The little engine that could…

Readers may remember an earlier post I did on what kind of praise helps children’s self-esteem the most – praise for intelligence, or praise for effort? A reader sent me this blog post which links to a further description of the results of the research. This has implications not just for parenting, but for business, sport and life generally.

I’ve been thinking about this recently a lot because I have recently started teaching again this semester. My class has been abuzz with anxiety about getting articles and summer clerkships and the like. I get concerned about this, because I think that students are channeled into believing that a particular pathway is the only path to “success”. However, there are not enough places for articles for everyone, and it is inevitable that some will fail. The question is how one deals with it.

I think a lot of law students and lawyers are “high-need achievers” who like to look successful, and do not like to face failure. But the fact is that we all fail sometimes, and it is an important part of learning and growth. I did not get articles of clerkship first time around: I had been used to getting everything I wanted on a platter. This was an immense shock to me. I took it very personally and became very depressed for a few months. I did not want to hear criticism of my approach or attitude. Instead, I was tempted to give up the whole law gig. In essence, I reflected the “fixed mindset” represented in the research.

I have noticed subsequently that people who are suffering from depression tend to react in this way to setbacks. Instead of keeping on trying, looking at other options and learning from failure, they give up or despair after the first setback. I wonder how much refashioning the way one reacts to failure (cognitive therapy) can help those with depression?

I had to learn a new mindset – to learn that I could improve in job interviews, that I could do things to improve my CV and the depth of my experience, that I could have a more positive attitude, and that I should be heartened by the success of others, rather than jealous. I had to learn that failure was not the end of the world. The fact that I failed did not mean I was intrinsically worthless. In this, I am deeply grateful to my family and friends for supporting me through thick and thin. I still have my moments, but I hope that, these days, I fit more into a “growth mindset” than a “fixed mindset”.

I followed a far more interesting path than I would have if I had just gone and got articles at a mega-firm and followed the career ladder. Another friend of mine did not get articles, and ended up following her dream of doing a fine art degree. I think sometimes failure can be immensely productive, because it can show us that there are many other options and opportunities.

The important thing to take from this is that our destinies are not fixed, and that we can at least improve at things, if we really want to do so. This doesn’t mean I am going to be a genius at everything. I’m still a total klutz, for example, and I think I always will be. It’s partially intrinsic, but it’s also because I tend to get distracted by interesting thoughts and walk into walls and the like. (Just between you and I, it’s a choice to an extent: I can’t be bothered thinking about where walls are if I’m having an interesting thought about resulting trusts.)

I want my students to know that if things don’t work out for them job-wise, it is not the end of the world, and that there is not one path to “success”. There are heaps of different and exciting opportunities out there, if one only knows where to look, and if only one keeps on trying.

(Via Penguin Unearthed)

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4 Comments

Filed under education, law, legal education, morale, society

4 responses to “The little engine that could…

  1. missv

    I agree with you about failure. Sometimes I think you get more out of an experience of failure that you do from continual success. It’s a great paradigm shifter.

  2. Law Student

    I think not getting articles will be the end of the world for many law students, including me.

  3. Jennifer

    Thanks for the link. And a very interesting post extending all this into business.

    Your law students sound very like actuaries – the pass rate for final actuarial exams is around 30%, and for most actuarial students, it is the first time they’ve ever failed at anything.

    I think it really helps to understand that failure is possible, but it isn’t the end of the world.

  4. Legal Eagle

    I agree with you, Jennifer – it definitely helps to understand that failure can be a positive.

    Law Student, I hope that you do get articles and everything goes swimmingly, but if it doesn’t, remember my words and remember that it’s not the end of the world. There’s a whole range of opportunities out there.

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