Break the Trap : Rethink, Expand, & Mirror
Let me ask you to guess something:
How many searches do you think are made on Google on a daily basis?
Who thinks 900 Million?
Who thinks 2 billion?
Who thinks more than 5 billion?
The number is about 5.5 billion searches per day.
Now let me share with you another amazing fact: On August 16, 2013, Google was not reachable for 5 minutes, in that time the global Internet usage decreased by 40% !
Apparently most people spend a big part of their internet time searching for stuff in Google.
I think it’s safe to say that Google can tell quite a bit about what we have on our minds.
So when thinking about our conversation today and trying to contextualize the idea I want to share, I was curious to see what the searching trends said about our story over the past 18 months.
The most searched word in 2016 was powerball, in 2017 Hurricane Irma, in 2018 World-cup, in 2019 Disney Plus (!) and in 2020 the first two were Election Results and CoronaVirus.
There are also trends around what people ask “how to” do. The most asked “how to” in 2016 was how to play Pokemon Go. In 2017, how to make slime. In 2018 how to vote, in 2019 in the US the top “how to” was actually in Spanish: “como aprender Ingles rapido” – how to learn English quickly; And in 2020, the “how to” segment of Google Trends grew dramatically and it was diversified: How to cut men’s hair at home? How to donate to Black Lives matter? How to help Australia fires? How to style curtain bangs? How to make hand sanitizer?
It is evident that over the last year and a half the number of concerns, essential and existential questions that we have dealt with is unprecedented. Therefore it is not surprising that there is a general sense of emotional exhaustion.
Some of the symptoms of emotional exhaustion are: anxiety, apathy, lack of motivation, feeling hopeless and feeling powerless or trapped.
The idea of feeling trapped keeps resonating in my mind.
This morning I want to share with you three ideas that I believe can completely change the way we look at our traps and can help us in our work to break through.
- What’s your mindset?
- What’s the game you are playing?
- What do you mirror?
Number 1: what’s your mindset?
The Rabbis in Pirkei Avot ask who is the wise “איזהו חכם?” and they answer “הלומד מכל אדם”: “The one who learns from every person”. “As it is written: מכל מלמדיי השכלתי – I have gained wisdom from all my teachers”
The wise person is the one who doesn’t stop at what he already knows. He understands that every single person, interaction and situation can be a learning experience.
The Mishnah continues and asks “איזהו גיבור?” “Who is the hero?” and it answers “הכובש את יצרו”, “the one who conquers his inclinations”.
So what are those inclinations that could threaten or strengthen wisdom?
Prof. Adam Grant from Wharton Business School speaks about four thinking styles:
The first is the Preacher. He believes he’s right and so he tries to convince everyone else.
The second is the Prosecutor. This is the one who believes he’s right and is trying to prove you wrong.
The third is the Politician. He’ll tell you what you want to hear in order to get your support.
These first three styles are mostly focused on sharing their convictions. There’s nothing wrong with them in small doses. Let’s say when one actually needs to preach on a Rosh Hashanah morning.
However we often spend too much time on these three mindsets, and they don’t leave us any room to examine our own thinking process and beliefs so we can learn from new information.
The fourth mindset is the Scientist. When you are in this mindset, you don’t begin with answers but rather with questions, you are eager to discover what you don’t know. The scientist practices rethinking, meaning he keeps asking questions throughout the process. Research shows that leaders who think like scientists tend to be more successful, because when they run into challenges they have greater ability to adjust and pivot.
Going back to “Pirkei Avot” the scientist is the one who conquers his inclination and breaks through the trap of confirmation bias by favoring humility over pride and curiosity over conviction.
Think about the “I have made up my mind” statement. Or situations where you just acted like that. We sometimes hold on to these ideas even when they become harmful, because we’ve made up our minds…
Rethinking means to consider using question marks where we have placed exclamation ones.
When we rethink. We can reaffirm, we can rectify, we can adapt, we can grow, we can gain perspective.
So the first idea is: adopt a scientist’s mindset. Practice rethinking.
Number 2: What’s the real game you are playing?
It is the Fall of 2004, barely a year and a half after my Aliyah to Israel. I am sitting at an office in Haifa University and the acclaimed professor is telling me: “NO!”
“You absolutely should not choose to study Jewish Philosophy. With your current Hebrew level you will be miserable. Go study History and you’ll be fine”. I was speechless. Jewish Philosophy was my passion. I left her office very discouraged, promising to think about it.
Fast forward a couple of months. I am a student of Jewish Philosophy, sitting in one of my first classes, “Introduction to Kabbalah ”. Some of the texts weren’t even in Hebrew, they were in Arameic!I
Nonetheless It was a mind blowing class, taught by an incredible professor, who was known for his very hard tests and strict approach. I found his lectures fascinating and did my best to participate.
When the time for the final exam came, it turned out that it consisted of 5 open-ended questions. I saw my peers quickly filling pages and pages…
I tried to pour in that paper everything that I knew, I wrote as fast and as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough to pass the test. I failed.
Thankfully Israeli universities let you take make-up exams. For the next two weeks I studied the material again and mainly practiced writing faster. While it was by a nose, the second time I managed to pass the test.
The following semester was my professor’s last before retirement. I was very hesitant about signing up for his next class. I felt quite embarrassed. However it was too good to be missed so I signed up and, hoping to go unnoticed, I hid somewhere in the back of the classroom.
At the beginning of the class, the professor acknowledged the presence of some colleagues who came to honor him, and then he looked around and said: ——
Do you want to know what he said? Bear with me and I promise to tell you in just a moment…
The Psalmist says מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ 118:5
Out of distress, out of a narrow place (Metzar), I called on Yah; Yah answered me with a wide open space.
This is a description of the experience of being emotionally compressed, or for the purpose of our conversation – trapped, and the relief of recovering our breath, of finding perspective and ultimately becoming aware of the wide space.
The experience of moving from narrowness to expansion is like the one of finding stability by being able to recognize how to approach the games we are playing.
Prof James Carse explains: “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite; the other infinite.” The finite game, like basketball or any other sport, is defined by known players, fixed rules, and agreed upon objective and timeline. There are winners and losers. In infinite games, like wisdom, or life itself, there are both known and unknown players, the rules are changeable and the objective is to keep the game running, to perpetuate the game.
In infinite games you are sometimes ahead and sometimes behind, but either way you keep working to strengthen your foundations.
Finite games serve a purpose and they can be enjoyable and meaningful! However our society has adopted a finite mindset and language for many things that actually belong to the realm of infinite games. We look at finite goals as if they were the ultimate purpose of our game.
That dissonance becomes, as we mentioned earlier in the words of the Psalmist, a narrow place, a source of emotional compression.
Simon Sinek says: “When we play with a finite mindset in the infinite game, there are a few very consistent and predictable things that happen. Over the course of time, you will see a decline in trust, cooperation, and innovation. Eventually, your organization will run out of the will or the resources to stay in the game.”
I wonder, what’s the meaning, in our own lives, of running out of the will and the resources to stay in the game? I worry for the many that feel that they are running out of will and resources…
I think about the symptoms of emotional exhaustion – feeling lack of motivation, feeling hopeless, feeling trapped.
Moving from a finite to an infinite mindset means approaching our lives as an unfolding journey, and our challenges as an opportunity for growth. It means shifting from proving ourselves to improving ourselves. It means prioritizing being and becoming. Remember, there are no winners of career, love, marriage, wisdom, education or health.
I promised you to get back to the story with my professor.
The professor looked around the room and said that he was also grateful to have some of his best students in the class. He called out the first name, second, third, and the fourth was mine. I couldn’t believe my ears. I approached him at the end of the class. I told him that I thought he was confused considering my score on the test. And he replied “I know your score. You did a good job. I’m really glad you’re here”.
I couldn’t see beyond the test.
My professor, however, saw in me a committed student of Jewish tradition. and said out loud that I was a great student of his. He named my infinite game when I didn’t even know I was playing! I was about to fall into a trap but his recognition helped me to make my breakthrough.
Since then, I have had moments of being ahead and being behind but until this very day I keep working on being a good student…
The second idea is: contextualize your challenges as growth chapters in an unfolding journey. Shift from proving to improving, prioritize being and becoming. Before you notice, you will be breaking from narrowness to expansion.
Number 3: What kind of player are you?
The Rabbis in the Talmud say that the meaning of the sentence “You shall walk after Adonai your God” (Deut. 13:5) is to walk after the attributes of God: As God visits the sick so should you visit the sick. God comforts mourners, therefore you too should comfort the mourners.
Following this idea of walking in God’s ways, Jewish Philosophers distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God. The image refers to Man’s inherent uniqueness and separateness from the rest of the creation. On the other hand, likeness is a more of a fluid concept because it implies the choice of walking in God’s ways.
This choice is the moral imperative for wishful thinking and for prayer; After all, we wouldn’t ask God for something that we are not able to conceive within ourselves.
During the High Holy Days we sing our hearts out: “אבינו מלכנו חננו ועננו כי אין בנו מעשים” – “Our Father, Our King show grace to us and answer us, for we have no deeds”. We will be asking for unconditional recognition and love, that’s the meaning of grace. It is the act of giving also when the receiver has no deeds.
Now, can we find that kind of unconditional giving within ourselves?
If you think that we can find that kind of unconditional giving within ourselves, raise your hand!
If you think that we can’t, now raise your hand too.
It turns out that we usually don’t mirror our high aspirations, like acting with grace, but rather we mirror the behavior of the people around us.
Prof. Adam Grant explains that the majority of people are what he calls Matchers.
Matchers are those who try to keep an even account between what they give and what they receive. The rest of the people, which make about 50%, are divided in two almost even categories: Givers and Takers.
Takers are self-serving, it’s all about what you can do for them.
The givers are the opposite, they are those who always ask “What can I do for you?”.
Grant looks at the business world and says that the impact of Givers on the success of companies is extremely positive.
However, since most people are matchers, the negative impact of takers on a given team overpasses the positive impact of the givers.
The matchers mirror the negative behavior of the takers and the givers get burned out. So Grant’s conclusion is that companies should weed out the takers…
But in life, on the road, at school, at the grocery store, we don’t have an HR department to weed out the takers! We don’t have control over it.
However, what we can control is what kind of players we want to be.
This time, breaking through means to defy our tendency to mirror the negativity we see and instead mirror our higher aspirations.
“Show us grace because we have no deeds” –
Giving without trying to match the merits of those around us; without preaching, without prosecuting, just with the purpose of defining ourselves by the quality of our actions.
The third idea is: Choose giving over taking. Break through by refraining from mirroring negative behavior, and by choosing to mirror your aspirations so they become the defining component of your life experience.
Yes here we are, welcoming 5782 in the midst of a pandemic that we thought would be over by now…
Yes, many of us are overwhelmed.
Yes, We have become too familiar with emotional exhaustion.
But NO, we don’t want to be defined by this experience! We don’t want our personal stories to be a reflection of Google searching trends.
We rather want our stories to be a reflection of what we are searching for within ourselves!
May we, like the scientist, be seekers of wisdom and may we ask more questions.
May we find the courage to break the trap of our confirmation bias and may we rethink.
May we look at our journeys as infinite games thus yearning for perspective and growth.
May we break the trap of trying to constantly prove ourselves and instead embrace the challenge of constantly improving ourselves.
May we become givers by rising up and breaking the trap of mirroring what’s negative in our world.
Breaking traps is not an easy job. But just in a few moments we will say in our prayers: Hayom Harat HaOlam, today the universe is pregnant with opportunity… I believe so. I hope you do too!
Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!