Growth-mindedness does have its risks

I’d like to share with you a response I received to my last column.
Dear Rabbi Robkin,
I read your article regarding Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s dichotomy of having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.” Your article describes the fixed mindset in man as one who “places artificial limits and avoids failure,” whereas the growth mindset generally “thinks big, exhibits more positive effort, and experiences less helplessness.”
You then described an experiment where Apple executive Scott Forstall nurtured a group of growth-minded individuals within a company think tank. These individuals were predisposed toward risk taking in order to fulfill Forstall’s charge to “do something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.” And it was these members who ultimately created the iPhone.
You then challenged us readers to adopt a growth mindset in preparation for the High Holidays so that we might break out of our adopted molds and grow to our potential.
I have several problems with this piece, but let’s start with the “experiment.” I am skeptical of the true risk taken by the company. Apple wasn’t the trillion-dollar behemoth that it later became, but it did have capital. This think tank may have been a risk, but I imagine the true risk was not for the company. The risk was taken on by the individuals within the think tank, some of whose ideas might not have panned out. Mr. Forstall does not let us know whose proposals were rejected, who left the company and who was fired.
Growth-minded individuals, who, as you say, are less risk-averse, sometimes succeed. We see this throughout history. There’s a reason that we discovered the western hemisphere, visited the moon and, yes, invented the iPhone.
And then there are the failures that are too many to name. They jumped off the Eiffel Tower with strap-on wings, explored the Antarctic, climbed Mount Everest and died. They lost their money in risky stock purchases. They put all of their funding into developing a car and lost it all. They flew to Hollywood to start a career in acting and ended up addicted or in debt. Society as a whole is not impacted by these failures. Collectively, we may even benefit from them, learning what not to do and moving on from there. But for the majority of the growth-minded, the results of risk taking are not as rosy as we’d like to make out.
Then there are the success stories, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Christopher Columbus, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Howard Hughes, Thomas Edison, Harvey Weinstein and, well, Donald Trump. These people are successes. There is no doubt about it. They are also highly controversial figures. There is a consequence to beating the odds. You develop an ego, take more risks and build up casualties. You may be fine, but you may leave a trail of misery in your wake.
I think there is something to be said for having checks to unbridled growth. There is a difference between fear of failure and avoidance of risk. The fixed mindset as laid out in your article may not build trillion-dollar companies, but it will have a better chance at maintaining that company. The fixed mindset may make a lousy firefighter or cop, but it will make a great breadwinner and family member. Growth with balance is the key. We have a word for unchecked growth in the medical world — it’s called cancer.
As always, it was a pleasure reading your article and your insights. I look forward to your next column.
Dr. Shimshon Kaplan
Cleveland, Ohio
I accept Dr. Kaplan’s assertion that unbridled and unchecked growth-mindedness has its drawbacks and risks, and I equally concur that fixed-mindedness is an underappreciated asset with considerable value to both the individual and society at large. I would only add that, even as the examples in my article are secular in nature (from both psychology and business), leaving room for Dr. Kaplan’s compelling counter-examples, the aggressive growth-mindedness I am endorsing is specifically the spiritual kind.
To this extent, consider this mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2:7) which discusses excess and, by extension, the topic of growth-mindedness.
“One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry… one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases manservants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace.”
The mishnah is juxtaposing the acquisition of physical goods and pleasures with the acquisition of their spiritual counterparts. And whereas exorbitant physical indulgences and their associated drives come with an exhaustive laundry list of detrimental personal costs, the same cannot be said of an ever-growing spiritual ambition and arsenal. Rather, “One who increases Torah, increases life.”
All that said, growth-mindedness in spirituality isn’t without its risks. To be open to growth is to be open to personal experimentation, and experimentation isn’t a one-way street. A common fear that I hear from outreach professionals like myself is that as quickly as a student can experiment themselves into Judaism and observance, they can experiment themselves out. And so we cling to the hope that our students will be growth-minded in their personal receptiveness to positive change, but fixed-minded enough to remain steadfast in their newfound commitments. A tall order indeed.
How beautiful, then, is the imagery of Torah as a tree of life. For a living tree grows and flourishes over time, while its roots, dug deep in the ground, serve as a resolute anchor, holding its fixed position in place and guarding it from the mighty winds that would uproot it. And so it is in Torah. We must always be growth-minded, adding new layers and fresh dimensions to our life’s spiritual edifice, and at the same time, we must be fixed-minded, establishing sacred anchors that keep our course straight and guard us from destroying all that we have built. Growth paired with stability. Two necessary components for the spiritual life.

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