a brand-new learner.
Enter Gemini, a licensed cryptocurrency exchange and custodian that allows customers to buy, sell and store digital assets such Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, Zcash and 50 cryptocurrencies — all in a regulated, secure and compliant manner.
“At Gemini, we embrace the concept of the beginner’s mind,” said Co-VP of Engineering Brian Kim Johnson. “New employees or tenured ones should be able to walk in the door and approach a problem from their own principles first — they don’t have to be the most experienced person in the room to find a unique solution.”
The effect of using this philosophical method is frequently profound. “From engineering to DEI and beyond, the people who use a beginner’s mind usually end up doing new things, taking on new responsibilities and expanding their roles,” Kim Johnson said. “It’s an integral part of the culture.”
To read more about Gemini’s unique and inclusive culture — and the effect of the beginner’s mind on a variety of people and teams — we sat down with Kim Johnson, Tech Marketing Project Manager and Womeni Co-Lead Natalie Repetto, and Lead Program Manager Dionne Gordon.
Nice to meet you, Natalie. When you started, you really didn’t know much about crypto or Gemini’s unique culture — what made you take the job?
Natalie Repetto: I only ever heard about Gemini because I fell down an internet rabbit hole about blockchain and Bitcoin. I’d heard about it for about a year and kept saying, “I’m not interested, I’m not interested.” But then I just got annoyed with not knowing, and started to research.
I think what really got me excited about working with Gemini — and what caused me to accept the job offer — was the interview process. Being a woman who’s worked in very male-dominated roles in finance and real estate, I made sure to look around me and see who Gemini was employing.
First, most of my interviewers were women. Second, just being in the office and seeing the diversity of the operations team, I knew it was a space where I was going to be given all the opportunities to build my career.
I think that’s one of the things that first drew me in. Not only was it a new and exciting industry, but there was also a built-in, diverse community with a lot of potential for growth. Three years later, I’m part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team that is trying to push the envelope even more, which is great.
Just being in the office and seeing the diversity of the operations team, I knew it was a space where I was going to be given all the opportunities to build my career.”
Following up on what Brian said about a beginner’s mind, what are some specific effects of that philosophy that you’ve personally seen at Gemini?
Repetto: I’ve been a Gemini for three years now, and one of the things I love most about our company culture is that it puts such an emphasis on learning. I’ve found that at other companies, while you may try to push yourself a little bit, there’s not a concerted effort from leadership to improve employees’ understanding of their vocation. But in a new industry — and with Gemini in particular — learning is a focal point. There’s always so much more to learn about crypto, right?
Part of the ethos at Gemini is that if you want that opportunity, if you want to be a sponge and learn — whether about really complicated defined topics, or the coding blockchain side of things — you can find that information and connect with your peers, and that’s one of the many elements that keeps employees retained for the long haul.
The learning aspect at Gemini is something I haven’t seen at other companies that I’ve worked at, and I think it’s most valuable for me.
Brian, you’ve been at Gemini for a while. Has the company been able to retain its unique beginner’s mind philosophy while it has grown?
Brian Kim Johnson: I think something that is indicative of a startup — but particularly true at Gemini — is that as our desire to expand outpaces the size of the organization, there’s always this opportunity for new employees to look around and say, “Okay, this is not being addressed. I would like to get into doing that. How do I get involved?”
That attitude — which Gemini has always had — is truly reflective of using a “beginner’s mind.”
Gemini started as a much smaller place where people could join and sort of prove themselves — grow and develop and expand their ownership and responsibilities — and I think this element has continued as the company has grown larger. It remains one of the best parts of working at Gemini.
Dionne, what’s an example of someone at the company who used this “beginner’s mind” philosophy to unlock a unique answer to a specific problem — and also grew with the company in the process?
Dionne Gordon: One of our employees — Margaret — set a great example. She saw a big gap in the organization: That we did not have training in learning and development, and she stepped forward to develop our culture accordingly.
While on site at Gemini, Margaret developed an entire program called the Learning and Development (L&D) program and now she’s running that and doing bias training with our entire organization. Between interviewing leaders at our organization and bringing their experiences to the rest of the population, she’s also training our leadership team using a curriculum that was developed in-house.
Typically, firms go to consultants to develop a program that they import in-house and have leaders go through that program. But in the case of Gemini, the program was built from scratch internally, thanks to one individual who recognized a need and said, “Hey, I’ve noticed a big deficiency here. We need to have continuous training in learning and development. Let’s build a program in-house at Gemini.”
That’s what happens when you approach a problem with a “beginner’s mind.” As a result, she charted her course and a new role was made for her.
The program was built from scratch internally, thanks to one individual who recognized a need.”
Can you speak to how this attitude influences the overall culture at Gemini?
Gordon: What I love about Gemini’s culture is our people’s appetite to challenge our leadership.
Sometimes this happens through the questions that come in from “ask me anything” sessions. We have an AMA as part of our company-wide scrum every two weeks. I love this spirit of challenging what’s not working at Gemini and people feeling confident to do so.
In addition, I love that we are making these challenges in a respectful manner and also making sure we’re holding the leaders in charge of strategy accountable for what we say we’re going to do. I think that’s certainly not something you get everywhere.
Another unique element about Gemini is the way feedback is given and received. What makes this process so unique?
Gordon: We use Lattice for our formal feedback process and it’s an open tool, so at any point during the year someone can pop in there and if you’ve worked with someone on a project or you’ve worked together with a colleague, they’ll share feedback directly — and you get to see that real time throughout the course of the year.
For some of my direct reports and people they’ve worked with, I get feedback popping up in my inbox all the time about how they performed on a project and so on. It’s a really cool tool to have.
Repetto: When managers go through leadership and management training, they talk to their teams and individual contributors about the feedback they received. I’ve had managers say, “This is what I’ve been learning in my leadership training, and this is the area that you guys have identified as spots where I need to improve, so in terms X, Y and Z, I’m going to do work towards fixing that. If you have any other ideas about how I can improve this, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”
This leadership and management training gives our individual contributors — who look up to our managers — the confidence that their voices and concerns are being heard.
This leadership and management training gives our individual contributors — who look up to our managers — the confidence that their voices and concerns are being heard.”
What about DEI initiatives? How do they relate to the beginner’s mind viewpoint at Gemini?
Gordon: A lot of companies talk a good game about employee resource groups and DEI. But where the rubber meets the road is when executives put budget towards these things to get them to flourish in the organization.
We currently have an executive team member sitting on our DEI committee, with executive sponsorship and budget for the year and the intention around developing those communities and having them distributed across the organization. This positively affects our Black community at Gemini, our Asian community at Gemini, our Latinx community at Gemini, our women, and so on.
How does this relate to using a beginner’s mind? Because I created a budget for these DEI initiatives. I saw the need, and stepped forward and I got that budget approved.