The lesson from the laser is: If you want to affect others, the way to do it is by staying focused in one direction only; it is only in this way that one can maintain full strength. - The Rebbe, Mind Over Matter
What is Birth?
You may have seen him in the waiting room, pacing back and forth like a caged animal, anxious, worried, expectant. Yes, I'm speaking about fathers-to-be, especially the first-time variety. I was there.
Leah had brought me to prenatal classes so we could pretend to have an idea of what we were getting ourselves into. The whole pregnancy, labor, and delivery thing was new and scary. Understandably, at that point we were more worried about the sprint of childbirth than the marathon of child rearing. We paid careful attention to understand about Braxton-Hicks, early labor, active labor, transition, etc.
As often happens with firstborns, ours took her sweet time making it out to the light of day, about 24 hours actually. Stages of labor started and stopped, waxed, waned, and wearied us out, especially Leah of course. Finally as the pace started to pick up, she asked the doctor, "Is this transition?"
"Transition?!" he told her, "There's no such thing transition. My dear, you're having a baby!"
There's no such thing as transition... You're having a baby. For some reason those words rang out in my mind as profoundly meaningful, even then. It's not about the process; it's about achieving a goal. True, processes are important, with all their details, even necessary. But we need to see the forest, not just the trees.
With those words, Dr. Goldman became more than an ob-gyn and a labor coach - he became a life coach.
On With the Show
Carlos Montoya was a legendary flamenco guitarist, a consummate professional. I heard him once, performing to a packed hall in the Banff School of Fine Arts in Western Canada.
In the middle of the concert a strange thing happened. His left hand slid a bit too high up the guitar's neck, resulting in a cacophony of ugly, semitonal dissonance lasting for an eternal second or two until he realized his blunder and moved to correct it. But lightning does strike twice, and he compensated too far down the neck realeasing a new and unnerving nadir of noxious noise hardly befitting the King of Flamenco.
My heart went out to him. What an embarrassment. Not one but two colossal glitches in the span of a few seconds. What would I have done? I would have become horribly self-conscious, lost my cool, seized up, and finished the venue as quickly as I could to get out of the public eye. But that's not what Carlos did.
Without batting an eye, he quickly recovered, and went on to play for an hour, finishing the program in perfect form, exactly as if nothing had happened at all.
In that moment, Carlos Montoya became more than a musician to me, he became a mashpia, a life coach. I learned what it means to be a professional. Anyone can make mistakes. It's what happens afterwards that counts. The amateur falls apart - the professional resumes his course without missing a beat. No muss. No fuss. The show must go on.
The Psychology of Success
Dr. Goldman and Carlos Montoya are professionals, masters at their craft. They know how to deal with obstacles, difficulties, distractions and pressure: Go for the goal - the process will follow.
The alternative, focusing on avoiding pitfalls, creates anxiety about those pitfalls which ironically leads to a greater tendency to fall into them. Take for example the cyclist who worries so much about hitting the curb, that's exactly what he does. On the other hand, the cyclist who focuses down the road tends to travel more securely and accurately.
Psychologists have two theories to explain why anxiety leads to failure. The "distraction" model proposes that anxiety diverts people's attention from their performance; the "self-focus" model proposes that pressure makes people pay too much attention to the mechanics of movement instead of overall flow.
A golfer, for example, should focus on global cue words like 'smooth', 'tempo', and 'rhythm' instead of details that might cause self-focus, like 'keep your head over the ball.'
Psychologists studying sportsmen have discovered an interesting aspect of how success breeds success. Softball batters on hitting streaks perceive the ball to be larger, and golfers think the hole is bigger when they're close.
The Professional Jew
Over two millennia, many have wondered how the Jews manage to keep their tradition intact despite being dispersed to the ends of the earth and suffering the pressures of widespread persecution and rampant assimilation. It's even more surprising in light of the sheer multitude of rules that observant Jews must follow. To illustrate, it takes about 1000 hours of study to simply read through Maimonides' Code of Jewish Law, let alone master it.
Perhaps the key lies in goal-oriented behavior.
When we open our eyes in the morning, we start with Modeh Ani, which essentially means "Thank G-d for another day." Everything we do from then on is an expression of this basic gratitude and relationship with our Creator in the details of daily life. The result is that instead of doing thousands of unrelated things that pull us in a hundred different directions and drive up our blood pressure, we really are just doing one thing - Modeh Ani.
Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch, a more contemporary code of Jewish Law, starts with the advice, "Be strong as a lion, bold as a leopard, light as an eagle and swift as a deer, to do..." not 613 commandments, not tens of thousands of laws with hundreds of thousands of details, but rather just one thing - "the will of your Father in heaven."
The concept of repentance out of love exemplifies this principle. When we repent out of fear, we focuses on the details of our failings and there are a great many things to be aware of and fix. On the other hand, when we repent out of love, it doesn't matter so much exactly what we did wrong - the very fact that we damaged our good relationship with Hashem pains us and if we just focus on the singular goal of restoring that relationship, the details of proper observance follow.
Another example is Shabbos. The six days of creation aren't an end in themselves, but have a goal - the rest of Shabbos. Similarly the Torah, too, provides purpose to the eclectica of our daily lives, i.e. to transform the world into a dwelling place for Hashem.
The Ultimate Goal
Just as the six days of creation are fulfilled in Shabbos, so too, the six millennia of human history culminate any moment now in the Days of Moshiach, the "day that is all Shabbos and rest forever."
Interestingly, the other word for Moshiach is 'Go-äl' meaning redeemer, so one might say that Jewish 'goal-oriented' behavior is really Moshiach-oriented behavior.
The more skeptically minded might claim that this is nothing more than a spurious, albeit cute, coincidence and there really is no relation between the Hebrew 'goäl' and the English 'goal'. But there are two points to consider here: First, everything is divine providence, so if we can learn from something useful from the connection between the two words, that's great. Second, in light of over 3,000 English words that scholar Isaac Mozeson has traced to Biblical Hebrew in his book, "The Word," it would come as no surprise to find 'goal' to be number 3,001.
In the fall of 1991, the Lubavitcher Rebbe set the agenda for our times: To welcome Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness. He pointed out that every detail of all our activities and projects have to be permeated with the point of how this leads to one goal - welcoming Moshiach.
If we focus on obstacles, difficulties, distractions and pressure, that's exactly what we'll end up with. True, tribulations must occur prior to the redemption, but are we focused on the pangs or on the birth? If we take a more professional approach, reminding ourselves of past successes, and visualize our goäl before us, then we will all the more easily and quickly achieve our singular goal.
[References include Sefer HaSichos BaMidbar and Shavuos 5751, Chayei Sarah 5752, Likutei Sichos 24:239-242, and Psychology Today, Sept/Oct 2008.]