The other day, I received one of the oddest and frankly most flattering compliments of my life. I was working with a law student who hadn’t done the reading all semester and now it was exam time and she was starting to freak out. In our daily phone calls we would go through a plan for the day, discuss what to do, and almost more importantly, what not to do. We talked about the “red flag” activities that she kept letting herself slip into—checking her phone, tuning out by making long phone calls to her mom, re-reading her notes instead of practicing hypos. And this is what she said to me: “Ariel, you’re like Zen master, minimalist, AA sponsor. . . but for law school.” Hmm….. I had to write this one down. I was intrigued.
I didn’t want to waste too much call time having her explain what she meant, so I had to come up with part of the definition myself. (Aren’t those the best kind of compliments? The ones you can essentially fill in with your own ideas? No wonder I thought what she said sounded flattering!). Who knows, maybe this was really a veiled insult of some kind—I guess we’ll never know.
What follows is the gist of what I have taken this expression of hers to mean, and how I think it could apply to your law school experience.
What is a “Zen master” anyway, and how do you become one?
Well, for starters, I have no idea how to really become a master, Zen, or otherwise. I’d like to think it has something to do with a bunch of “wax on, wax off” and then realizing you’re magically awesome at karate, or meditating by a crystal clear pool of still water. But truth be told, I definitely don’t do these things. So, what did this student mean?
Well, I think what she was going for was more a figure of speech than anything remotely to do with any real principles of Zen Buddhism—sort of like Master Yoda’s old, “do or do not, there is no try.” So, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with law school?
Do or do not, there is no try. . .
I see this sort of thing a lot, a student will say, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t finish the hypo,” or “I have been watching TV every night, but my outlines aren’t finished yet,” or (in this student’s case), “I haven’t read all semester long.” These things don’t hurt me as your tutor, they hurt you. This is all about you.
Don’t apologize. Don’t make excuses. Stop getting in your own way. If you want to do well, there’s no option but to follow the path that has led hundreds before you to do well—it’s called hard work day in and day out. If you’re letting yourself be deterred from this, it could be for a number of reasons, I’m sure, but you’re the only person who can take stock of your own priorities and turn things around.
This is a typical conversation I have with students like the one I’m basing this post on:
Student: Sorry, I didn’t get to the practice assignment yet.
Me: Don’t apologize, I know things are busy right now. What did you do instead?
Student: I was re-writing my notes and then I called my mom for a while.
Me: Is re-writing your notes something that helps you? When we discussed it earlier, you said it was a security blanket and didn’t really help you learn the material.
Student: I know, I shouldn’t have, but it just seemed like a good idea at the time.
Me: Okay, well if it’s not helpful and you know that already, then you’re the only person who can stop yourself. What about calling your mom. What did that accomplish? I’m not saying this rhetorically to be a jerk, I’m honestly asking, did you get anything out of this?
Student: Nothing really, it was a nice distraction.
Me: Your exam is in three days and you haven’t read all semester. You can’t afford distractions right now. Your mom will still be there when exams are over. You are the one who controls your time. If you’re wasting your own time, that’s only hurting your exam score. So, let’s add these two things to your list of “red flag” activities that you’re going to choose not to do: re-writing notes and making phone calls. Write them down if that helps.
It’s all about accountability . . .
As you can see, there’s nothing earth-shattering going on in this dialogue. But, maybe this is what she meant by being a master. It isn’t so much mastering some trait or another, it’s about holding someone (or yourself) accountable. Some people might need or want a tutor or somebody else to do this for them. Others may be capable of keeping themselves in check.
I remember I had a friend in law school who did this same thing for me. I would ask her, “Do you think taking this weekend off is a good idea?” and she would say, “Well, I don’t know, what are you trying to accomplish with that?” and I would explain the pros and cons and what my goals were. And she would say, “Do you think taking the weekend off helps you accomplish those goals or not?”
She wasn’t trying to be condescending, she was forcing me to articulate what I wanted, the costs, benefits, and repercussions. And sometimes, taking the weekend off was the right answer for me. It’s sort of like the “master” turns the question back onto you and puts the onus on you to talk through your own decisions and then stick to them. They don’t really tell you what to do, they help you remember what you want and figure out how to get there. They answer your question with a question. Not to be rhetorical or evasive, but to get you to see all sides of the picture.
Maybe try this one for yourself, like I had this student do. She said she would get thrown off track every hour or so, so I told her to set a timer for every 60 minutes and when it rang, ask herself, “What am I doing right now?” “Is this helping me or hurting me?” “If my exam were tomorrow, would I still be spending my time this way, or would I choose to do something different instead?” It may sound simplistic, and maybe a lot of folks don’t need this kind of hand-holding, but if you do, give it a try! In essence—be your own Jedi “master.”
As a person who backpacked around six continents for a couple of years on end with the same basic outfits and nothing extra, I definitely take this one as a compliment. Minimalism is all about figuring out what you’re not willing to live without, and then making space for only those things and nothing else. For me, when travelling, I couldn’t care less if I had any hardcopy books, conditioner, or high-heels. Take away my laptop, SPF, or tea, though, and I probably would have been a disaster. It’s all about prioritization and compromise. Enough about me, though. What about you?
What can’t you live without . . .?
What are your base essentials that you need in law school? Let’s start off with doing the reading. You need to do the reading. End of story. What else? Well, if you’re serious about getting good grades, you need to write out full, timed, practice hypos, and you need to start this as early in the semester as possible. What about the extras? How do you feel when you go a whole semester without working out? For some of you, the answer will be, “Fantastic! I hate working out,” in which case, more power to you. If you need some cardio or an afternoon walk every day to feel tip top, though, make some time for that. In law school, I didn’t care at all about hitting the gym, but I simply had to get enough sleep. No room to compromise on that. Like I said, everyone is different.
What are your own “red flag” activities?
How about all those other, potentially “red flag” activities that you know you don’t need, but you do anyway? Do you keep your phone next to you while reading? Well, don’t! Put it away. It’s a very simple step in theory to just stick your phone in the other room. What it takes, though, is some awareness and actually putting this step into practice. Do you sabotage your productivity by distracting yourself with phone calls, TV, or any other time-sucks that don’t get you any closer to your goals? Well, cut it out! Have some self-restraint. Again, this is all about you. The only people who can afford to cut corners in law school are those who have consistently done well and have now figured out where and how to spend their time to still get great results. I know one law student like this who has figured out how to get great grades without slogging through every single case. That said, she only does this if the prof’s lectures are crystal clear, she takes excellent notes, and most importantly, she never started experimenting with not doing all the reading until after getting a solid 4.0 for her entire 1L year. Before that, she did all the hard work.
If you’re struggling or re-testing or still in the middle of the pack—in other words, if you’re not that mythical unicorn of a law student with an actual 4.0, don’t experiment with showing up for class without having done the reading. And please, stop doing things that waste your time, like re-typing your class notes.
Getting a sponsor
Truth be told, I have only seen AA-type meetings on TV. You know, like “Hi, I’m Ariel, and I am a color-coding and technology addict,” . . . “Hi, Ariel…” Not to make light of addiction. It’s a serious issue that a lot of law students and lawyers struggle with, and if you need help, please get it. I’m not trying to make fun of that here. I don’t think that’s really what this student meant, though, when she said I was like an “AA sponsor, but for law school.” And luckily, she actually explained this one, so I didn’t have to guess.
She said she meant that it felt like she had a “sponsor” to reach out to in moments of weakness. Like, “if you’re thinking of drinking, call me instead.” Her words, not mine. So, how does this relate to law school?
Some students know what they’re doing is unproductive, but they feel powerless to stop themselves. This student I keep referring to knew she shouldn’t re-write her notes. We talked about this exact thing just the night before. But, when faced with a task that felt minorly productive and very comfortable (re-typing notes), versus something else that felt scary and difficult (writing a hypo), she chose the latter.
I think what she meant by sponsorship is all about someone or something outside yourself helping you to stay accountable. Again, some people really don’t need this sort of external pressure, but some people do. And, if you’re someone who keeps falling into the same patterns of wasting your own time and then ending up with bad grades, maybe you need someone you can reach out to.
What keeps you on track?
It bears repeating that this is all on you. Your sponsor is not a mind reader. They can check on you, but they don’t know in the moment if you’re faltering or not. You need to be strong enough and self-aware enough to say “Hey, I need help, I’m slipping.”
The most wonderful thing about this student I keep mentioning is that she had the wherewithal to actually tell me the truth about what she was spending her time on, why she thought she consistently fell back into the same bad habits, and she was really good about emailing and saying, “I’m not being productive, can you help me?” These are all necessary first steps.
Perhaps I’ve extrapolated way too much from this “compliment” as I call it. And I know, pretty much no one in real life is as cool as Mr. Miyagi or Yoda—least of all me. But, in talking more with this student, I know she found our work together this semester really helpful, so I’m going to give what she said the benefit of the doubt. I definitely have “masters” or “sponsors” in my own life (like the law school friend I mentioned) who help me stay encouraged, accountable, and true to my own life goals when needed. Maybe it’s not every day or every year, but it’s nice to have someone to count on in this way when you need it.
What about you? Have you ever found yourself engaging in self-sabotage with your study time? Have you found anything that works well to help you stay on track? If so, let us know in the comments below!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Stick to Your Goals in Law School
- How to Organize Your To-Do List in Law School
- Need More Time? Study Smart Before Your Law School Class
- Dealing With Law School Time Regret
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