By Britt Wiegand • January 28, 2018•Writers in Residence, Law School, Other Law School Issues
I just finished my first semester of law school (woohoo!) and felt great. I had set a goal for a gpa (despite knowing that gpa goals aren’t the best type of goals) and beat it by .09! I know, beating something by not even a tenth of a point sounds like a tiny achievement. But, given the law school grading curve, I was pretty pumped. After getting grades back, I felt proud. I told my parents and fiancé, and I was feeling excited about heading into semester number two.
And then (dun dun dun)… I went back to class. In the first week, I heard of “dozens” of people who had made A’s in various subjects, and how well certain people did. Some were those that I anticipated – the quiet classmate that was always present and prepared – and some were surprising. And then, the list of CALI awards (the number one score in a class) came out. And again, I was feeling bummed. I thought I had done well, and here I was sulking because of everything I was hearing from other people about others’ performances.
Even the process of writing that experience out is cathartic – it’s much easier to be objective when I take a step back and get out of my feelings. But, in the moment, it’s incredibly hard. And as much as I say that I’m not going to compare myself to others, I wonder: is it possible to not compare myself to others, given the nature of law school?
Psychology Today discusses just this – social comparison theory. In a 2016 article, Juliana Breines, Ph.D., discusses how psychologists divide social comparisons into two main categories – downward and upward. When someone is engaging in downward comparison, they are comparing themselves to someone they perceive as being worse off than themselves; when someone engages in upward comparison, they’re comparing themselves to people they perceive as better off. The comparisons could be about any number of things – ability, status, or intelligence, to name only a few.
Both can yield negative results. Downward social comparison can leave us feeling better at the expense of others’ misfortune. Upward social comparison – what I was doing – can lead to burnout and defeat. As a palliative coping style, it’s indirect and inactive, versus something more proactive (as a side note, if you’re interested in finding out your specific coping style, here’s a link). Simply realizing what I was doing is the first step for me to get out of this trap. With everything else to worry about in law school, feeling disappointed and down is not a good use of time.
So, now what?
If you’re like me and want ideas for how to be productive about growth, here are some goals I now have based on a bit of research.
Goal #1: Track how I’m using social media. Granted, I was mostly comparing myself to what I was hearing about how others did. In addition to hearsay not being necessarily true (given the nature of my law school’s curve, there literally can’t be “dozens” of people who earned A’s in any class because there just aren’t that many A’s to go around). But, I’d be lying to say my use of social media didn’t add to feelings of inadequacy.
So, my first goal: be mindful about social media use. Rebecca Webber discusses this and states that if one passively spends time looking at others’ pictures and viewing others’ posts (anyone else use social media to procrastinate?!) then happiness decreases. Yikes. That by itself doesn’t necessarily mean I need to completely get off social media, though – contributing, sharing, and interacting can have the opposite effect. Webber’s article mentions a book I’m adding to my to-read list: The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success by Emma Seppaelae, from Stanford University.
Goal #2: Track my time (not solely on social media). Numerous apps can help enhance productivity and track time. My personal favorites? Moment and Hours. Moment helps track sheer time I’m using my phone (eek) and Hours helps track time spent on individual progress. Both of these are helpful in honestly tracking how much time I’m putting toward things like studying, writing, and miscellaneous tasks.
Goal #3: Compare myself to myself. By focusing on progress as opposed to perfection, the focus is internal and growth-driven, as opposed to performance against some imaginary other person. By maintaining a stable sense of self, competition in law school remains focused on improving against past performance as opposed to others.
Have other strategies you use? Please comment below!