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The future is failure (so start getting good at it)


“Dear Ms. Leader,

Thank you for your application. Unfortunately, at this time, we are not able to offer…”

Sound familiar?  Some version of this email has started to grace my inbox as frequently as the latest J. Crew discount code or law school lunch talk reminder. I reassure myself that this is a fact of life as a 3L on the hunt for a post-grad gig. Even so, every appearance of this note washes me with shame and embarrassment as if I’m reading it for the first time. I search between the lines until I find the words the cautious, polite emails never say outright:

“You failed.”

Like any stereotypical law student, I am terrible at accepting failure. In many ways, this is one of my best qualities. It makes me intrepid, determined, and hungry. But if I am fully honest, the same inability to cope with failure sometimes transforms me into an angry, bitter person I don’t want to be.

In an effort to guard my own health and sanity, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about a question that feels nearly taboo in the legal profession: How do I get good at failing?

I’m no expert in failure, despite feeling on many days that I might as well be. But I am learning. Given that it’s law school mental health week, I thought now might be the time to share some of my early thoughts.

The very first step in learning to cope well with failure is to turn to the nearest reflective surface and look yourself squarely in the eye. Softly, fiercely whisper to yourself, “I’ve failed. But I’m not a failure.”

Okay, kidding. Don’t really do this. But do take the lesson for what it is worth.

Failure taken poorly can start to feel like an identity rather than an event. “I didn’t get the job. It’s because my GPA isn’t good. My GPA isn’t good because I’m not smart. Because I’m not smart, I’ll never achieve the things I want to. I am A Failure.”  (You know, just as a completely hypothetical, totally impersonal example of a thought process someone might potentially have if they happened to fail.)

I think we resort to this kind of thinking because it’s comfortable. In a lot of ways, just being a failure of a person is an easy-to-swallow explanation for why we failed. It doesn’t require us to think about how we might have mis-stepped or how we might improve in the future. It doesn’t require us to grapple with the fact that sometimes we fail because the world is unjust in ways we can’t control. It’s sad, but at least it is final.

But it isn’t accurate. Fair or unfair, earned or unearned, failing is a normal part of life. You might be surprised to learn that even the professors, Supreme Court Justices, and prolific tweeters you most admire–– the people you are least likely to see as failures–– have failed, too. Which brings me to my next point: We need to talk about failure.

Law school, and the legal profession at large, train us to hide any vulnerability and to always put our best foot forward. Like an unfortunate number of lessons we learn in law school, this is counterproductive. I think a large amount of the shame we feel around failure comes from secrecy. When we don’t talk about failure, it’s easy for us to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, the only ones who have ever failed. Of course, this isn’t the case.

I think if we knew how often those around us failed, though, we wouldn’t be so quick to judge ourselves for our own setbacks. The tricky part of this is that having these conversations requires someone to speak up. It takes courage to admit to failure loudly. But I’m convinced that if we manage to do it, we’ll find that the shame we feel around our own failures will start to melt away. 

The final step, as with many things in life, is acceptance. We have to accept now that we’re going to fail. After all, as lawyers-to-be, we exist in a system that is adversarial by nature. In most cases, when we find ourselves opposite other lawyers, at least one brilliant, hard-working attorney will walk away feeling that they failed.

Still, in my own head, accepting failure seems like it’s not an option. Anticipating failure seems absolutely unthinkable. But hear me out: for me, at least, coming to accept that I will fail has been a way to give myself permission to do wild, brave things. Accepting failure means that I have applied for jobs, asked for opportunities, and competed in competitions I might have felt unqualified for or intimidated by. And often–– more often than not, even–– I fail. But very occasionally, I surprise myself, and I succeed. That success is made sweeter by the fact that I never would have tried if I had focused solely on the potential for failure.

I’m not a perfect person, and I often fail. Sometimes that even means I fail at accepting failure. (Meta in the worst way, truly.) Some days, the storied rejection email still leaves me ten tear-soaked tissues and half a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream deep. But I’m learning to accept failure. And I hope you’ll take my words to heart, and that maybe you will, too. Looking at the challenges (and opportunities!) that lie ahead of us as new lawyers, I think we’re pretty much going to have to learn to fail well.

Easier said than done, maybe. But, look: if you mess it up, it’s no big deal. There’s always another chance to try and fail–– or not–– again tomorrow.

Alyssa Leader Alyssa Leader is a 3L at University of North Carolina School of Law, where her studies focus on civil rights, victims’ rights, and, inadvertently, the First Amendment. She spends far too much of her spare time on Twitter. Currently, she lives in Chapel Hill with her partner and her dog, Maya.