Crisis of confidence are awful things to behold. They’re even worse to experience. They come in different varieties and from different causes, but they tend to exhibit the same symptoms:
- loss of direction
- halting of motion
These are no-fun places to be, but truly awful places to stay.
I’ve visited this hole a time or two in my life, the first of which occurred at the onset of my time in law school.
Upon entering law school, I started noticing that nearly everyone around me appeared to be approaching the work of law school differently than I was. I had been a successful student through high school and college reading, studying, and learning in the manner that was natural to me. But in law school, I looked around and saw the group I was now surrounded by taking the task of studying to a whole new, more formal level. I was shocked — and my confidence initially rattled — within the first week of law school when I saw that so many around me had been planning how to succeed in law school before they ever arrived. My peers had done things like taken law school prep courses and worked at law firms spending the summer building up a headstart of legal understanding and knowledge. I was in a competitive race and already behind even before it started.
So, I tried to do what any sensible, wanting-to-succeed, confidence-shaken person would: I tried to follow the pack and keep up. I cast aside my less-formalized approach to studying and tried to mimic what I saw all around me. For several weeks, I spent long hours, into the wee hours of the night, reading the assigned cases and typing up briefs on each one that identified all the bits and parts of each case — the parties, the litigation history, the issues, the HOLDING (!!), etc. I did these things for weeks because it appeared to be the thing law students were supposed to do … and wasn’t learning much of anything. Focused on mimicking the process, I wasn’t learning how to think like a lawyer (the real point of that first year of law school) … and I knew it.
Then it happened.
One day, for reasons I don’t recall, I just stopped. I was done. Wracked with self-doubt and buckling under the stress, I just quit. I still remember the place in the lower level of the law library where it happened. I was down there looking for a “horn book” (everybody else seemed to know what those were but me!) to do some extra reading on the general principles of tort law (Zzzz..zzz) when my confidence cracked completely. All of a sudden, for the first time in my academic life (which really constituted my whole life to that point!), I was facing the question of whether I was good enough to be excellent at this level … and realizing the answer may very well be “no.”
I walked out of the library without the horn book. I went home, and for the next several days, I did nothing. No homework. No reading. No case briefs. I went to class, but paid no attention, more out of habitual obligation and fear that simply skipping classes outright would freak out my Wife. After a few days, I had a choice to make: because literally quitting law school wasn’t an option (we had moved across the country and now had student loans either way), I could either —
- return to trying to keep up with the rest of the herd as I had been, knowing that certain mediocrity would be the result, at best, or…
- I could move forward approaching my job as a student, learning in the manner that was natural to me as I always had in the past, and let the chips fall where they may.
I chose Option #2, if for no other reason than I simply couldn’t bear the thought of climbing back onto the stressful mental gerbil wheel I had been on over the previous handful of weeks. By choosing to just be Me, I also had to be willing to choose the possible outcome that being Me may no longer be good enough to be considered Great. I didn’t like that thought, but I accepted it because if it proved to be true, at least it would be Reality. I would dance with the Me that brought Me, and if that was no longer good enough to be among the top of my class, so be it. Reality — whether good or bad, it’s always your friend.
It now sounds trite and cliche as I type this, but it’s absolutely true: because I made that choice, law school instantly became a much less stressful experience. I studied the way that was natural for me, I learned what I needed to learn, and I ultimately finished near the top of my class. Turned out I was, in fact, good enough. Thank God I gave myself the chance to find that out.