HAVE YOU EVER wondered what it would take to make important changes in your life—in your relationships, in your career, and in your health and well-being?
I recently bumped into a friend who I hadn’t seen for a while. I almost didn’t recognize him. He had lost close to 80 pounds! I knew he had been dieting, so I remarked, “You look great! How did you do it?” He then revealed his secret: he now walks every day, he keeps a very strict eye on what he eats, no longer indulging in junk food. It was that simple for him. He changed his everyday habits and voilà: 80 pounds vanished.
It got me thinking of the truth about life that the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this month represent. The transformative truth that change is always possible. That we have the power to change. As one midrash says, “The gates of t’shuvah are always open.” That is, the gates of turning and changing for the better are always available to us. And the changes that we make—however small—can bring about new possibilities and improved ways of living. Just as a relatively small change to my friend’s routine—walking every day and watching what he eats—transformed his weight and his health.
So how do we begin to make desirable changes in our lives? And how do we stick with it?
Here are two proven approaches supported by scientific research. The first approach begins with our attitude. So, let me ask you: Do you think you have a “fixed” or “growth” mindset regarding changes you want to make? Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck distinguishes between these two common attitudes.
According to Dr. Dweck, people with a “fixed mindset” believe that abilities or aptitudes are firmly established and can’t change much, regardless of how hard one tries. You either have it or you don’t. It’s fixed. It’s set.
Contrast that idea with the teaching of the great Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who wrote over 800 years ago: “Do not imagine that character is determined at birth. We have been given free will. Any person can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as King Jeroboam. We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly … We ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way.”
What Maimonides taught is what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” A growth mindset is an attitude which says that skills can always be developed. Intelligence can always grow. Abilities can be improved. We are malleable and changeable, just like the cells of our body, just like the “neuroplasticity” of our brain (its ability to change and adapt).
Dweck’s decades of research on mindsets is most revealing: a fixed mindset causes people to avoid challenges in life, for fear of failing and being considered “a failure”—fixed and permanent. In contrast, a growth mindset encourages people to embrace challenges. Because when someone with a growth mindset fails, they don’t see failure as a permanent condition or judgment of their character. With a growth mindset, when you fail, you learn and grow from it, you improve your abilities with effort, and then you’re able to do better the next time. Research shows that people with a growth mindset reach ever-higher levels of achievement and success in what they undertake.
In this New Year, I want to recommend to you the adoption of a growth mindset whenever possible. Whether it is personally or professionally, in your relationships or in your work. To embrace the attitude that you can always grow, learn from your experiences, develop and improve your abilities, and make changes in your life.
This attitude will certainly need to be accompanied by actions—by work and effort. Because it is through our efforts and hard work that we achieve mastery of anything. As the Jewish wisdom of “Pirkei Avot” says, “According to the labor is the reward.” Change is possible because of our attitude and the actions that we take to move in the direction of our most cherished goals.
I recently saw something at the bookstore that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It’s an entire section of the shelves devoted to habits. Over the past few years, neuroscientists and researchers have literally developed a “science of habits”—how to break habits and how to create new ones. (Please see the sidebar for two particularly good books on the subject.) However, we really need look no further than our Jewish tradition to discover the wisdom that we need to make changes in our lives.
Again, it was Maimonides who raised the issue of habits 800 years ago when he asked, “How do we fasten traits into our character?” His simple yet wise answer was: “By repeatedly doing them, returning to them until they become second nature.”
In just one sentence Maimonides articulated what now takes dozens if not hundreds of pages in the new science of habits literature. That is: If we want to make a change and create a new habit, we just need to keep doing a desirable action again and again until it becomes ingrained in us. For example, the first time we step on a treadmill to exercise it may be very difficult—both physically and mentally. But by the fortieth or fiftieth time of doing it, it’s not so hard anymore.
The same principle applies to just about any change that we want to make in our lives. Change comes about through practice. Habits are formed by repeated activity. So, I would encourage you in this New Year to spend some time thinking about what you’d like to personally change.
Do you want to enhance your relationships with family members and friends? Grow personally or professionally? Volunteer more and get more active in the community? Improve your health and well-being? Pursue an interest or hobby that’s meaningful to you? Explore your religion or spirituality?
With whatever positive changes you want to make, what actions—what one or two steps—can you take in the New Year to move in that direction? Can you commit to taking that step again and again until it is a firmly rooted habit?
Judaism and scientific research support the transformative idea that the gates of turning and changing for the better are forever open. Change is always possible. We can continually learn, grow, develop and create new habits that will advance us on the path of life and fulfillment.
Here’s to a happy and healthy New Year!
Rabbi Rick Schechter is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Glendale, CA. A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he has also studied the field of positive psychology extensively for more than 14 years and completed 200 hours of training and certification in Applied Positive Psychology. Armstrong Gorsky is a contributing writer and editor to Jlife magazine.