Breaking the Chains: How Eliminating Stress and Extreme Self-Focus Can Make You A Happier Law Student
Law school can be hazardous to your health. Though law schools are wonderful places, the grind of a three year legal education can take its toll on the bodies and minds of the students. Stress is a malady that plagues law school campuses. It stalks law students from many different angles. The unrelenting immediacy of law school life fosters stress. These are your deadlines, your daily assignments, your ever-present struggle to stay afloat, to tread water. Future worries also cause stress. These are your questions like “What am I going to do after law school?” “How will my grades affect my ability to find work?” “Do I even want to practice civil litigation at a medium-sized firm?”
Stress also comes from people in our lives, even from those who love us the most. Our parents can unintentionally be a source of stress. Their expectations for our educational experience can suffocate, especially if they are helping fund the venture. I bet you also stress yourself out. You’re a high achiever. The pressure we put on ourselves to make our lives better carries weight. And finally, your law school classmates can be a source of stress. Because we all show others the best image of ourselves, when you see your classmates, they always seem to be doing something productive. When you interact with a classmate, they are most likely taking furious notes in class, intently studying in the library, or talking through which job offer they should accept. We assume that everything they are doing is productive. And yet, we know that the large chunk of our days are spent with tasks much more banal: grocery shopping, grooming, exercising, walking places, standing in lines. You know, human stuff. Compared to others we can feel like frauds, like we don’t measure up. This can be stressful.
I’m not disparaging stress en total. Some of it can be beneficial. Invention is born of necessity, no? If you don’t stress your muscles and bones, they atrophy after a few weeks of nonuse. I’m talking about the stress you carry with you for a week, two weeks, or two semesters. This is the lethal form of stress, poisonous to both your mind and spirit. When I’m stressed like this, the first things to leave me are my creativity, my inner peace, my ease around others, my ability to focus, and any sense of flow to my days. My desire to eradicate stress from law school campuses stems from my experience with the feeling, and my aversion to its effects.
Law school is also an intensely self-focused endeavor. Its purpose is to help you turn yourself into the most marketable graduate you can be. You are the widget being fashioned. You attend your lectures, take your notes, and synthesize your outlines. You study for your exams, and earn your GPA. You spend time applying for your jobs, going to your interviews, and trying to land a job that will make you happy in the long run.
Focusing on yourself is not per se harmful. We do lots of things for our exclusive benefit. We eat healthy foods and exercise so that our body feels good. We navigate our days by searching for the most hassle-free path available to us. Not even love is safe from selfishness: we choose our romantic partners principally because we feel very good in their company.
But there are downsides to focusing primarily on your own well-being for long periods of time. I believe that law students can focus on their own experience to the point that they lose sight of the bigger picture. This can happen when students are so caught up with the worries of their lives that they neglect to ask themselves important questions along the way. Questions like, “How am I going to create value on the job market?” “What are trends in the economy that I should take into account when applying for jobs?” “What skills should I be acquiring so that I can compete with everyone else entering the workforce?” “Am I helping others?”
I got far too focused stressing out about what I was going to do after graduation. Law school problems are often akin to goldfish that grow as big as their containers allow. In reality, even this important decision is not life or death. Your first job out of law school is a very brief step in what you hope will be a long career. But, when you have three years to agonize, worry, and speculate, you can waste a lot of energy while achieving little results. I know I did. I “tried out” professions in my mind, envisioning my experience working at various jobs. Looking back, I can tell that this was a misguided form of career prophecy. Here’s what I would do: I would think of a potential career (for example: working for a non-profit that helps the homeless) and hold it in my mind. I would then “fast forward” or play out scenarios which would accompany my vision of living this career. Would I like doing the day-to-day tasks? Would I feel fulfilled? Could I joke on the job? Would I like my co-workers? Would I have to work late? Where could I transition if I wanted to leave the job? If this exercise produced good feelings, I would continue pursuing this path. If I got scared or envisioned myself not fitting in, I would stop considering the path all together.
(Since I engaged in this silly form of mental career forecasting, I assume that others do as well. Let me say unequivocally that this is a poor way to approximate what you would enjoy doing for a career. The only way to know whether you will like doing something after graduation is to do it before graduation.) Since the topic of my career consumed me, I spent a lot of time engaged in these pointless mental machinations. I don’t want anyone to go through what I did in that regard.
Intense self-focus can produce other side effects. For starters, academic settings don’t mirror the marketplace. Because of this, graduates can often be shocked at how unprepared they are to find work on the open market. Endlessly speculating about walking down a path can leave you reeling when that path encounters its first roadblock, something you did not envision. In the marketplace, it’s all about what you can do for others, and how you can solve their problems. Three years of intense academic self-focus can atrophy your ability to create value for others, and that is not a good trait to have on the job market.
Please don’t judge me too harshly for my views: I’m demonizing no one. I don’t think law students are inherently selfish, nor do I believe they consciously decide to focus solely on themselves for three years. The system that is in place fosters this result almost naturally. In fact, law students must work hard to remain cognizant of the bigger picture.
Concerned about each of these emotions separately, I am also concerned when law students experience them both at the same time. In small doses, we can navigate instances of stress and brief periods of isolation. But when the two forces combine, they often form a whirlpool that can drag a law student down to the depths of despair. This scares me. I’ve been in these depths and want no one else to experience them.
Law students are very smart people and this can exacerbate issues of stress and self-focus. Law students have quick minds, can solve problems, and are confident in their own abilities. These traits set them apart from the majority of people. Trouble brews when you subject a law student’s mind to extreme stress or extreme self-interest. Why? Because they can feed into each other, and your quick mind can act as a catalyst to bring the reaction to its fruition quickly.
I’ve know how the process works. When I get stressed out, my natural inclination is to turn inward, to gather the proverbial troops. Since I am confident in my ability to fix things, I believe I have the tools to solve whatever problem I are going through. Whether the stress comes from the immediate, the future, or social pressures, my response is often the same: I withdraw from others and attempt to recalibrate.
I’ve also stressed myself out by focusing too much on my own life. I believe this happens because the more I focus on myself, the more I realize that many of things that happen to me are 100% outside of my control. This realization sets in after you try to eradicate problems from your life only to realize that life as a human is never free from worry, stress, or tribulations. Intense self-focus does not make one impervious to the unforeseen.
Despite how pervasive and powerful these emotions are, I don’t believe law students are doomed to suffer from the ill effects of stress and intense self-focus. I believe there are course-corrections, actions that can be undertaken to prevent the presence of these twin killers. I believe that law students can rise above stress by getting back into their bodies, and I believe that law students can prevent the ill effects of an educational self-focus by diving into the lives of others.
In the physical world, when something is stressed, it can mean a few different things. It could be that the object is supporting too much weight. The stress could result from an object being used in a way contrary to its design or purpose. The stress could also come from inside and push outward, as with an over-inflated tire or basketball. Each of these metaphors applies to humans and how we carry our stress. Each metaphor can also lend insights on how to deal with the stress that feels so synonymous with law school life.
Law students carry too much weight when there are too many things going on, both in the real world and inside your head. The solution? Lessen your load. This could mean committing to less. Law school is stressful without having a thousand different projects to work on, groups to lead, or commitments that eat up your weekend. Don’t do everything because you feel you have to. You don’t have to “do” anything! Pick one or two extracurriculars, and go all out on them. Don’t try to be Captain America with law school activities. Often the best way to “manage” time is to eliminate activities from which you derive little pleasure but which sap your mental energy, one of the most precious resources in law school.
In addition to real world time constraints, students can become stressed by mentally having too much going on. Everything in law school seems important. Grades. Exams. Deadlines. Jobs. Journals. Ahhhhh! And yet, 5 years after graduating, I can look back and tell you that 99% of the things that felt super important in the moment, weren’t. Are grades important? Worth stressing out over? Eh, maybe? Probably not. I’ve never put my GPA on my resume, and it has never hurt me when looking for jobs. Are mock trial, moot court, and journal competitions integral to the law school experience? I don’t think so. Remember, you should be constantly recalibrating, coming back home to the purpose for which you are in law school. If there are activities which will help you achieve that goal, focus on those. If mock trial, moot court, and journals fall into this matrix, go for it. But try your hardest to not carry mental stress because you feel that you have to keep up with activities that everyone else is doing. No lemmings allowed.
At certain points in law school, you may feel out of place, out of sorts, like you are not being “used” correctly. There could be several reasons for this feeling. One theory is that you feel this way because you might not be moving enough. As a young person, your body is itching to move, exercise, dance, sweat, have fun, be stimulated, try new things out, interact socially with others, and be creative. Stress law school arises because of the repetition, the being indoors often, the hours spent in sedentary positions, the reactive nature of education, and the lack of vigorous exercise. Feel bored? Feel stifled? Feel out of place? Get outside! Play! Lift heavy weights! Do yoga! Invent something! Go for hikes! Laugh! Try your hand out at standup comedy! Draw! Dance! Join a mall-walking club! Do the things your body wants to do. Ignite your mind. The endorphin release is worth it and may be just what you need to get you back on track.
And finally, if you feel the pressure mounting internally, blow off some steam. When you let out a little pressure from an over-inflated tire of basketball, it quickly returns to full functionality. Don’t get blackout drunk to forget your problems. But take it easy on yourself. Do something that makes your soul smile. Cultivate an edge of humor around your life. Law school is not that serious. Everything is not “make or break.” Don’t catastrophize every decision. Don’t let every one of your exams be the most important historical event in the modern world. Lend some perspective and humor to your situation. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Life is far too important a thing ever to be talked seriously about.” Likewise, law school is far too precious a time to not enjoy because you thought every “wrong” decision could spell the end of your legal career before it starts.
These are my recommendations for fighting stress. Reduce the load you carry, both in real time and in your mind. Let your body and mind loose. Hit the release valve when the internal pressure gets too strong.
To prevent the ill effects of exclusive self-focus, I recommend that law students dive into the lives of others. I fear that law students are missing out on the riches of life (both financial and emotional) that come about when you grow familiar with the lives of other humans.
Solution 1: Listen more. Getting out of your head is helpful. By talking to you, others are trying to do the same. Lend an ear. Laugh at their jokes. Cry with them. Come up with tangible ways you can make their lives better. It doesn’t matter who they are. Your classmates. The people who work at the law school. Your neighbors. Your family. The homeless person who asks for change in front of the Taco Bell. Everyone wants to tell their story and have it heard. Everyone wants to be seen.
(Huge side note: this practice is great on a human level, and it’s also a shrewd business move. People make money by solving the problems of others. This is the most important practice you can start while you are in law school: your affinity for coming up with solutions to problems. Start by listing 10 problems you encounter in your daily life you wish you could change. Come up with solutions. Repeat this process every day, with different focuses. Solve the problems of your law school classmates. Your law school. Your city. Your own career issues. Get your mind used to coming up with solutions. I promise you, this practice will make your life better. I stole this idea from blogger and author James Altucher, but it works)
Solution 2: Meet new people. Law school can feel like Groundhog Day: you see the same people over and over and over again in the same settings. Prevent this by interjecting new characters into the story of your life. I met and befriended very few non-law school classmates during my time in Nashville and it’s my biggest regret from law school. Every city has its own feel, its own ethos. You owe it to yourself to explore the city. Meet non-law students. You will be better for it, and you may even meet a love interest. This happened with such regularity to my friends at Vanderbilt Law that there has to be something statistically significant going on. If you are having trouble in the love department, fish in other ponds.
Solution 3: Encourage others. When you tell someone that they are awesome, it makes both of your days. Tell a classmate something they do well, and laud them for it. This will strengthen your social bonds (releasing endorphins and dopamine) and will build up your good karma.
Solution 4: Be a leader. Start a blog. A business. A student group. An intramural sports team. A book club. It will be fun, first and foremost. And second, this will help strengthen a muscle that will come in handy after graduation. Companies and firms don’t want drones. They want leaders who can manage others. Isn’t this the quintessential interview topic? “Tell me about a time when you had to be a leader.” Start now when the stakes are low, and get experience leading others.
Want to make a change but can’t muster up the strength to try out any of the above solutions? Start by noticing how often you find yourself in a group. While law school can at times seem very lonely, you actually are surrounded by people almost all the time. Walking to the law school. In class. Walking to Starbucks. In Starbucks. At the library. At social events. Watching Narcos at John’s place. At Bar Review on Thursday nights. If you remind yourself that you are not alone, you can shake some of the negative emotions that build up over time. You are part of a community. And everyone is going through the same stuff.
Don’t forget this: if you are feeling something, it’s a safe bet that most if not all of your classmates are working through similar emotions. This includes situations involving anxiety and depression, angst over career options, insomnia, feeling rudderless or bored, and so on. I would encourage you to be brave and open up to a classmate about your struggle. Not only will this be cathartic, it will allow them to open up about their own battles. We’re all in this together.
Please know that you don’t have to carry excess stress. You don’t have to be so caught up in your own narrative that you forget you are part of a much bigger tribe. Try some of my suggestions and see what clicks with you. Let me know what works and what doesn’t. Remember, if the stress gets to be unbearable, reach out to someone, preferably a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. Depression and anxiety are real issues on law school campuses. I fear they are not discussed at a level commensurate with their severity. If you can’t reach out to a licensed professional, tell someone in your law school’s administration. If you can’t muster the strength to do this, tell a friend or a family member. Or email me. I’ll try to point you in the right direction.
Law school can be a rewarding time in your life. You know what’s rewarding? Finding a great balance between working hard, having compassion for yourself, hanging with great friends, enjoying life, and changing communities in the process. Law school ain’t the time to get burdened by stress or to worry too much about yourself. Law school is not a sprint, nor do I particularly like the race metaphor. There are no winners and losers, because everyone has a different metric for success. Law school is a time for you to get comfortable with who you are as a person; a time for you to discover ways to solve the problems of others and find enjoyment in the process. This is the prime of your life! Don’t stress out too much. Don’t worry about your own path so much that you freeze up. Go with the flow, see where these three years take you, and enjoy the ride.