When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Before judging whether or not you like what you see, first think about what you see. How do you see yourself? How do you identify yourself?
Often, when we look at great people, we wonder, “Were they always this way?” When I was younger, I became fascinated by a simple question: How does a normal, regular person start to journey from “average” towards the extraordinary? How do we begin dreaming bigger and striving for a greater purpose in life? One of the most fundamental components, as simple as it sounds, is a single word: identity.
In our previous column, we discussed the power of perception. We all wear conceptual glasses that provide the lenses and paradigms through which we understand and experience the world around us. This includes our perception of Hashem, Torah, and mitzvos. However, there is an even more fundamental subject of our lenses and paradigms: our self – namely, the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Our identity is the way we perceive, define, and experience our “self.” So again, when you look in the mirror, what do you see? Whom do you see? How do you think about yourself? Is the voice inside your head always giving you positive feedback and inspiring you to strive for your greatness? Or is there a negative voice that seems to always focus on what’s going wrong?
The most important characteristic of our identity is its growing and adaptive nature; it is not static or set. Many people struggle with the same problems and the same internal battles for most of their lives because they have created a static identity. They have come to believe that “this is simply who I am.” Yet, the moment we realize that our identity can be molded and developed, that we are never static, we can fuel our growth and begin the journey of self-transformation.
Discovering or Creating Your Identity?
Let’s assume we’re at the point that we want to create a more empowering identity and positive self-perception. How do we begin? The first step is realizing that we aren’t supposed to “create” our identity; we’re supposed to discover it. As the Gemara in Nidah 30b explains, we each have the ability to achieve our own unique greatness. When we were born into this world, we were given the ability, and responsibility, to discover our unique potential and purpose, and work throughout our lives to achieve our greatness. Rather than trying to artificially create ourselves, we need to spend time getting to know ourselves, our unique talents, what we are drawn to in life, and begin molding and developing ourselves into our true form. We need to resist the tendency and temptation to look around and try to achieve greatness by copying other people. Role models are important, but instead of trying to imitate them, we should be inspired by them to discover the unique greatness that we can find and develop in ourselves.
Michelangelo was once asked: “How is it that you create such wondrous sculptures and works of art? How can something so innovative and ingenious emanate from mere mortal hands?” Without skipping a beat, Michelangelo responded: “Before I even begin my work, the sculpture is already complete within the marble block. My job is simply to discover it, and then chisel away the superfluous material.”
What if we realized that, much like Michelangelo’s sculptures, we, too, are already perfectly formed beneath the surface? Our job in life isn’t to take a slab of stone and change it into something beautiful; our job is to discover who we truly are, who we already are, and to then “chisel away the superfluous material,” expressing our inner self. Growth isn’t about becoming great, it’s about becoming you; learning isn’t about discovery, it’s about self-discovery. You are a masterpiece covered with stone; your job in this world is to uncover and express yourself, your true self.
Moving Outside Ourselves
The first and most fundamental requirement for developing a strong identity is self-awareness. To become and achieve the extraordinary, we first need to understand who we are – our values, how we think, what drives us, how we work, etc. Each of us is unique; we see the world differently, think differently, learn differently, and grow differently. To optimally grow and learn, you first need to understand how you grow and learn best. This requires self-awareness – taking the time to get in touch with who you are and how you work.
The best way to begin developing your self-awareness is to look at yourself from an outside perspective; by moving outside of yourself, you can get a clearer sense of who you truly are. Sit down in a room by yourself and try to get outside of your internal perspective, outside of your own head; try to look at yourself objectively, from the outside. By default, we live inside ourselves: We think, feel, and experience all of life internally. However, many people are stuck in that perspective, trapped inside of themselves, unable to move outside and see how they’re really doing. Genuine growth begins with genuine self-awareness: the ability to clearly see who we are, to honestly evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, and assess our progress and shortcomings. It’s where we sit down, move outside of ourselves, and begin asking important questions, such as: Who have I become and what have I accomplished with my life? Where am I going in life? What drives me and why do I do what I do? What am I talented or skilled at? What value can I offer the people around me and what can I contribute to the world?
Once we can move outside ourselves and take an objective external view, we can analyze and redirect; we can see where we are and where we need to go in order to achieve our goals. Just as a GPS tells us where we are, where we need to go, and how to get there, self-awareness does the same. Once we become aware of who we are, where we need to go, and how we need to get there, we can move back inside of ourselves and begin the journey.
Being an eved Hashem needs to be our absolute core identity. We need to view ourselves as someone who devotes our entire lives towards Hashem, connecting to a higher purpose and truth. However, there are also subcategories of our identity, such as being a talmid chacham, a professional, or an entrepreneur. We also have many roles within our relationships, such as being a husband or wife, a sibling, a friend, and so on. As an essential component – or subcategory – of our identity, we need to have a growth-mindset, the unstoppable and unquenchable desire to grow, learn, and expand.
This is the fundamental difference between humans and animals. Animals are created finished and complete. Animals don’t develop their mind, will, or character; they are what they are. The moment a sheep is born, it begins to walk; when a horse leaves the womb, it begins to gallop. An animal begins life complete, and it never changes or evolves. Angels, as well, are created complete and perfect, with no room to grow or improve. Humans are unique; we grow, adapt, and evolve through a lifelong journey of growth and self-development. This is why Eisav was born hairy. As Chazal note, the word “Eisav” shares a root with the word asui, meaning “complete.” From the moment he was born, Eisav corrupted the ideal purpose of man, claiming to be perfect and fully formed. The true form of man is a grower, where we live with a growth-mindset and strive to become great.
There is a tendency and allure to saying, “I’m perfect the way I am. I don’t need to change.” Not only does this mindset inhibit growth, but it also contradicts our entire purpose in life. As human beings, our entire mission and purpose is to become perfect. The desire to act as though we are already perfect does have an element of truth to it though: at our very root, in the spiritual world, we are already perfect (Nidah 30b). However, as the Vilna Gaon explains, we were born into this world to achieve and actualize that perfection, to become and earn what we already are at root.
The Nature of a Growth-Mindset
The most important component of a growth-mindset is the belief that we can learn and accomplish anything. Nothing is impossible and nothing is unreachable. With the right mindset, effort, persistence, and the help of Hashem, we can do anything we set our minds to. The moment we adopt a growth mindset, an adaptability mentality, we can embrace any new challenge Hashem sends our way, because we now live with the realization that we can meet any obstacle and solve any problem.
Even once we’ve adopted a growth mindset, will there still be uncertainty, struggle, and failure along the way? Certainly! But with a growth and adaptability mindset, we can embrace the challenges and uncertainty of life, and ride the difficult waves that Hashem sends our way. That’s not to say this is easy. It’s not. Figuring it out can be grueling and tiresome. But that’s the greatness of being human: We are uniquely able to embrace struggle and push through, growing each step of the way.
When we fall in love with growth, when we learn to appreciate the journey of self-development, we not only find the energy and willpower to pursue our dreams and greatness, but we actually fall in love with the process itself. Of course, it takes time and it’s difficult. But when we realize that we can learn anything and become anything, we stop focusing on the reasons we should give up and we start striving after our greatness; we begin asking ourselves not whether something is possible, but whether it’s necessary.
I love teaching my clients how to develop a “not-yet” mindset. When one of my clients tells me that he has a limitation, I immediately qualify his statement with a “not-yet,” helping him see his limitation as a temporary challenge instead of a permanent problem. If he tells me his relationship isn’t working, I’ll quickly add, “It’s not working yet.” If he tells me that his company isn’t succeeding, I’ll add, “It’s not succeeding yet.” This completely transforms the way we view our problems and struggles. It turns everything into a momentary situation; so, instead of viewing our problems as fixed realities, it trains us to view them as fixable and solvable. The “not-yet” mindset is the foundation of our growth-mindset.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.