Do you believe that your intelligence and personality are changeable, or do you think they are stably set in stone?
Dr. Carol Dweck has spent much of her career researching the differences 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. The research shows that in general, people who believe their intelligence can change do better academically than those who do not. People who believe they can change their personality, have a better chance of changing it than people who do not. Moreover, the research shows that the growth mindset itself can be taught and cultivated, leading to better outcomes.
People can be helped to develop a growth mindset by teaching them about neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to create and strengthen new neural connections throughout life. By knowing that brain cells are not just fixed into unalterable patterns, but change and adapt, allowing people to learn new things and change reactions, people can understand that change is possible.
The entire enterprise of Pirkei Avot presupposes a growth mindset: we can increase our learning, change our character, manage our emotions, and improve our personalities.
Rabbi Shmuel de Uceda, poignantly emphasizes this essential concept. In his commentary to Avot 4:1—which states that a person is considered wise if he learns from everyone—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). Definitionally, 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 in previous posts have similarly taken 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.
Relatedly, Hillel’s third clause, “If not now, when?” is likewise understood by Rambam to be related to growth mindset, albeit with a slight limitation and caveat. Rambam assumes that Hillel continues to relate to the imperative to improve our character; 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 because the acquisitions and the traits have hardened and settled.” 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 pointed out by neuroscientist, David Eagleman, in his book “Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain,” though plasticity decreases with age, it doesn’t disappear completely. Even the adult brain changes and re-wires 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 rather that it is more difficult. Hillel gives great advice not to procrastinate. Since it is essential that we change our ourselves for the better, we should not push off the task to change until we are older. Because then it will be much harder—although not impossible—to do so.
The lesson for all of us—regardless of our age—is that (1) change is possible and (2) 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 students and should embody a growth mindset, always seeking out ways to learn and develop to the best of our abilities.