top of page

3 - The Mindsets

What we believe about ourselves can change who we are.


Hey, everybody, I'm Menachem Lehrfield. Welcome to Zero Percent, where we explore world-changing ideas introduced by Judaism. Ancient wisdom for modern living. In this week's episode, we're going to introduce the growth and the fixed mindset so that in future episodes, we can begin to understand how Judaism is constantly encouraging a growth mindset.
We used to believe that teachers were feeders of information. The role of a teacher was to feed information to children. I have information. You need it. Let's all come together to one convenient place and I will impart wisdom onto you. That was the belief. We now understand that teachers are not feeders of information. Teachers are cultivators of curiosity. The role of a teacher is not to give the children information. The kids have more information on their wrist than we could possibly ever have in our heads and that we could possibly ever give them. The child is not coming to school for me to give them information. They don't need me for that. All they have to do is ask Alexa and she has all the answers.
So what is the role of an educator? The role of an educator is to be a cultivator of curiosity. You see, my four-year-old loves learning. I'm told that when she turns 14, it might not be the same. Well, why not? Why don't our 14-year-old teenagers have the same love of learning as our four-year-olds? We come into this world naturally inquisitive. We come into this world with this limitless curiosity to want to know how everything works and to be fascinated by new information. I mean, you look at the way children learn. It's one of the most remarkable things in the entire world. There is perhaps nothing more inspiring than watching a child learn something new. And it's exciting and it's engaging and it's inspiring. And then something happens along the way.
We're finally understanding that education is not about bubbling in the right answer on a test. Judaism teaches that every child is an individual and every child needs to be taught in a way that is necessary for that child based on their learning style. Judaism teaches that the information is nowhere near as important as the process, the journey, the questioning. The question is always more important than the answer.
When I was in second grade, my teacher came up with a nickname for me, and she called me minimum Menachem. And that was a name that I think I earned and didn't just earn it in second grade, but that kind of stuck, at least in theory, all the way through my educational career. And the main reason why she gave me that name is that I made it my life's mission to put in the absolute least amount of effort possible. So I would size up a situation, figure out how can I put it in the least amount of effort possible and kind of coast my way through. If I was any more relaxed, I would slip into a coma.
I remember going through most of my high school career, which used to drive my teachers absolutely crazy, where I would look at a test and I'd scan it up and down. And if I knew all the answers, I would take it. And if I didn't, I would just hand it back and blink. Now at the time, I couldn't tell you why I was doing that. I couldn't look at you and say, "Well, if I take the test and I try my hardest and I get a B, then that shows that I'm not really so bright. But if I get a zero, that just shows I have an attitude problem, and everybody already knows I have an attitude problem. It doesn't do anything to tarnish that status. It doesn't do anything to tarnish the either self or outside imposed title of this thing that I have to live up to."
And that's how I went through most of my educational career. Then I graduated high school and went off to Yeshiva and there things were very, very different. So Yeshiva, for those who don't know, is essentially a school of Jewish studies, where it's more advanced Jewish studies. And it was a very foreign environment because there were no grades. There was no class rank. There was no one there really motivating me. And I began to sink. You see, I really got a good hold of the whole high school thing. I figured out how to go through most of my high school career getting A's without having to, like I said, put in much effort. And as long as you can do well on the test, that's all that matters.
Nobody, at least in the high school I went to, and I think it's pretty similar for most of the schools, nobody really cares if you know the information. Nobody really cares what you're actually learning. The only thing that really matters is do you bubble in the "correct" answer on the test. Here I am in Yeshiva and I'm looking around and there's guys all around me who are very motivated and they're studying late into the night. And we had no tests and no finals. Once a semester we had, which was terrifying, this oral exam, but there was no grade. It was kind of like this experience where you have to face your teacher, who's going to, the way they say it in Yeshiva, is talk to you in learning, which means essentially you're going to be grilled on the subject that we're learning, that we've been learning for the past six months. And either you know it well or you don't. And when you don't, you know you don't know it. And it's an extremely difficult and embarrassing experience.
But again, there's no grade. There's no you got this right, you got this wrong. We spent most of our time, for those who've ever studied Talmud, you know that Talmud is essentially the study not of the right answer but of multiple answers. In fact, we study more of the wrong answers than we do the right answers. And that's something that we're going to explore as we go through this. In Talmudic study, in traditional Jewish learning, it's not about the answer as much as it is about the questions. And as I went through this process of Jewish learning, I began to understand more and more that it wasn't about the end result. It was about the journey. It was about the process. It was about the experience of learning. And that was a completely different outlook, a completely different way of looking at all of this.
So fast-forward a couple of years, I'm in grad school. And again, just trying to wing my way through without putting in any more effort than I absolutely have to. And I'm introduced to, at the time, the groundbreaking work of Carol Dweck. And she is a professor of positive psychology at Stanford. Her research basically shows that people look at the world in one of two ways. Either I look at the world with a fixed mindset, which means that I believe that I and the world, everything is fixed. A fixed mindset believes that everything is exactly the way it is always going to be. I am fill in the blank. Either I'm smart or I'm not. Either I'm attractive or I'm not. Either I'm athletic or I'm not.
But the reality is, at least according to the fixed mindset, that whatever I am is fixed and it's never going to change. There's no point in trying. It doesn't even matter because ultimately it's fixed. It was all predetermined. It was all pre-decided. And I have X amount of everything. Then there's the growth mindset. The growth mindset believes that a person can constantly change. A person can constantly grow. The fixed mindset believes that intelligence and really everything is static. It's exactly the way it's always going to be. Somebody with a fixed mindset wants more than anything to look smart. I don't necessarily care about being smart. I just want to look smart.
Now, if my whole goal is looking smart, what happens when I get to a challenge? See, a challenge is something that's hard and success is not assured. When I am faced with a challenge, it's not guaranteed that I'm going to succeed. It's challenging. So when I see a challenge, I avoid it at all costs. Because taking the risk when I am challenged means to the fixed mindset, again, keep in mind if a fixed mindset means that I am fixed, I am the way that I am, when I approach a challenge and I fail, it means I'm a failure. If I approach the question and I get it wrong, it means I'm dumb. So that particular challenge will directly affect my self-image. It will directly affect everything that I know about myself. So somebody with a fixed mindset will avoid challenges at all costs.
Now, what happens when I can't control the situation around me? What happens when I come up with a challenge that I didn't choose, otherwise known as an obstacle. Here's an obstacle, something in front of me. It's something that I can't necessarily decide. When I am faced with an obstacle, I am going to give up easily. As Homer Simpson famously said, "If at first you don't succeed, burn all the evidence that you tried in the first place." That's the classic fixed mindset. If I don't know all the answers, I'm just going to hand it back and blink. When I am faced with an obstacle, somebody with a fixed mindset will say, "I'd rather do nothing than give the impression that I tried. Because if I tried and I still failed, that means I'm a failure." And so when they're faced with an obstacle, they give up very easily.
Someone with a fixed mindset believes if I was truly smart, I wouldn't have to try. If I was truly talented, I wouldn't have to try. If I was truly that good-looking and that charismatic and that fill in the blank, I wouldn't have to try. Effort is for people who don't really have it. Someone with a fixed mindset will never want to admit that to themselves or to anybody else. So they see effort as fruitless or worse. And I would say, even worse. Because someone with a fixed mindset, the fact that I had to try, in and of itself proves that I'm a failure.
And this I think is where we see whether or not we are fixed or growth mindset the most, criticism. How do we approach criticism? Somebody with a fixed mindset ignores useful negative feedback. And I would say, even further, gets very disoriented about it, gets very frustrated about feedback, about criticism. Think about it for a second. Companies spend billions of dollars hiring consultants to help them figure out what is wrong with their companies and how to fix it. If somebody was giving me feedback, criticism, and I know these are two very important caveats. If somebody is giving me criticism and they're doing it in a loving way at the proper time, which I acknowledge it's not always in a loving way at the right time, but if it was in a loving way at the right time, we should thank the person. Somebody is helping me become a better person. I should thank you. So why am I getting bent out of shape? I think that's one of the greatest signs that I am operating from a mindset that is fixed.
When you say that I'm doing something wrong, you're not helping me figure out what I can be doing better. But because everything is fixed, what you're doing is you are attacking my sense of self. You're attacking me personally. So you're not saying that this is the wrong way to do it. You're saying I'm stupid. You're not saying that looks good, but it could look better. You're saying I'm clumsy and not artistic. When we look at criticism, I think we can really determine am I operating out of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
What about the success of others? Someone with a fixed mindset believes that my success is entirely dependent on the people around me. Class rank. I am valuable in relation to all the people around me. As we go through this series and as we begin to explore the fixed and the growth mindset, you'll see that our society, our education system, is really built around creating and reinforcing the fixed mindset, which is a really big problem. And hopefully we'll, I don't know that we're going to change the educational system right here in this room, but hopefully at least we can discuss things that we could be doing to really change that course.
How do I see the success of others? My success has nothing to do with the people around me. When somebody with a fixed mindset sees somebody else who's successful, they put them down. And you hear people saying this all the time. They say, "Listen, I'm not saying I should've gotten the job, but that person, they really didn't deserve it. I'm not saying I should've gotten the raise, but come on. That person?" Why do we put the other person down? We put the other person down because we believe by putting other people down, by default, I'm higher than everyone else.
Now let's go to the growth mindset. The growth mindset believes that intelligence and, like I said, everything else really can be developed. Somebody with a growth mindset believes in brain elasticity. I believe the brain is a muscle. And just like when I go to the gym, in theory, I'm not saying I do this, just like when I go to the gym and I work out, I become stronger, my arms become stronger, my legs become stronger, my brain is a muscle that works the exact same way. And the more I exercise my brain, the more my brain can grow.
This leads to a desire to learn, again, not just to look smart, but to actually learn. And therefore a tendency to embrace challenges. Somebody with a growth mindset understands that by embracing challenges, that's how I improve. That's how I become better. At first, you embrace challenges because you know that you'll come out stronger on the other side. Even if I don't succeed in this challenge, I know that the very challenge will make me stronger. It'll make me better. It will make me smarter. Somebody with a fixed mindset doesn't just embrace the challenges. But when there are setbacks, when there are obstacles, they persist. They recognize that their self-image is not tied to your success right now.
To somebody with a growth mindset, it makes absolutely no difference what other people think of me. It doesn't matter. I don't need other people's approval in order to get self-approval myself. Someone with a growth mindset, when there's a setback, there's an obstacle, they're going to continue forward. They see effort not as something to be avoided and ignored. They see effort as the path to mastery. I cannot become good at something without putting in the effort. And if I didn't put in the effort, it wasn't worthwhile. There is nothing in life, according to someone with a growth mindset, there is literally nothing in life that can be accomplished that's meaningful without putting in the effort. And if I didn't put in the effort, it wasn't meaningful. In the growth mindset, we look at other people's success as something that's inspiring. I see someone else succeed and that inspires me to look within myself to figure out how I can grow and change and become better.
Now, what's amazing about these two mindsets is that they're really self-fulfilling prophecies. Somebody with a fixed mindset really sees things as fixed. And the truth is, in their world, they are fixed. And they look around and they say, "See, I told you. I'm never going to get smarter. I'm never going to get stronger. I'm never going to be able to do this. I can't do it."
A teacher used to say, and that drove us crazy at the time she used to say, "Don't tell me what you can do. Show me what you could do." For somebody with a fixed mindset, as long as you say you can't do it, you can't. That's just the reality. And therefore it reaffirms everything they always believed. "I always believed I couldn't do it. And you see, I can't do it. I always believed that guy is just naturally smart and he's going to succeed." And then you look around at the world and you see that's the way it is. Somebody with a growth mindset, as a result, they reach ever higher levels of achievement. They continue succeeding. They continue persisting despite the setbacks, despite the obstacles, and they look around and see it's true. It gives them a greater sense of free will. It gives them a greater sense that what they always believed is true. Join us next week as we explore how to encourage a growth mindset.

bottom of page