If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: your year in Israel is about growth. Every Rabbi and teacher, in every speech, has mentioned it. It was the beginning of your orientation, came up at every Mussar and Sicha, and has been the subject of countless conversations with friends and mentors. But often, it seems like that’s all they say: “This is a year for growth. You’ll grow, and develop, and become better…” But what does all that practically mean? What does growth actually look like?
The difficulty with recognizing personal growth is that it’s a gradual process. A helpful Mashal is physical growth. You’ve never woken up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and noticed that you’re suddenly two inches taller than you were last night. Your shirtsleeves have never suddenly ended up halfway up your forearms, rather than at your wrists where they belong. Growth is a very slow process, fractions of an inch by fractions of an inch, which add up over time. It’s the same with personal growth: Real growth is a very slow, step-by-step process. Now, don’t confuse inspiration with growth: Inspiring moments are clearly defined, and can often be pointed to as an important impetus towards growth. But the inspiring moment (Kumzitz/Shiur/Sicha/trip) itself is not the same as growth; it’s motivation to grow.
The best way to recognize personal growth is to compare yourself to how you were at an earlier point of life. With physical growth, you might bump your head on a ceiling that never presented an issue before, or notice that you can reach the highest shelves in the kitchen without stretching onto tiptoes. In personal growth, you can look back at high school and compare yourself to what you remember from then. Are you still hanging out with the same friends, or has your ‘type’ of crowd changed? What types of things got you excited then, and what gets you excited now? While you can’t notice the changes happening in the moment, you can look back and see the cumulative effect of those changes.
While you might not be able to recognize your own growth, it’s often more obvious to those around you. In physical growth, this is your grandmother’s friend pinching you on your cheek and exclaiming, “Last time I saw you, you were barely this tall!” In personal growth, a close friend, Rebbi, or teacher might be able to notice areas in which you’ve grown and developed since arriving in Yeshiva. Cultivating those close relationships and being open to hearing their observations can give you a helpful window into how you may have changed over the year.
Another sign of physical growth is when you notice that your old clothes aren’t fitting you anymore. Pants or skirts are too short, belt doesn’t reach all the way around – you’ve grown! The same idea is true in personal growth: old ideas or perspectives just don’t make sense anymore; they no longer fit you.
That can happen for a number of different reasons. You might simply have matured and are processing ideas in a deeper, more thoughtful way. You might have learned something about a topic that developed an opinion that heretofore had been uninformed or shallow. For example, a Shiur on Kibbud Av V’eim that discussed different perspectives on the ‘why’ of the Mitzva may have prompted you to rethink your relationship with your parents. It may have spurred you to appreciate the fact that parents basically put their lives on hold to focus all of their time and energy on raising their kids from helpless babies into self-sufficient adults, who then leave their homes behind to start their own independent lives away from the parents who invested so much in them. Or, you might have been exposed to something different than what you grew up with, forcing you to consider which is actually more ideal. For example, a Shabbaton in Bnei Brak or Tzfat might have shown you that not everyone goes the college-internship-first job route, and left you with questions as to what direction you want to take your life in. Regardless as to how or why it happened, recognizing that you’ve moved past old opinions or feelings is a sign of significant growth.
Personal growth, like physical growth, is gradual. While the above suggestions will help you recognize ways in which you’ve grown, an important piece of advice is to set aside time to “check in” with yourself. Instead of waiting for someone else to point your growth out to you, or notice it out of happenstance, create opportunities - blocks of time - to see how you’ve developed since the year started. Ask yourself some of the questions above. Think about the things you’ve learned and done so far and explore whether they’ve impacted your perspective on those topics. By consciously seeking out growth, you can build and capitalize on what you’ve started, as well as kickstart growth in other areas.
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