According to Jewish law, at the age of thirteen a boy becomes a man and is accountable for his actions—he becomes a bar mitzvah and a full member of the Jewish community.
At the time I became a teenager that meant attending Hebrew school regularly to prepare for my bar mitzvah ceremony. Hebrew school would teach me, among other things, how to read from the Torah in front of all my friends and family and my local community.
Reading from the Torah is no easy task for anyone, especially not for a teen boy who’d rather be doing almost anything but studying. The rabbi of my synagogue, a lifelong student of the Torah, was an older man, and we were cut from different cloth. I was a thirteen- year-old kid who loved sports and my friends. He was older, more disciplined, and prone to criticize. I cut Hebrew school a lot.
I’d tell my parents I was going and then go to the movies or spend my time doing anything but preparing. To say my Hebrew was not strong would be an understatement.
About a month before my bar mitzvah ceremony, things were reaching a bit of a crisis. Our rabbi was deeply concerned about my lack of preparation. He would call our home at odd hours to discuss my progress (or lack of it), and a month before the ceremony he finally met with my parents to break the news: Your son is not ready to become a bar mitzvah. After all the preparations and expense, the rabbi was essentially getting ready to pull the plug on my ceremony.
That was not great news for my parents. Becoming a bar mitzvah is a big deal. My parents had rented a venue for the celebration, where we’d feed everyone a fine meal at a cost per head that was far more than my parents were easily able to afford. The Sabbath date for my ceremony had been booked long in advance—at that time, only one boy per Saturday was bar mitzvahed. All my relatives would be there to hear me recite from the Torah, including my grandparents, who were from the “old country” and spoke Hebrew themselves. Canceling the ceremony would be expensive, embarrassing, and disappointing.
About a week after the rabbi’s visit we received a phone call tell- ing us that he had died suddenly. I steeled myself to go to the temple to meet our new rabbi.
He turned out to be a young man, very different from the old leader of our temple. He was kind and open, and he inspired me. He told me there was a lot of work to do, a lot of studying, but he believed in me and told me I could do it. And for the first time I felt motivated.
I put my head down and studied. I met with the new rabbi regularly. I learned my section of the Torah—which in that day meant reading the actual vowelless Torah, not the phonetic English punctuation—and I learned numerous prayers that would be part of my ceremony.
And in the end? I did it, and did it well. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt amazing.
That was a pivotal moment for me. Not just because I’d become a bar mitzvah but because of what I’d discovered about myself. I had learned about self-discipline and about focus. About what I could accomplish if I put my head down and did the work. In that moment I realized that I was much more, and much more confident, than I believed I had been.
The contrast between the two rabbis was profound. Whereas one criticized, the other coached. Whereas one made me feel small, the other helped me see potential. And in the end, whereas one couldn’t help me, the other lifted me to discover things I never knew I could do.
That pivotal motivation has shown up ever since in my life in many different ways. The tenacity and goal setting that I developed then stayed with me my whole life and are now personal traits that are among my strongest and most important. I’m goal-oriented, and I’m a “whatever it takes” person, and I learned that from my experience with the new rabbi.
You’ll have both kinds of “rabbis” in your life. You’ll have fans, and you’ll have naysayers. You’ll have prophets of both prosperity and doom. And you get to decide which to pay attention to.
You are the curator of the people in your life. You get to decide whom to invite to participate in the journey you’re on. They, in turn, get to decide whether to join you.
Choose carefully. Because those people—whomever you gather to you on your journey—can build the momentum you need to pivot or can tear it down, word by word and day by day.
You can’t avoid all the naysayers; they will always be there. But you can choose whether to keep them close.
You can’t always have the mentors you want, but you can choose whom to ask.
You can’t always have the support of your stakeholders and peers, but you can choose whether to include them.
Those simple choices can make all the difference.
PIVOT POINT: You are the curator of the people in your life.