Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

Do you believe that your intelligence and personality are changeable, or do you think they are set in stone?

Dr. Carol Dweck has spent much of her career researching the difference between two types of people; those with a growth mindset who believe that intelligence and personality can be changed and enhanced, and those with a fixed mindset, who believe that these qualities are firmly embedded and resistant to improvement.

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The research shows that in general, people who believe their intelligence can change do better academically than those who don’t. People who believe they can change their personality have a better chance of changing it than people who don’t. What’s more, a growth mindset itself can be taught and cultivated.

One of the strategies to help people develop a growth mindset is to teach them about neuroplasticity, which is the scientific term for the brain’s ability to create and strengthen new neural connections throughout life. By knowing that our brain cells are not fixed into unalterable patterns but change and adapt, allowing us to learn new things and change our reactions, people can understand that change is possible.

The entire endeavor of Pirkei Avot presupposes a growth mindset. We can increase our learning, change our character, manage our emotions, and improve our personalities, and the lessons in Pirkei Avot can help us along the path.

Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda, commenting on the Mishnah that states a person is considered wise if he learns from everyone (Avot 4:1), makes a poignant comment that emphasizes this essential concept. Rabbi de Uceda explains that being wise requires a humble mindset. We should never think that we are better than anyone else to the point that we can’t learn something from him or her. He connects this message to the fact that we rarely find the appellation “chacham” (wise person) in the Talmud. Rather, a person is referred to as being a “talmid chacham” (a wise student). In terms of definition, he suggests, a person cannot be called wise (chacham), unless he is also a student (talmid). Wisdom requires the mindset that we always need to learn and grow. There is never a fixed state of being wise or intelligent.

The topics that we have covered previously take for granted a growth mindset. According to Rambam, Hillel’s first clause in Avot 1:14, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” teaches the importance of responsibility for personal growth. This obligation presupposes that we have the capability to actively improve ourselves.

Hillel’s third clause, “If not now, when?” is also understood by Rambam to be related to a growth mindset, although he places a slight limitation and caveat. Rambam assumes that Hillel is continuing to relate to the imperative to improve our character, and Hillel concludes with “If not now, when?” to teach us that it is important to work on improving ourselves while we are young, because when we are older, “it is difficult to veer from [one’s] characteristics at that time because the acquisitions and the traits have hardened and settled – whether they are virtues or whether they are vices.” We should take charge to improve ourselves when we are young, because it is much harder when we are old.

Rambam points out a sobering but important fact. The older we grow, the harder it is to change. The literature on neuroplasticity also highlights this fact. When we are young, our brains are much more elastic and adaptable. Over time, the connections become more solidified and resistant to change. This allows us to be more efficient, but less flexible.

Yet, as neuroscientist David Eagleman points out in his book “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” that while plasticity decreases with age, it doesn’t disappear completely. Even the adult brain changes and rewires itself based on learning and experience. This is borne out in the Rambam’s language as well. He does not say that it is impossible to change when we get older, but that it is more difficult. Hillel is giving great advice not to procrastinate. As it is essential that we change ourselves for the better, don’t push the task to change off until we are older because then it will be much harder.

The lesson for all of us, regardless of our age, is that change is possible and that believing that change is possible is essential for our growth. The earlier we decide to change, the better, but it is never too late. We should never lose our sense of being a student, embodying a growth mindset, always wanting to learn and develop to the best of our abilities.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an assistant professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, the assistant rabbi at Kingsway Jewish Center, and a licensed psychologist practicing in Brooklyn. He can be reached at PsychedForTorah@gmail.com and on social media @psychedfortorah.