If we want to become self-aware, it may be tempting to attempt sincere introspection—i.e., thinking deeply about our thoughts, feelings, motives, and behaviors. The problem is that introspection doesn’t necessarily lead to self-awareness. In fact, researchers report that for some people, more time spent introspecting, actually leads to less self-awareness (Grant, Franklin, and Langford, 2002). Since we have certain blind spots and self-serving biases, it is hard for us to discover our inner selves by ourselves. Consequently, if we want real self-awareness, we need to turn to others.
The second half of the second chapter of Pirkei Avot is mostly comprised of sayings from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his five students. We are told that Rabbi Yochanan articulated the specific virtues of each student (Avot 2:8):
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern which loses not a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, happy is the woman that gave birth to him; Rabbi Yose, the priest, is a pious man; Rabbi Shimeon ben Netanel is one that fears sin, And Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach is like a spring that [ever] gathers force.
The Mishna is unique, as it doesn’t fit the general pattern of advice giving that is emblematic of the first four chapters of Avot. What is gained from this sidebar on what Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said about his students?
“The answer,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests, “is that the Mishnah is telling us how to raise disciples, how to be a coach, mentor and guide: by using focused praise. The Mishnah does not simply say that Yochanan ben Zakkai said good things about his students. It uses an unusual locution: ’He used to count [moneh] their praise’, meaning, his positive remarks were precise and accurately targeted. He told each of his disciples what their specific strength was.”
What allowed these students to develop into teachers and leaders was the fact that their mentor articulated their personal strengths to them. This is an essential tool that assists in the process of self-awareness. Teachers should follow the lead of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and students would do well to ask a wise and respected mentor to articulate their strengths.
In the next Mishna (Avot 2:9), Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai empowers his students by asking their opinion as to the right path to which a person should cleave. One answer proposed is Rabbi Yehoshua’s response of “a good friend.” Why is having a good friend the best ingredient to staying on the right path? Rabbi Shimon ben Zemach Duran (Magen Avot, d. 1444) writes that a good friend serves to offset the self-serving biases that we have as individuals, by providing us feedback when we are on the wrong path.
While opening ourselves up to feedback can be daunting, if done appropriately—with a trusted and loving friend, or a respected and sensitive teacher—an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses can provide invaluable insight and propel us to both accentuate our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.