I have a couple of really wise friends that I listen to and always learn something from our conversations. Today, we were talking about the power of teachability and it seemed to fit exactly with a lot of what has been going on in my life recently as well as struggles I have seen around me.
We all live in a culture where just about the worst thing you can admit is that you “don’t know.” Information is literally a major driver of our economy and we can research almost any topic with a web search. When you’re asked a question, either in school or especially later at work, “I don’t know,” becomes an unacceptable answer. We aren’t allowed to admit the limits of our knowledge.
The problem with this is that we are all full cups. We’re so full of certainty and what we “know” that we are no longer open to accept more. I know I’ve been guilty of this plenty of times in my life and also in my conversion studies. I often feel resistance to being told something I think I already know or having to study something that I’ve studied before. At work, I sometimes make assumptions based on what I think I know about a system or process, in too much of a rush to reach a solution or move on to the next task.
As I grew older, it became worse. I no longer looked for teachers at work or at home. I became more resistant to learning from others because I thought I had to appear an authority. Obviously, if I’m open to learning from my kids or junior coworkers or even my customers…then it must mean that I’m not really worthy of the position I’m in.
This resistance to learning…made me stagnate.
It’s basically like Hashem took a look at me and shrugged and said, “Well, if you KNOW, then I guess you don’t need to learn anything new or move up any levels. Ok, stay where you are.”
I thought I’d gotten a lot better at this and I probably have. I’ve opened up a lot more to learning and become a lot more teachable. I’ve actively studied subjects that I “thought” I knew and found new facets, new richness, new depth. I’ve learned so much from the younger engineer I’m mentoring that often I feel like I’ve learned more than I’ve taught. Still, I have a long way to go.
As my friends and I spoke, I realized that there are still places I’m resistant to change, resistant to learning new ways to handle situations. At work, I’ve been struggling with a customer who has had a high amount of employee turnover and quickly changing processes. Now, I wonder where I could be more teachable there, more able to move with their changing environment? At home, my children seem to be rapidly changing as they move into adolescence, yet I realize that I’ve been relying on the same parenting techniques that have worked before. Where could I be more open to learning new ways to parent them that work better with who they are now rather than keep trying to treat them like the children they were? In my conversion studies and process, where am I still resisting being led or learning at a new level? Where am I still stubbornly sticking with how I think things should be rather than accepting and working with how they are?
I thought I understood lifelong learning, particularly since I work in a field that is constantly changing and I’m always having to learn more to keep up, but I realize that I’d fallen into a very common trap of knowing too much and not being able to admit that even the things I think I knew, I may no longer know.
Widening this out from my own personal experience, I would say that teachability is one of the bigger predictors of who will be successful in Orthodox conversion. The converts that I have known that have successfully completed conversion, for the most part, have been those who were teachable, who were willing to admit what they didn’t know, and who were willing to do what they were told was necessary rather than insist on doing things their own way. When they were told they needed to move to within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue, they didn’t waste much time arguing about the expense or difficulty or unfairness or trying to find some way to not have to move…they instead focused their energy on finding the right community and working out the logistics. I’ve even known of converts that left their home country and had to learn an entirely new language besides just how to read Hebrew in order to convert.
In contrast, I know another conversion candidate who is stuck in the process. She has been in process several years and yet still will argue about whether or not she should drive to shul or carry outside an eruv on Shabbos. She can’t see how her own resistance is in the way of her desires. There are countless others like her that really do yearn to convert, but just can’t seem to get out of their own way to do it. Looking back, I can see places where we got in our own way during our process.
Learning how to be teachable, how to work through initial resistance to new information and change or being led…is such an important life skill, no matter what age you are or what your goals are.
Even if you aspire to join a “stiff necked people.”