In July of 2011, I checked into my hotel room in downtown Jackson to prepare to take the Mississippi Bar Exam. I settled in with my cooler, my basket of snacks, my gargantuan stack of BarBri books, and a Ziploc bag full of letters. My little sister had orchestrated a mini love drive; she reached out to my friends and family and even some mere acquaintances and asked them to write letters of encouragement to me as I prepared to take the Test. As I read each and every loving note, I wept grateful tears (and some of exhaustion, too). They all said basically the same thing: “I know you can do it.” Not one of them took into account that I might not.
And I didn’t.
Each of those letters represented a person that I was terrified I had let down upon receiving the news that I failed the bar. On top of feeling dumb as dirt, embarrassed, frustrated, and mad at myself, I was sincerely worried that all of those folks who took time to write to me and pray for me were going to be seriously mad at me. They thought I was smart. They thought I was prepared. They thought I could do it; they really believed I would.
After I admitted my failure to the world via Facebook (can we say glutton for punishment?), it was an incredible relief to get word from them all that they were not in the least bit disappointed in me; they were simply disappointed for me.
There is a huge difference.
Many of you across the country will be sitting for the bar exam at the end of this month, and I want to offer some encouragement. You may have found another post I have written on this subject as you were Googling “How to pass the bar” or “How not to fail the bar” or “How long do I have to hide in my apartment after I find out I failed the bar because I’m certain it is inevitable?” If you haven’t found that post and you are a bar taker-to-be, please read it here. I hope you find some very practical tips that actually might help you not be me…a bar exam failure.
At the time a bar examinee is about to sit for that man-eater of a test, it is the most important thing in the whole wide world. The amount of hours that go into studying is ghastly. The number of life-moments studying caused her to miss is depressing. The bags under his eyes are noticeable. Preparing for and taking that test feels like being sucked into a time warp, and the only consolation prize will be passing.
But failing happens, and not just with the bar exam. Some of you reading this may not have attended law school, but you have worked just as hard for something in your life that was comparable. You poured your heart, your soul, your money, your time into an endeavor that was monumental. You involved your friends, your family, your neighbors, your Twitter followers, and you had a slew of people watching you, expecting great things. You gave everything you had, and you wanted the outcome to be positive.
But it wasn’t.
I’m not going to tell you that failing is fun. It isn’t. There is nothing happy about watching your dreams go up in smoke. There is nothing exciting about seeing something you tried to build fall into rubble at your feet. I am not here to trivialize your failure or mine. Failing hurts. It hurts deeply.
Failing brings deep sighs and lots of tears and a fear that there is not enough strength to start again. It brings a feeling of wanting to hole up in your house until the smoke clears, until everyone has forgotten that you are, indeed, a failure. But from failure comes regeneration, something new. It brings awareness. It brings education. It brings change. It brings a new life-course. It brings humility. And whether you believe it right now or not, these are good things.
If you go to my other post about failing the bar exam, you will find that I could have easily used a very good excuse for not passing, and I could have told myself that I just didn’t have enough time to study and I wasn’t as crappy of a bar taker as I felt like I was. But that wasn’t the truth. Failing made me look at myself and what I had done wrong, and it forced me to figure out how to do it again and do it right. Can I tell you what a miserable life lesson that was? Gross. It was awful.
But with that particular failure and all the ones that followed, after the initial embarrassment waned, the learning came. What went wrong went into a file, and it stayed there to pull from during the next go round. Oops! There is that big fat mistake I made! Not gonna do that again! I’m gonna change my study habits…I’m gonna formulate a plan….I’m gonna check that court file before I realize I’ve totally screwed up this case…Gonna talk to a veteran lawyer before I walk into the courtroom and argue something before a judge that isn’t even the law…Gonna get all my facts straight before I confront that woman who totally did me wrong…Gonna check the expiration date on the milk before I give it to my child…the list could go on for eons.
The fact is, we all screw up every single day, but luckily, most of our errors either go unnoticed, or we are able to fix them before they are discoverable. But when they aren’t, the fears that accompany them can be debilitating. I know I was terrified of failing the bar exam because of how it would look to the outside world. Would everyone I knew think I was stupid? Would I ever get a job? Would I lose the respect of people I cared about? Even worse, would people pity me?
Yes and no. Public humiliation carries with it other people’s opinions; that’s just life. But for the most part, the people who really made up my world didn’t care a lick. As I said above: they weren’t disappointed in me; they were disappointed for me. They hurt because I hurt. They worried because I worried. But more than anything, they were the very ones who told me it was a bump in the road, a spit in the ocean, and that I was smart, and I did have the strength to start again, and if the outcome was the same the second time, they’d be there for round three.
And they were right.
There is a happy ending to this story, for all you fellow failures out there. I passed the bar exam the second go-round and now I’m allowed to practice law in the state of Mississippi. You, too, will get back on your feet and try again. You might fail again, but if you do, you will continue to seek the right path for yourself. If you know you are doing what you are meant to do, you will keep tweaking and adjusting until you get it right. And if you aren’t, well, failing is the perfect teacher to turn you around and head yourself in another direction. It takes some discretion, some wisdom, some soul searching and for me, a lot of praying. But you will figure it out. You will. I promise.
I’m just hopeful you (and I) won’t be afraid to try because we are afraid we will fail.
Failing isn’t fun, friends. But failing doesn’t make you a loser.
It just makes you human.
What big flops have you had in life that you can now see were for the best? Share your thougths with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org!