Getting Comfortable with Failure

In the latest installment of my often countercultural blog posts about law school, I want to talk about learning how to fail. By learning how to fail, I simply mean learning how to get more comfortable with being wrong and making mistakes. This has been quite the journey for me, as I (and I’m sure many others who are naturally drawn to the practice of law) have often prided myself not only in ‘always being right,’ but in ‘never making a mistake.’ One of the most challenging (and rewarding) aspects of law school thus far has been learning how to become comfortable with being wrong and making mistakes. As always, I am a work in progress in this area, but I wanted to write about what it means to face elements of failure in an academic experience and career path that prides itself on succeeding, being right, and, to a larger degree, ‘winning.’

I often call myself a ‘recovering perfectionist,’ a term coined by Dr. Brené Brown that I have identified with since reading her book The Gifts of Imperfection, many moons ago. If you haven’t heard of her, I highly recommend her Ted Talk, which you can find here. Anyway, from elementary school through college, I have often placed value on myself in direct correlation to how close I am to meeting the exceptionally high (and often unrealistic) expectations I set for myself. For a long time, it worked really well. I always did well academically, I rarely ‘made a mistake,’ and I was able to avoid the uncomfortable pangs of shame that often come with failing in ways both big and small.

Law school has been a transformational experience for me on an academic and personal level because, truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever been this wrong or made this many mistakes or failed this many times, ever. I’m not even just talking about falling short of academic expectations here. For example, in what is now a hilarious story to me (but was initially mortifying), I misread my schedule for a class that I was waitlisted for this semester (and very excited to be taking!) in thinking it met on Thursdays instead of Tuesdays. As a result, I missed the first day of classes. And just today, I accidentally picked up bagels for my Journal a full month earlier than I was supposed to (to be fair, February 28th and March 28th both fell on Wednesdays this year, but regardless, I was yet again mortified). Each were small scheduling blunders and honest mistakes that I can now laugh at, but both experiences were a huge practice for me in accepting myself as fully human. At the end of the day, I think learning how to deal with them on this small scale is preparing me for the inevitable mistakes and failures that come with living life more generally.

More importantly, it’s forced me to re-evaluate the ways in which I used to value myself, and to see that even though it felt much safer to live life avoiding failure/mistakes at all costs, it was much more limiting than the life I am living now – one that allows for both mistakes and mishaps, but also lesson-learning and growth. I know I’m being Pollyannaish in saying that “failure is the greatest teacher of all,” but I want to say something a bit broader than that, which is: “you can be wrong and you can make mistakes, and you can still be successful.” For so long, the tape running in my head was “you have to be perfect in order to succeed.” Now, what I’m learning is that the only way to truly succeed is to live your life in a way that not only allows for failure, but welcomes it, because it’s just another opportunity to learn something new and to practice self-compassion.

Here’s the thing: at some point, we are all going to do or say the wrong thing, make a minor or major mistake, and come to feel the sting of disappointment that comes with failure. It’s an inevitable part of being a person. All we can do in the face of mistake or failure is to take a moment to feel sad or disappointed, realize that we were doing the best we could, and move forward with the lessons we’ve learned and with conviction that despite it all, we are good enough. In an academic and professional environment that usually advocates for the opposite, I have only come to lean deeper into accepting my imperfections and practicing resilience. I know that this is likely just a shout into the void in a field (and society) where failure and mistake-making are not valued, but it’s been yet another unexpected growth opportunity in my educational journey that I wanted to share in this space.

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