The Almost Daily Word – Seven Deadly Sins of Bar Preparation – #1 – Meaninglessness

There was an enjoyment to being alive, he felt, that because of an underlying meaninglessness … (one) experiences life in that hurried, worthless way one experiences a mistake he could no longer get at. Tao Lin – American novelist, poet, essayist and short-story writer.

Thirty-five years of experience with the California Bar Exam has led me to reflect on the seven deadly sins of bar exam preparation – self-defeating traits that predict bar exam failure. Number 1 is:

Meaninglessness

Several years ago, I had what I guess you could call a crisis of meaning, or, more precisely, a crisis of living without meaning. It was brought about by a perfect storm of personal tragedies. It seemed as if nearly everything that I’d put my faith in was gone – had failed me. I was bereft. For a while, identifying what meant anything to me was both a huge challenge and a constant preoccupation.

I kept on through the sleepless nights, kept working, kept going to the gym, kept thinking, kept faith. What choice did I have? Gradually, thank goodness, time passed and life began to pick its old colors back up – and many new ones as well. My soul and spirit pulled me along in new directions. One was tutoring and, eventually, teaching at a law school. Another was this blog where, for the first time in my very private life I found meaning in talking publicly about my thoughts and feelings. Not only about the bar exam skills and techniques that I’d learned over 35 years, but also about my values – what matters to me. In particular, my view of this exam as a unique challenge to body, mind and soul.

My dark time seemed to leave me with a new kind of intuition, a knack for identifying people who may feel that they are at a crossroads; who may feel a little lost. Regardless of our differences in age, gender or circumstance, I often seem to ask a student or a new acquaintance the type of question that opens a door, starting a very important and personal conversation. What I hear is often sad. It makes me want to help. (After a life of self-centeredness, this ambition to help is probably the brightest new color on my palette.)

More than I’d suspected, many people seem to lose their bearings when preparing for the Bar Exam. On one hand, it surprises me. You’d think that this period of intense preparation and review would be the crowning achievement of academic lives well lived – intelligence validated; ambition, academic effort, generativity and growth all rewarded.

On the other hand, it hardly seems surprising at all. For many students this time can be both an abrupt ending and an uncertain beginning. Twenty or more years of schooling over, the culmination of a sustained ambition that parents, family and friends may have shared, supported, engendered, or even insisted upon. At the same time, an uncertain debarkation on unsettling seas: questionable job opportunities; a changing economy; even a set of disappointing changes from the time so long ago, when becoming a lawyer first seemed so attractive and exciting.

It is certainly possible to pass the bar exam without knowing what it means to you. But, all other things being equal, I’d put my money on the person who has decided that this herculean effort is worth it and, as importantly, has figured out why.

And so, if it is possible to offer “tips” on so weighty a subject as finding meaning in your bar preparation, I offer these.

– Although meaning and humanity’s search for it are timeless and complex, my definition of the word is simple. What is meaningful to you is what is important to you. I use the words “meaningful” and “important” interchangeably.

– There is a difficult part of this simple definition though. It is in the words “to you.” It can feel next to impossible at times to know what is important to you, especially when you are smack in the middle of the effort. It can feel next to impossible to separate what is important to you and you alone from what is important to others, especially when the others are people you love and respect: your family, your friends, your teachers and mentors. You are unique though, and even if you agree with what others believe to be important, you can only profit from making sure that the source of your opinion is truly you.

– Many people I’ve met equate mindless busyness with meaning. (See the quote at the beginning of this blog entry.) Always having a “project” can be a type of avoidance (see Deadly Sin #6). Avoidance of self-reflection, or hurt feelings, or more difficult problems. Avoidance of knowing oneself, “warts and all,” as they say – and then forgiving oneself. So, although it may feel counterintuitive, a simple way to find meaning may be just to slow down, just to sit still for a while.

– Something that may feel meaningless – difficult and unnecessary – may, in fact, be meaningful. One example is when it makes possible something that is unquestionably meaningful. A popular example may be the singer who works her “day job” so that she can sing in clubs and, eventually, compete on “American Idol.” Another example may be passing the bar exam so that you can fulfill your dream of becoming a lawyer.

– Something that once felt meaningful can lose its meaning. Time changes things. “To everything there is a season…” This situation can be the greatest challenge. However, as I’ve come to know recently, the rewards of acceptance and of moving on can be the greatest of all.

And, so, with best wishes to you in your studies, please remember always:

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

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