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13 - Tools on Loan

In this episode we discuss how everyone can change, and we are not defined by our natural gifts, but by the effort we put forth.


I'm Menachem Iehrfield, and this is Zero Percent, where we explore world changing ideas. The past couple of weeks, we've been exploring the acronym, be free. Looking at Carol Dweck's growth mindset research from a Jewish perspective, seeing how we learn so many of these ideas and concepts through classic Jewish sources and topics of Jewish thought. We talked about the idea of be curious, asking questions, focusing on questions, constantly being open to learning and to acknowledging what we don't know as a way of learning more. Not just looking smart, but trying to be smart. We talked about the idea of enjoying the journey, embracing life's challenges and understanding that life is a process and life is a journey. And if we fail to recognize and focus on that journey and we're so overly consumed with the end result, we miss out on life. Ultimately, the end result is outside of our hands, so the journey is all we have.
We learned and focused on the idea that failure is not a permanent condition. I may make a mistake, but that doesn't mean that I am a mistake. Failure is where we learn the most. We learn from our mistakes. We grow from our mistakes. Mistakes are human, and they're not meant to be covered over and avoided, but rather acknowledged and learned from. We talked about the idea of recognizing the uniqueness of each person, how every single person is unique. How every single person, every [inaudible], every internal reality is different just as every pun of every face is different. And how no two people have ever looked completely identical, just as no two people are the same inside. Every person is different. Every person is unique and we need to approach people and especially our children as the unique beings that they are and not just make the assumption that everyone is the same and everyone needs the same thing.
We explore the importance of effort and understanding that effort is a key to mastery and not a sign of weakness. What truly matters is not how far I've come, what matters is how far I've come from where I started. And because effort is so important, and because effort is what defines who I am as a person, when I focus on effort, it helps me grow and become better and improve in every area of my life. We explained that the Jewish heroes are not the overnight successes. They're not the people who are born with tremendous intellect or charisma or power or wealth, but rather the person who worked as hard as they possibly could, the person who worked to achieve their success. And that leads us to our topic for today. This week, we're exploring the idea that everyone can change.
Because effort is a key to mastery, the more effort I put in, the more I reach a level of mastery. And as a result of that, I am not defined by my natural gifts or the way I am right now. I am defined by the effort I put forth. I am the sum total of the choices I make based on the difficulty of those choices. There's a Calvin and Hobbes clip that Carol Dweck includes in her book Mindset, where Susie's studying and Calvin comes up to her and says, "What are you doing, homework?" And she said, "I wasn't sure I understood this chapter so I reviewed my notes from last chapter and now I'm reading this." So Calvin looks at her surprised and says, "You do all that work?" And she says, "Now I understand it." And as Calvin walks away, he mutters to himself, "Huh? I used to think you were smart."
Calvin's response is indicative of a culture where we are so convinced that people's value and worth is based on their natural abilities. And in his mind, if you were smart, you wouldn't need to try. You wouldn't need to study. And the very fact that you're doing so shows that you don't have the natural gifts to do it on your own. That is a classic fixed mindset way of looking at the world and it's antithetical to everything Judaism stands for. Judaism teaches that effort is always the key to mastery, that we can never accomplish anything without putting in the effort. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet says, so said God, a wise man should not praise himself with his wisdom. A strong man should not praise himself with his strength. A rich man should not praise himself with his wealth. Those are not the things that we are proud of.
Those are not things that define who we are. We are proud of what we do with our wealth, what we do with our wisdom, what we do with our influence, what we do with our strength. Like we talked about in the praise episode, if I rent tools from Home Depot and all I do is show them off and I don't do anything with the tools, when the rental period is up, I give the tools back and I have nothing to show for myself. But if instead I use those tools to build a house, when the rental period is up and I give the tools away, I have a house to show for myself. The almighty gave us so many skills and talents, but they're not meant for us to use as crutches. They're not meant for us to coast through life, getting by on them. They're meant for us to use those, to make ourselves and the world a better place, to apply effort and to change ourselves and the world through those skills and talents.
If we define ourselves by our natural gifts, if we define ourselves and others by the natural abilities that we have, instead of what we do with those abilities, then we are setting ourselves and our children up for a life of mediocrity. Why settle for mediocre when you can be great? A person's value is not based on the God-given gifts for which he or she has been endowed. Those are tools on loan like the tools I borrow from Home Depot. Only that which is built with those tools matters. That's why it's so detrimental to praise a person's abilities instead of their effort, because it reinforces to them erroneously that what matters is the abilities that they're given. So why put in the effort, why try? The Talmudic Ethics tells [foreign language] had five students and he would enumerate each one of their praises.
And the [foreign language], one of the commentators on the Talmud explains the reason why he enumerated their praise was because he knew that they naturally were not inclined to these things, but they worked on themselves and through their diligence and through their effort, they developed these character traits. He says, this needs to be the case because otherwise why would he have even considered those their accomplishments? If they didn't work for them, then those aren't their accomplishments. And besides why on earth would the Talmud tell us of these praises if there's nothing we can learn from it? If I wasn't born with the same level of intellect as these great rabbis, then this is completely irrelevant to me. If the Talmud is sharing it, it means that something that I can learn from. But I've always been a little bit conflicted about teaching this episode from the Mishnah in the context of the growth mindset research. On one hand, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was considered a great teacher because his students became so great.
And the Talmud is telling us how they became so great. They became great because their teacher had focused praise. He didn't just praise them generally. He praised them specifically for areas that they worked on, areas that they put in effort. He praised them specifically for the areas that they personally excelled at. He showed each of them where their particular strength lay, and that is so crucial and so important in building up students. But the following Mishnah seems very different. It explains that the same Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say, if all the sages of Israel were in one scale of a balance and [foreign language] was in the other, he would outweigh them all. However, [Abba Scholl] said in his name, if all the sages of Israel, including [foreign language] were in one scale and [foreign language] in the other, he would outweigh them all.
So here he singles out two students and essentially is praising them, not for their effort, but for their natural ability. Saying they were so much smarter, naturally more gifted. So is he an example of proper praise? Of praise that builds a growth mindset? Or the opposite? I came across an essay from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of lesson memory, where he explains that perhaps [foreign language] was responsible for the tragic aftermath of these two great sages. He had these five students, three of them remained great. And two of his two most promising students ended up going off the deep end. The Talmud relates that [foreign language] ended up getting excommunicated by his colleagues, because he failed to accept the majority view on a Jewish matter of law. So essentially he wasn't willing to accept the majority opinion because he had a fixed mindset. He believed that he was right and there nothing to learn from them.
And [foreign language], when the temple was destroyed and the sages had to flee for their lives, most of them went to Yanet to establish a Yeshiva, but he chose instead to basically retire. Instead of going to a place that had other Torah scholars, he went to this pleasant, quiet, place where he essentially stayed by himself. And eventually the Talmud tells us he forgot his learning and became a pale shadow of his former self. I don't have shoulders wide enough to say this, but Rabbi Sacks did. And he says that perhaps Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai inadvertently encouraged his two most talented students to develop a fixed mindset. So instead of engaging with colleagues and being open to intellectual growth, they instead chose mediocrity because of the way he praised his students. So he praises five students specifically for the things that they put effort in. But because he singled out these two students and instead praise their natural ability, it caused them to plateau and to settle for mediocrity.
What we see from this episode is that praise is crucial in building up students. But it's how we praise them that will determine whether or not they develop a growth mindset, whether or not they dedicate their lives to excelling more and more and getting greater and better through effort, or whether they accept who they are as they are and settle for a life of mediocrity. We know how crucial praise is. Rabbi Sacks points out in that same article that in the creation dialogue, it keeps on saying, God saw that it was good. What's he doing, is he patting himself on the back? Oh good. I did a good job today. No. When God is saying that he saw that it was good, it's teaching us the importance of praise. Teaching us the importance of focused praise. That God is telling us that he saw that it was good, and because he praised it, because he pointed out the goodness and the aspects that deserve to be praised, that is what caused more goodness to be.
And we too need to take that message to heart and to use focused praise to build other people up. But it only works when we praise their effort, not their natural gifts. Anything short tells them that they are defined by who they are, not by what they do. And if this is the way I am, that means I'm never going to change. And if I'm not going to change, there's no point in putting forth effort. But the reality is, effort is the key to mastery because we can always change. In last week's episode, we talked about the story of Lot and Abraham and how when God comes to destroy the city, Abraham, we said, becomes the defense attorney, the very first Jewish defense attorney and tries to plead on behalf of the people of Sodom, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And what's fascinating is the dialogue between him and God. Abraham, so to speak, approaches the bench. And he's about to give his opening arguments as to why God should listen to Abraham. And the verse reads that Abraham comes to God and he says, [foreign language] for I am dust and ash. Several years ago, I was sitting in synagogue on a Saturday morning and they were reading from the Torah, this Torah portion. And I noticed the English side of the page mistranslated the verse. The English translation of the verse says, although I am but dust and ash, listen to me anyway. The problem is, number one, it's not what the words say. There's no although, and there's no but. So pardon the expression, Mr. Translator, but leave your butt out of this.
Secondly, it doesn't make any sense. Here is Abraham's moment to explain to God why he should listen to him. This is not the time for humility. Can you imagine a lawyer approaching the bench and saying, listen, esteemed members of the jury, I'm a terrible lawyer. I failed my way through law school. It took me four times to pass the Bar. I'm a really lousy lawyer, but I'm such a nice guy. So listen to what I have to say. And even though I'm a terrible lawyer, I'm so nice. That doesn't make any sense. This is not the time for Abraham to come to God and say he's a nothing. He wants God to listen to him. This is the time for Abraham to turn to God and say, listen to me. You know why? Because I have dedicated my life to you and to sharing the message about you and everything you want me to give over to this world, I dedicated my life to that.
I dedicated my life to kindness and doing good for others. That's why you should listen to me. Not, I'm a nothing. And in my utmost humility, listen to me anyway. It's not the time or the place. My teacher Rav Moshe Shapiro explained this is not an expression of humility on Abraham's part. Exactly the opposite. This was Abraham explaining why God should listen to him. He said, [foreign language], I am dust and ash. No although, no but. What is dust? Soil is something that's life giving. And ash is the byproduct of something that once was. What Abraham was saying to the Almighty is, every single moment of my life I am constantly reassessing everything. Every single day, I take everything that I am, everything that was, and I ash it down into the bare elements and I start the process over again. I don't just live today as a continuation of yesterday. I'm not on autopilot. I am constantly reassessing everything.
And you know what? The ash, the byproduct of everything that was yesterday, is what fertilizes the growth of today. I turn the ash into soil. I am dust and ash. Every single day, I am reinventing myself. If something doesn't work, I don't just keep on doing the same thing. If it's not working, I change up my strategy. I don't go through life with all of the assumptions I made in the past and become a slave to those decisions and those assumptions. I don't assume that just because I thought this was correct yesterday, I still think it's right. I am constantly reassessing everything because every single day, every moment of my life is a moment, an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to change. Everyone can change always. And that is why we are never defined by our natural gifts and abilities. We're defined by how we choose to change ourselves.
The past few weeks, we've been talking about the different ways we see the growth mindset research through Jewish thought. I believe that these messages and lessons that help reinforce a growth mindset have been so crucial in the success that we've seen through the Jewish people. But even more important than the ideas that we share with our children and ourselves in the study hall, are the lessons that come to life in the way we live our lives, the organic way that we include growth mindset concepts in every aspect of life. Join us next week as we explore Jewish life cycle events and how they build the growth mindset.

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