What Makes Us Tick

By  Dovid Chaim Hoffman, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017


New to the study of Chassidus, I am not so new to the study of human behavior, nor in particular, the study of team, organization or cultural performance.  My earliest experience was working in the Neuro Psychology department at Rockefeller University in the early 1980’s.  I was an intern, washing glassware, preparing samples, tending animals, etc.  But I had the privilege of sitting in on meetings with research scientists including, Dr. Jay Weiss, Dr, Johnathan Charry, and others.  And what they were working on fascinated me.  Whatever the specific field of research at the moment, these men and the teams that surrounded them were working on understanding the connection between physiology and psychology. Later, I explored more deeply into behavioral, developmental and organizational psychology, and then into performance, individual, athletic and organizational.  I have spent almost 20 years training organizational leaders and teams to be effective.

My operating premise is that all knowledge has but one source and if we examine anything deeply enough we get to a place where at the very least, some sense of the source is visible off in the distance.  The open minded person can hardly resist coming to the conclusion that there is one great, unifying force to all.  For me, there is an inevitability to faith, though I recognize that this may not be true for everyone.  I suggest that no matter the domain of research we all end up in the same place.  I welcome challenges to the operating premise.  I am clear that I cannot prove it. What I can do is stand on it and build.

So now, on to performance.  We will deal with performance as a concept, not just in a specific domain.  I assert the following:

  • Performance by definition is measured by results.
  • Results come from actions
  • If we can get to the source of action, we can really make something happen.
  • Getting to the source of action is not often accomplished in the world of training and development


The question that has been at the heart of my work has been, above all others, “how can we predictably alter the performance of an individual, a team or an organization?”.  My initial approach was to educate.  I assumed that if I taught people better approach, they would use that approach and results would shift, and they did; usually for a period of weeks.  Then behavior reverted to old patterns and so did results.  But people knew more.  I assumed that knowledge would produce choices that lead to action and that action would produce the intended results.  My assumption was wrong.  Knowledge, at least the kind of knowledge I was delivering, did not, reliably produce shifts in behavior, (action) and as such shifts in performance were not predictable.

In the Likutei Amarim Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes of a particular type of action, in this case, speech.  According to Tanya,  it is not necessary for a person to think about what they want to say and then to direct their body to say it, the movement of air, the formation of the right shape of the mouth; none of this must be directed specifically, the intention to speak includes already the creation of words. The source of words is beyond the process by which they are formed. All of the physical processes come from a place before thought. Now in no way does this make it insignificant to discuss the process by which the formation of words occurs in the physical body.  As an academic process, understanding the physiology of action may well prove valuable.  And it may be helpful in training athletes, speakers, etc. to understand and correct physiological processes.  However, if we are looking to get to the source of action, (in this case the action is speech) we have to look past the physical and even the simple intellectual, (inspiration and understanding) and get to the real source.

For at least 100 years in the secular world we have trained people according to the model above, (the one that I used with mixed success) that knowledge would produce choices that lead to action and that action would produce the intended results.  We debated what the right method was, what the best knowledge was, delivered countless different training programs, but real performance seems to have moved forward slowly if at all.  According to Werner Earhart, most such training produces ZERO long term results.  Teaching people the right thing to do or the right way to do it, rarely makes a difference.

I did a little test of this theory a few years ago.  In at least a dozen different groups on three different continents, I asked the question: “how many of you would benefit from losing or gaining at least one pound?”  Over 90% in each group raised a hand, (please note that the loss of weight is just an example, we could ask about almost anything that people want to accomplish).  I then asked: “how many of you know what actions are needed in order to lose or gain weight?”  Again the vast majority responded that they do.  I then asked, “how many of you are actively doing all of the things necessary to achieve your ideal weight?”  A few hands went up, but only a very few.  The rooms were filled with nervous laughter.  Knowing what to do, rarely makes the difference.  So in order to alter the way in which we perform, we are going to have to look past the process of intellectual knowing and get to what actually drives us.

The “knowing” in and of itself, makes no difference.  To cause a shift, the full intellect needs to be accessed.  And yes, Chassidus ultimately points to the source of all, but let’s stay just a bit below that.  If we want to shift human behavior, absolutely, we must unifiy in the intellect at three levels, what comes after that, we will get into at a later date.  The Three levels are:

  • Chochma-the highest level of intellect. This is the place where the first spark of wisdom is received; the recipient of higher wisdom (it is possible to say that this is coming from the the will of H’.  (co-ach a maskil) When we are receiving communication from outside ourselves.  When we get a glimmer of light, AND IT HAS NO FORM, this is Chochma, often brilliant ideas show up here.  To bring them to fruition, however will require real effort.  The spark of an idea, (like the seed of a tree, which is not the tree), is not the fully realized expression of the idea.  This moment of inspiration must be brought down, first to…
  • Bina-Understanding, the intermediary point in the intellect, where we begin to translate inspiration to realization. At Bina, we have a deep understanding of subject matter and implication.  This is not a glimmer of light and it is not earthly action.  At Bina, we have power, real choice.  As in the example above, this is where we know exactly how to loose weight and we may or may not actually do anything with that knowledge.  We must choose to take it further and again, this requires effort.
  • Das-the place of realized knowledge. Knowledge at the level of Das shapes the way we see the world.  What we have as Das, gives us our view of the world.  The person who has “health and well being” fully assimilated as knowledge at the level of Das as access to something far beyond intellect.  Though Das is considered the lowest level of intellect, it is the place where the intellectual and the earthly meet.  It is where action is formed and more importantly; Das is the place from which intellectual understanding can contribute to a much higher domain, will.

When our intellect is fully aligned; our intellect becomes and expression of our will and we are capable of extraordinary performance.  Will (intention) may be said to be the source of action. However, will itself may not be directly accessible.  It is however accessible through our intellect and the balancing of these three, Chochma, Bina and Das, is how we get there. When will, is aligned with intellect, all of our resources are available.  People have the experience of being clear and fully engaged. There is still free choice, but if this path is chosen, there is an inevitability to action.  This is where humans actually commit to act and to produce results, reliably.  When we use our intellect to access our will, we are capable of turning the big scary almost unimaginable objectives in life into real action and staggering results.