“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
– M. Scott Peck.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on pain, difficulty, and our ability to transcend both. As M. Scott Peck observed in the classic passage above, acceptance of pain and the acknowledgment that life is difficult helps us navigate challenges.
In our pain and, hopefully, by transcending it, we often learn our great lessons and the humility, wisdom and, we pray, grace, and understanding for those whom we will later encounter who are suffering themselves.
But it’s not easy stuff. We don’t like to be vulnerable, particularly those of us who are lawyers.
In many respects, the reason I write this blog, speak to audiences and try to inspire individuals toward better well-being, is to help alleviate pain for others, particularly for those in the profession I love, law students, aspiring to that career and those in our broader community.
Several meaningful conversations over the past month and some of my own recent challenges have prompted me to share a part of my own story that I have not shared with many before. Some know it. It may come as a surprise to others. And some will likely judge me for it.
I am okay with all of that because I know that there are some who will read it, lawyers, law students, and others who are struggling with failure, disappointment, and the challenges that life throws at us and, perhaps, it will help them in some way.
So here goes.
In January of 2000, I was at the top of my game. I had graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from my university on a full academic scholarship. I was an above-average law student, on law review and headed toward graduation. My moot court team had finished the year undefeated, winning the national championship in New York City. I had a great job lined up after graduation, and I was on the cover of the bar magazine with my team. I was working hard as a legal intern and preparing to get married that fall. Life was good.
And then I flunked the bar exam.
I lost a game that shouldn’t have been close.
For the first time in my life, I failed a test, and it was the biggest one.
And when you don’t pass the bar exam, you get your answers back. You get the game film, so to speak.
As I showed those answers to my former law professors, deans, and others, they would say, “wait, that’s the right answer!” In some essays, the points hadn’t been totaled correctly. But there was no appeal, no review, only a pile of blue books that represented three years of work, tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and failure.
I was devastated and humiliated.
I considered starting my career with a lawsuit before the supreme court. We even thought about the lawyer we would hire. But that seemed hard. And there was no guaranty that a new blended score, when retallied (I felt correctly tallied), would be enough to pass.
Then one of my late, early mentors, a senior partner in the firm where I was set to work, gave me advice that changed my life. Referencing our national championship win just months earlier, he said to me, “John, now you know what it’s like to be a lawyer. One day you have a tremendous win, and the next thing you know, the supreme court can reverse the decision, and you have to start over. I think you need to go back in and just take it again. You’ll be fine.”
I was angry. The profession where my father and my grandfather, my heroes, had made their careers, had rejected me. And unfairly, I felt. I didn’t want to take that test again, not in a million years.
But I took my senior partner’s advice, and I decided to get back on the horse.
There were times when I was studying that I wanted to abandon ship and, but for the encouragement of my then-wife, I would have. I could not bear going to the mailbox and again finding another letter of rejection.
I did take the exam again, and I passed. As my father and grandfather moved my admission to the bar in the chambers of the supreme court, the chief justice added to her oral grant of the motion, “without question.”
But I didn’t heal quickly. For years as a young associate, I carried those rejected test answers in the trunk of my old Volvo gathering dust as if to remind myself that I had failed, that I was not worthy. I felt that I was an imposter. Though I didn’t recognize it, I am sure, at some level, I may even have been depressed. I was certainly emotionally exhausted that much I knew. I still hated going to the mailbox, afraid of what I might find. Even today, I sometimes struggle with that seemingly innocuous activity.
In what seemed like a sick joke at the time, each year, the bar would ask me to proctor the exam. At first, I scoffed at the idea. But then I decided I would do it. And each year, when they sent me a token check for my time, I wouldn’t cash it. It was my small protest.
Then one day, I threw all of those old tests in a barbeque and watched them burn. It was time to move on.
I developed a meaningful practice I mainly enjoyed, eventually in my own firm as I had always wanted, received my Martindale rating, was awarded the “rising star” status we get as young lawyers, joined the bar’s professionalism committee and did the things I always dreamed I would do as an attorney.
As life sometimes does, the lawyer who I planned to hire to challenge my exam showed up in my practice as co-counsel on my first big case. I never shared my story until we had reached a major settlement for our client. He told me I’d done “a hell of a job” with the case. Then, somewhat sheepishly, I confessed my past. And he became a mentor to me.
But today, life has taken an even more interesting twist and put me in a position that I would have never imagined in 2000.
Twice a year, now as the executive director of the state bar that once rejected me, I stare down at my desk and the paychecks of those hired to grade the bar exam. As I sign my name to each, I remember that awful challenge nearly twenty years ago, and then I smile.
When life gets hard, when the wind buffets and blows me, I think back on that experience. The possibility that sharing it may serve as a reminder to others not to quit, to never give up, and to know that you are enough and that you have enough inside you to persevere somehow makes the pain of that challenge worth it.
So, that’s my story and a part of who I am today.
Failure is a part of life. Moving past it allows you to live.