I don’t know about you, but until recently, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Let’s admit it; considering our shortcomings and tallying up everything we have done wrong for the past 12 months is not exactly fun. I have a feeling I am not alone in this (and certainly many of the people you are trying to mekarev might share this outlook.)
We all know that teshuva literally means return – not penitence, not castigation, not paying for our sins (as in some other religions). Just returning to one’s right and natural place. It also presupposes that we all have such a place.
The Western culture in which we live doesn’t really tolerate mistakes. 25 years ago, Harvard professor Chris Agyris claimed in his now classic study that admitting mistakes is the biggest challenge for the smart people in our society. It’s the challenge that prevents them from learning. Add to that that the generation born since 1982 (the Millennials) are collectively plagued by high expectations and consequent feelings of never being good enough. Does this ring a bell?
The cultural myth of rugged individualism doesn’t help things either. Its cultural idols are those who have reached the pinnacle to become the richest, the brightest, and the best known.
But there can only be one person who is THE best. In school, there can be only one valedictorian; in a corporation, there is only one CEO. When looked at this way, life becomes a race to get further faster, with little consideration for the process and no room for mistakes.
This is where Jewish and Western values diverge. God doesn’t judge us based on where we have gotten, certainly not in relation to others, only by how far we have come from wherever it is that we started.
Judaism also believes that mistakes are unavoidable. The sooner we accept this uncomfortable fact, the sooner we can start reframing their purpose in our lives.
Early in my career, I learned one lesson that has made all the difference in my life. I learned that what happens is not as important as the meaning that I give to the events. By way of an example: remember back when you were dating and your date was half an hour late? How did you interpret it? Did you think: she lost interest or she’s probably stuck in traffic?
I am sure you can see how your interpretation influenced how you treated that person when she finally arrived. With the first interpretation, you might have been resentful or sad, while with the second interpretation, you were likely to respond with kindness and compassion; stark contrasts. And each approach led you down a very different road in this new relationship.
The power of applying meaning or assigning interpretations is particularly important when looking at ourselves and our ventures. In your kiruv program, you are forging a new path and breaking new ground in a foreign, sometimes unwelcoming, environment. You are pretty much on your own. It requires you to try things you might not be familiar with, to learn skills that may be entirely new to you, and to reach out to people outside of your social circle. You are constantly venturing outside of your comfort zone.
Well, the people you are trying to mekarev feel exactly the same way about Judaism. When you or they walk beyond the invisible boundary of comfort and into the unknown, anything can happen. Genius can happen. Innovation can happen. Connection can happen. And mistakes can happen. Actually, mistakes will happen. They are practically a guarantee and often beyond your control.
The Torah teaches us that a righteous man falls seven times, and the wicked stumbles in his wickedness (Mishle 24:16). Many people take this as a consolation – oh well, nobody is perfect. On the contrary, this is a methodology! The one and only way to become righteous, to grow, to develop is by making mistakes! After you have made a mistake, get up, learn your lesson, and move on. This is what Jewish repentance, teshuva, is all about. This is what Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are all about too.
As opposed to the “righteous,” the “wicked” never get anywhere. When they make a mistake and get stuck, they think they are a hopeless failure and give up on themselves.
The Tanya teaches that the only way for a person to move up a rung on the ladder of growth is to first fall off the rung he is currently on. When you walk up the stairs, you have to disconnect your foot from the step you are on to move to the next one. This is true in any kind of growth. Mistakes and failures are learning opportunities. They are painful, but crucial, and they are a sign that you are growing.
So you WILL make mistakes. The one thing that is entirely within your control is what meaning you assign to them when they do happen. The way I see it, interpreting mistakes boils down to two options:
- You can take them as evidence that you are not good enough at what you are doing.
- You can learn something new.
Think of the last time you tried something and it didn’t work. Perhaps you tried to get funding and got rejected. Or tried to create a new program and people didn’t show up. May be you wanted to learn a new marketing approach but it didn’t work.
What did you choose to tell yourself? Did you choose to bring up some limiting belief, that’s been living in your head for a while? (I am not good enough for this job. I am not “cool” enough for this crowd. I should never take on new projects – the risk isn’t worth it).
Or did you choose to learn? You could choose to recognize that there are many different factors that led to your current situation. Maybe there were too many applicants for the grant. Perhaps there is a different crowd of people that would love to hear what you have to say. And maybe you did make some mistakes, but now can harvest valuable learning from what happened.
Mistakes and failures sometimes go hand-in-hand, and sometimes they don’t. If you use your mistakes as evidence of your inability, then yes – they are failures. But if you use them as guides that nudge you ever closer to the right path, they are your most valuable lessons. When you learn from them, the mistake is a path to success.
Some of today’s most innovative companies are creating policies that actually encourage their employees to embrace risk-taking at the cost of mistakes. They realize that only if employees have the space to make mistakes, they are able to innovate. Fear is the greatest enemy of creativity. Some companies even implement what is known as the 7-3 rule. They expect employees to succeed in 70% of their decisions, and view the other 30% as the necessary byproduct of trying something new. These companies recognize that the 7-3 rule allows their employees to look for new and better solutions, which in turn improves the quality of their products and the efficiency of their processes.
But that probably got you wondering – why don’t they go for 10-0, a perfect score? Well, because perfection and creativity can never coexist. In fact, perfection is impossible and setting an unattainable standard will never get you anywhere.
A good way to appreciate the importance of mistakes and “failures” is to look back over your life and recognize how you have grown through them. You would not be the person you are today if not for those dark tunnels you have passed through only to triumph on the other side. And you will not become the person you want to become without more trial and error.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur elevate us to look at ourselves as destined for greatness. The Ari z”l taught that from the beginning of time until the end of all generations, no two identical souls have come into the world. God doesn’t work with cookie-cutters. You are an entirely unique creation, charged with a mission that only you can perform. The Yamim Noraim season is the time to check your progress towards that mission and to readjust your course if necessary. It is the time to reconnect to the vision of the person you can become. It’s the time to reclaim your belief that you can get there.
Is it at all possible that this is the message your mekuravim are yearning to hear?
If there is only one Rosh Hashana resolution you can make this year, let it be about accepting your own imperfection and celebrating mistakes as learning opportunities. In Judaism, that’s the one and only path to becoming your best self possible.