I’ve been out of class (having finished first year) for about two months now. With a little bit of distance, I can turn my sight back to the last year and reflect on what helped make things easier (or harder). Some of these suggestions may prove helpful to those of you that are starting out on a new challenge, some may be a bit specific for your tastes. Let’s do this.
Take time to prepare for the change
After talking with Bay and making sure we could work it out, I arranged my departure from work so that I had three weeks off between my last day and the start of school. Three weeks may seem like a lot of time, but it only feels that way if you don’t fill it. I had a number of small projects that I wanted to complete, and I knew that if I was capturing ideas and staying on top of things, that time would fill up.
When you consider the fact that I was undergoing a radical change to the daily routine that I had been building on for the past five years, three weeks really isn’t that long. Taking this time off may sound obvious or easy to many of you reading this, but these types represent only a portion of the population. There are as many people that find it almost impossible to let go and accept that even if it means less money, you have to put your mental health before anything else.
Even if it costs more money (as not working is necessarily more expensive than working), it gives you the time to set up the foundation and groundwork for the next year. Some people prefer to dive headfirst into a new adventure. I’m all for being adventurous, but I want to reap the maximum benefit from those adventures, and that means setting up at least some kind of framework before diving in.
Some of the things that I accomplished in these three weeks were: performing an experiment with biphasic sleep, spend some quality time hanging out and catching up with some friends, spending some quality time with my wife, hanging shelves and doing some handiwork around the house that has been bothering us for months, and yes, even spending some days doing nothing but playing video games and staying up far too late.
This last one is every bit as important as the others. Let’s be honest with ourselves – we like to do some things that generally aren’t always for our best interest. Staying up late and playing video games is hardly a productive activity, but I enjoy it, and it’s a nostalgic thing to do. Just as much as I know that, these days, I can’t do this very often, I also know that I’m going to want to do that at some points throughout the coming year. If I’m going to need to exercise willpower to stop doing that in the coming year, isn’t it better to give myself a bit of a mental break and get some of it out of my system now? I think so. Again, we’re building a framework here – setting ourselves up so that we’re really able to accomplish our goals in the coming year.
Not only set goals, but be willing and able to adapt them
As of late I’ve heard a bit from studies suggesting that goal-oriented behaviour may not be the best approach for everyone. This isn’t necessarily that astonishing, because there’s no such thing as “a best approach” to anything that fits for everyone. We’re all different, and require different approaches to accomplish what we want out of life. However, setting goals is an important part of how I accomplish and achieve in my life. It gives me a metric to look back and see how I’ve grown, and it gives me something to drive toward and keep me on course.
Heading into law school, I had set the following goals for myself: Maintain an A average in my classes (I achieved this in my undergrad, so it seemed reasonable), continue playing squash three times a week, continue teaching dance, practice dance once a week, and, most important of all, continue to spend time with my wife (yup, you better believe she’s on my list of goals – something would be wrong if she wasn’t).
Throughout the year, life happened, my growth continued, and I gathered more data. Some of that data was in the form of what realistic expectations were for a law student, vis-a-vis their GPA. Some of that data was more introspective, such as better understanding how much I can divide my time between various activities.
Some people get overwhelmed when life is changing around them, or they are undergoing their own growth. The new data creates cognitive dissonance, as it contradicts the goals that they set for themselves, and, if they’re unwilling to adapt, they are forced to either mentally ignore the new data (an awful habit to get into, but a common one), or they discard their goals and forget about it. The correct approach is neither of these; the correct approach is to accept the new data, appreciate it, and adapt based on what it tells you.
After our first midterm was over, and having our professors impress upon us the fact that the grades we had received in our undergrad were not representative of what we would be getting (I heard the phrase “A B is a good grade!” repeated many times throughout the year, usually more often closer to finals), it became obvious that my goal to maintain an A average may have been unrealistic.
A lot of people believe that adapting your goals means that you have failed. Many project managers struggle greatly to simply come out and explain to the client that the original goal of meeting a certain deadline is no longer possible, and that they will need to adapt their timeline in order to accomplish what they had originally set out. This is not a failure on anyone’s part, but our society generally has trouble accepting this fact. It is simply adapting to new data. It is the intelligent, and sustainable, way to handle new information.
Changing my goal from an A average to a B average may have seemed to some people like they were giving up on themselves, or lowering their expectations. In Law, there are many many type A personalities. These people typically struggle with adaption; they have a strong drive, and they are used to setting their sights on a goal and not relenting until they achieve it. This generates a considerable amount of stress. By contrast, when I adjusted my goal, I was not giving up on myself, nor was I lowering the expectations that I held myself to. This is simply by virtue of the fact that the GPA I wanted to maintain in school was representative of many things.
The GPA I would end with did not simply represent how smart I was, or how much time I had, how much I cared about my career, and especially not about how objectively good I was at the study of our legal system. It represented these things in part, sure, but it also represented how much of my life, and my time, I was willing to sacrifice to this pursuit. Was I willing to sacrifice my other goals, in order to accomplish this one goal? The new data I received was telling me that if I wanted to continue with my goal of maintaining an A average, I would likely not be able to achieve my other goals, such as regular squash, dancing, and spending time with the most important person in my life.
Here to is a stumbling block for many people. When setting our goals, we initially start with X amount of data, and then lay out a set of goals that we believe we can achieve (well, that’s what we should be doing. Many of us shoot far too high in our initial goal-setting process). Upon receiving new data that tells us one of our goals will require more time/effort/whatever, it necessarily means that out other goals will have to change in order to meet this one. Just a simple example below (skip if you already get my point):
Let’s say that you figure you have five hours a week to devote to your pursuits. You set out goal A and goal B, figuring that A will probably require two hours of your time every week, and goal B, three hours. (Of course, you probably won’t be explicitly thinking this, but when coming up with goals for ourselves, we’re generally considering this in some capacity or another). Now you receive some new data. You’ve found out that achieving goal A will now require three hours, instead of two (in my own case, this is basically what I found out about my goal to keep an A average).
You will no longer be able to accomplish both goal A and B with the spare time you have available. You have a these options:
- Fool yourself and keep the goals, pretending that you will be able to do six hours worth of goals in five hours of time. (Note: This is the same situation as simply ignoring the new data)
- Get frustrated and discard one of your goals
- Adapt to the new data, and perhaps adjust goal A to something more reasonable. Or, give up on goal A, and decide to pursue goal C
The hardest part about all of this is recognizing when you are a presented with a moment that a decision is required. Many of us have these moments pass us by, and only realize when it’s too late that there was a actually a decision to be made. For Law, it was fairly easy to see – we were told regularly what a reasonable expectation was.
If you’ve been reading this blog, or are a friend of mine, you’ll know that I came up against one of these moments with respect to dancing and squash, both during the school year, and again at the start of this co-op term. If you read back through the blog entries I wrote in the past year, you can actually see me trying battling through the process of needing to adapt my goals. Over time, I came to realize that I would either need to adapt my goals and choose one pursuit to prioritize, or, have that decision made for me (or, even worse, have both of my pursuits be given an inadequate amount of time and get dropped as a result).
Making the decision to change and adapt your goals can be a difficult one. Sometimes you really want something, and we often have a difficult time accepting that achievements require sacrifice. However, coming to terms with the nature of sacrifice is necessary, and no rewards will come without having to make some kind of sacrifice. Learn to recognize these moments in your life, and embrace the change and adapation that is necessary – it helped me get through my first year.
Do something outside of school
I was lucky; I was accepted to UVic, the university right here where I live (and also a highly acclaimed law program). As a result, I already had a social network, and many ongoing interests that kept me from existing solely at school.
Many students enter law school by way of moving to a new city and setting up shop there. For these people it can be difficult to develop interests that don’t revolve around school in some way or another. All of their friends are people they’ve met at school, they spend a ton of time on campus, they end up talking about school all of the time, etc. etc.
I continued teaching dance while going through first year, even though this added to my stress at times (it can be difficult to choreograph a class when you’ve got a memo looming shortly ahead). However, it also maintained a continuous presence in my life that pulled me out of school. It was impossible for me to allow my life to completely exist within the sphere of school,because there was something that recurred every week and demanded that I pay attention to it.
Maintaining a sense of identity that exists outside of school is essential to staying sane as you go through the process. If you allow your identity to be defined solely by your experience at school, you’ll start to put too much emphasis on grades and exams; and buy too much into the pressure and stress that accompanies these things.
Worse than that, you can lose sight of the fact that life carries on while you are in school. If you enclose your existence within the confines of school, life can pass you by, and you may find yourself graduating or coming up for air at the end of each year, only to realize that everything has changed. By maintaining interests, friends, and activities that exist outside of school, you’ll help ensure that life doesn’t pass you by – it will continue to grow, progress, and move along, and you’ll continue to be a part of that movement.
*where appropriate to do so
Not everyone will agree with this point, but I stand by my opinion, more so than ever before after completing first year. In first year, there will be plenty of opportunities to collaborate. Although collaborating on writing an exam or the written portion of an assignment may be considered cheating, most of our professors encouraged collaboration when studying, doing research, preparing outlines, and so on. Outside of the situations where it would be considered cheating, I think that collaboration is a sure fire way to enhance your success.
The stress would get to some of our cohort, and more than once I would hear students declare that they didn’t want to assist someone any more because they felt like they were being used. I understand this sentiment – when things are tough and stressful, it’s very difficult to keep our hearts and outlooks soft. I framed my approach a little differently. Being a project manager at heart, I already had a good understanding of the value that collaboration and synergy can bring about, and knew that any form of collaboration at all is generally a positive thing for me. Here’s the real secret though – it’s almost impossible to collaborate with someone and not derive some kind of benefit. Sure, my fellow students would benefit from anything that I provided or put out there (hopefully), but even if someone took my outline and provided me nothing in return, there’s always the possibility that they would come back to me and ask “Hey, Adam, I noticed you put this case in there – is that actually relevant?”.
Maybe someone would ask me why I had structured things a certain way, or note that I had incorrectly cited a specific case. Sometimes I would exchange outlines with study partners, and then we’d both gain the benefit of third-party review. Sometimes, helping out a friend that was having trouble just plain felt good. Knowing that I was able to make the journey a little easier for some of my colleagues contributed greatly to my own sense of self-worth and self-esteem. There’s no substitute for the positive feelings that being generous with your work and time can provide.
Being open and collaborative in this manner may really be counter-intuitive to some people. I’m told that in some law schools, the competitiveness is so strong that people really don’t want to share anything with another student, for fear of it meaning that student will do better, affect the grading curve and result in the initial student’s grade being lower. I think this is pretty short term thinking, and that if we are able to raise our grading curve collectively by improving each other, we all win in the long run. Maybe my grade is relatively lowered because I helped another student get a higher grade, but I’m sure that in doing so, my knowledge of the actual material is deeper that it would have been had I not helped that person out. And that’s what this is really all about – not getting the highest grade on some arbitrary metric, but actually deeply learning the material we are studying.
Sharing in this manner is a lot like the open source approach to developing and licensing software. A lot of software companies have scoffed at the open source concept, where developers collaborate and work on projects for which there isn’t an obvious economic benefit or reward. These companies are locked into the unfortunate perspective that the only thing that should really motivate your actions is the bottom line (financial). This is akin to the law student that figures the only thing that should motivate their actions are their own grades (again, the bottom line, though in the academic context).
Both of these perspectives are short-sighted, and will ultimately cheapen your experience. Collaborate with your peers, and embrace the opportunity to help educate them if you can. The more times you explain a concept, the better you will be able to do exactly that when it’s time to write an exam. If you find yourself explaining something to a colleague more than once, look at it simply as practice. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Be a project manager
Okay, this last tip may not be that helpful to those of you that don’t have five spare years of your life kicking around, or aren’t interested in management. But, you can still take some of the tips that I write about in this blog, and learn to apply them in order to make yourself more efficient and more organized. That’s what I’m talking about here. An effective project manager needs to be able to multi-task, remain efficient, and handle many different threads at once. These are all skills that are greatly benefitted by taking some time to increase your productivity.
My previous career working as a PM in software gave me ample opportunity to hone skills such as applying GTD methodology, effectively capturing ideas, avoiding procrastination, and appreciating the power of collaboration. Before returning to school, make an attempt to develop some organizational skills, or to build upon those you already have. Any time that you can put in now toward improving your habits will pay off exponentially as you apply it over the next three years.
Try to view the time you spend adapting these new habits before returning to school as another form of investment. You’re investing time now into developing new, positive habits, so that later on you will be more efficient and better able to manage the demands that will be on your time once school starts.
Keep sight of the bigger picture
No matter how stressful it gets, always try to keep sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re not writing an open memo assignment because you don’t want to fail, you’re writing it because you want to understand how to properly apply legal research and writing skills. And why are you doing that? Probably because you want to be able to seek out justice for those in our society that have been wronged. Or maybe because you want to make a ton of money working a swanky job (a pretty poor reason to go to school for law, in my opinion, but to each their own). Whatever it is that has motivated you to take on the next big step in your life, take time throughout the course of that journey to recognize that it truly is a journey. If you cheat yourself out of the ability to recognize that, you really cheat yourself out of part of the experience, learning and benefits. If things weren’t stressful, and didn’t require you to adapt or change, they wouldn’t be worth pursuing.
These tips are pretty general, and will hopefully serve you you well in whatever new portion of your life you are embarking on. Change is generally going to be stressful, as we humans are creatures of habit, and changing our environment imposes new requirements and approaches to the habits we’ve developed leading up to this point. However, if you take proactive steps and maintain a positive outlook, you can help ensure that the journey is rewarding, and that you maximize the benefit that you reap from it. I always try to tell myself that when I’m feeling stressed out, it’s often because I’m learning something new, or in a situation that I’m not comfortable with. Aim for this kind of distance and introspection, so that you can identify the situations where you may be able to learn something new. The more often in life you are able to recognize an opportunity to learn, the greater heights you will be able to achieve.
Okay – I promised podcasts and audiobooks, and that will hopefully come up next time. The ferry ride to and from the island is an awesome opportunity to write a post, and I really missed putting ideas on to paper (… screen, I guess). I’m always looking for new ideas to write about, so please post a comment if there’s something that you would like to hear my thoughts on, or particular questions you may have.