If you could be anyone in a world void of restrictions, who would you be? If you could do anything without limitations, what would you do? And what if everyone around you told you neither were possible?

My childhood was awesome, but for reasons I’ll never totally understand, it was far from easy or straightforward. Hospital visits weren’t a foreign experience for me, some of which lasted extensive periods. During one particularly intense episode, I had lost many of my functional abilities, including speech, hearing, and motor. While I received some of the greatest medical care in all of Canada, perhaps the world, my parents and I were introduced to a slew of medical professionals who, one after another, and likely with the greatest of intentions, came to speak to us about embracing and adapting to a “new” lifestyle and weren't shy about outlining all that they questioned I might be able, or unable, to do.

Fixed and Growth Mindsets

Psychologists, most notably Dr. Carol Dweck, speak of two opposing mindsets, which I believe are key to living life to its fullest: Fixed and Growth.

Fixed Mindset focuses on our lives in the present, accepting reality for what is – usually the result of someone or something beyond our control. As its name suggests, this mentality gives into the idea that our success is hereditarily fixed. We are who we are. Growth Mindset, in contrast, is future-driven and steeped in words like “yet,” “courage,” and “effort.” It cultivates curiosity and creativity because it doesn’t measure success solely on what we can observe right now or how others might measure that success. Those who embody a Growth Mindset take risks because they understand that falling is an integral part of learning—we can rise stronger than we may ever have been able to if we had not learned how to pick ourselves up again. Where Fixed Mindset propels us to seek the easier route and avoid challenging or uncomfortable experiences, Growth Mindset drives us to face our challenges head-on and, instead of feeling threatened by others’ successes, to learn from all those we encounter along the adventure we call life.

The Missing Conversation

What was missing from those hospital, and subsequent rehab, conversations all those years ago were words that cultivate a Growth Mindset and discussions about aspirations, possibilities, and solutions. At risk of being misunderstood, and as a current social worker and educator who meets and works with individuals and students of all backgrounds, facing a variety of challenges, I want to emphasize that we do need to appreciate our here-and-now and be mindful of our current realities and the hosts of emotions we experience therein.

What I’ve learned over the years, however, is that our realities do not define us – regardless of how difficult, abusive, or traumatic they may be, and regardless of how convincing. One of the greatest gifts my parents ever bestowed upon me was the mindset of never giving into my challenges or giving up on my potential, and how great I could be despite everything and everyone who seemed to suggest otherwise. The choice was solely up to me – to see obstacles or to see opportunities.

Clarity and Uncertainty

There’s a famous debate in our Oral Tradition that discusses the onset of Creation.1 The first opinion maintains that G‑d birthed reality into existence in the month of Tishrei (during which we celebrate the bulk of the Jewish festivals); the second affirms that G‑d initiated Creation in the month of Nissan (during which we celebrate the festival of Passover). The festivals of Tishrei celebrate the solar calendar and the sun’s consistent and recurring cycles. It’s always easier to experience clarity, connectivity, and inspiration in life when the sun is shining brightly outside, and if we look at the progression of these festivals – from the introspective days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the joyous days of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret – it’s hard not to feel immensely inspired and energized.

On the other hand, the month of Nissan is rooted in the lunar calendar and based on the moon’s inconsistent waxing and waning. Without a doubt, our Exodus from Egypt was nothing short of miraculous and inspiring, but in many ways, those elated feelings were short-lived. Our Sages explain that although G‑d had liberated us from the geographical confines of slavery, we hadn’t yet managed to shake off the mental shackles of oppression. We were embarking on a journey into a barren desert towards our Promised Land, which was sure to be fraught with challenges. The correct path wouldn’t always be as clear. Indeed, G‑d would be guiding us, but would we always sense His presence?

Growth Across the Lifespan

One way to reconcile these two positions is to think of them in terms of our growth across the lifespan. In a very real way, we can compare the experiences of our Exodus from Egypt to a birthing process, and our years of wandering the desert to our maturity through the ups and downs of adolescence as we learn to navigate those years of development and identity formation. Over time, we decide who we want to be, bring new generations into this world, and do what we can to ultimately reach our Promised Land.

Our Mystics teach that these seemingly different viewpoints are truthfully a singular process. While G‑d may have brought the finite universe into existence during the month of Tishrei, in Nissan He began dreaming of that reality and planning how to transform it from abstraction into actuality. Birth doesn’t guarantee that life will be easy or successful, but it’s a blank canvas and open invitation to begin painting our masterpiece as we discover more about ourselves and our abilities as we develop.2

The Continued Journey of Life

When appropriately applied, a growth mindset doesn’t deny who we are and the realities in which we live, but instead of submitting ourselves to them, it empowers us to find the good points and tiny moments of success embedded within the beautiful chaos we call life. While the clarity of the month of Tishrei may be waiting for us at a later time, the birthing process that the month of Nissan brings is the determination to take the first step in that journey. When we tap into the depths of the Growth Mindset, we empower ourselves to embrace whatever life throws our way because we appreciate the journey and the thrill of overcoming our perceived obstacles more than reaching our perceived destination. In life, greatness isn’t based solely on the finished product.

We are the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we give in to our “diagnosis” (which, by definition, is ironically someone else’s judgement about us and our condition), or give in to the story others author for us (based on who they think we need to become or what we can or cannot achieve within that narrative), we end up giving up on ourselves and all that G‑d blessed us to be able to conquer today, in a week, next year, and many years into the future.

When my parents empowered me to look for opportunities instead of obstacles, I was able to grow beyond my diagnosis and creatively see potential even when it wasn’t evident on the surface. And in so doing, I was able to succeed far beyond the expectations of my medical team. Growth Mindset teaches us that we can have a brighter future, we can get over the hurdles, and tomorrow can be brighter than today’s apparent darkness – and that, surprisingly simply, all this power lies solely in our minds.

The Only Way Forward Is Forward

True, the journey ahead may be stressful, or confusing, or difficult – and, at least personally (and for my family), it was far from easy. We'll probably slip more than once – which I did many times. We'll likely want to give up a time or two along the way. But that doesn’t mean that our story needs to end just because the going gets tough. Of course, we must never deny our current reality and the multitude of difficult moments we might (and do) face, but with Growth Mindset, we’re able to cultivate a vision that stretches far beyond the confines of our present reality.

Indeed, I’ve encountered various individuals throughout my life who’ve told me that I’m too unrealistic or impractical. Growth Mindset is an art, and sometimes we need to break the rules of expectations if we’re to create a masterpiece according to our own narratives and abilities. More often than not, those who transformed the world had the courage to break the mould and stand on one edge of the river while everyone else stood on the other.

Celebrating Questions

Passover is far from a celebration of what we know, because knowledge can only reach so far. We retell the narrative of our miraculous Exodus from Egypt year after year, despite how many times we’ve already read it and regardless of how many of its lessons and insights we’ve previously studied. Instead, we celebrate an endless flow of questions and curious activities. It’s those years of development in which we’re courageous enough to rebel against the life others lay out for us and make the decision to be great against all odds.

Our long walk to freedom begins now, despite not knowing which exact path to take and how our greatness will ultimately materialize. We’ll each cross that finish line at our own pace and against our own clock. G‑d didn’t redeem us from Egypt so that we might settle for the baseline normative now. Dare to dream, and you may surprise yourself at what you can achieve in that process!