What the Bar Exam Taught Me About Personality and Optimal Performance

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Photo by Matthias Weinberger via Flickr.

“I believe that one of the most critical factors in the transition to becoming a conscious high performer is the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition. There will inevitably be times when we need to try new ideas, release our current knowledge to take in new information – but it is critical to integrate this new information in a manner that does not violate who we are. By taking away our natural voice, we leave ourselves without a center of gravity to balance us as we navigate the countless obstacles along our way.”

–  Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

Josh Waitzkin was a chess prodigy and national champion, the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, and a world champion martial artist.

The connection he proposes between “who we are” and the way we approach our pursuits struck me as vitally important. So many of us do work that is not in harmony with our unique disposition. To make use of this idea we need to figure out who we are.

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to think of times in your life where you felt most centered, most aligned, and confident in the purpose of your work.

I recall at times during my preparation for the bar exam that I felt aligned. I recall going to the bathroom towards the end of the exam and just knowing that I was doing something great right then. I knew that moment was a moment of greatness for me. There was just a confidence and a feeling of “I can do anything if I pour myself into it consistently.”

I do not believe that this had anything to do with the subject matter. I do not have a passion for the bar exam or the practice of law. I do not feel much passion for any of the enormous range of subjects covered by this exam.

This sense of purpose, satisfaction, and confidence was a result of the effort I put into preparing for the exam and the quality of the ensuing performance during the exam.

This level of effort is my definition of success.

I was surrounded by many people who were intimidated by the bar exam, people who in all likelihood performed better in law school than I did, who were more driven to be lawyers, who had taken out thousands of dollars in loans to cover the costs of the prep courses and books for this somewhat meaningless test. (The test is meaningless in that it in no way measures your ability to practice law, yet all aspiring lawyers are required to pass the test to practice.)

I spent under $100 to prepare and take the bar exam.

I can cover the financial end of things later, but I suppose it is worth noting that perhaps this eased the pressure I felt. Knowing that my performance did not determine the fate of a $3,000 investment probably made this all feel a little lighter.

I also didn’t want to take the bar exam since I had little interest in practicing law. I did not see the formal and licensed practice of law as a big part of my future. I went to law school because I thought it would help me become GM of the New England Patriots. I have many thoughts on the validity of that idea, but for now suffice it to say that the strategy was not well thought out.

Towards the end of law school, while everyone around me was beginning to file paperwork for the bar exam and preparing to dive in to their prep courses, I was looking forward to a summer of no responsibility. It seemed brutal that you are rewarded for graduating law school with two months of intense study for an exam that is devoid of value.

The bar exam is a mindlessly followed ritual that creates revenue for the State and the organization that administers the exam. There are far better ways to evaluate a person’s fitness to practice law, such as graduating from an accredited institution that for three years taught and tested a person on various areas of law – also known as law school.

My decision to forego the test was made a few months before graduation, while reading the bar exam application, which included an $815 fee just for the pleasure of taking the test. I think the application was about twelve pages and required everything short of a stool sample.

I was reading the application on my way home on the commuter rail and felt the urge to cry. It was every bit as bad as I’d heard for the last three years. In fact, I think the application may have been worse than the test itself. I knew there was no way I was coming up with the money for the application fee or for the prep courses, so I decided then to push off the exam at least until the winter.

So, fast forward 8 months and I’m about to walk out of the exam with a sense of accomplishment that I’ve rarely felt in my life.

Ultimately, the feeling that I keep coming back to is the level of peace and confidence I felt in the middle of a situation that was highly stressful to so many others. Another of the many insults of taking the bar exam (in Massachusetts at least) is that you do not get a score. I was lucky though.

After I took the exam, I got a letter saying I passed, but that I needed to come in and meet with the board.

Total kick in the balls. 

Turns out they were concerned with my history of credit card debt, which included some judgments issued against me in a court of law. The exam board did not feel the need to tell people that this could prohibit their licensing until after they took the bar exam.

Anyway, I get it. Lawyers handle money and the bulk of disbarments occur due to some instance of financial fraud. I had a good reason for the existence of the judgments, namely that the credit cards were fraudulently obtained by someone else, but the board didn’t care. The judgments had to be gone before I could be sworn in.

A moment of personal responsibility: I should have taken care of the credit issues before this point, but the truth is that I was a kid in law school and I had my head pretty far up my ass.

The lucky part of this whole experience

is that while I sat before this humorless group of “bar examiners”, their apparent leader, a woman who attempted to convey human warmth told me that I passed the test and while still looking down at papers that she couldn’t be bothered to review before the meeting said, “Oh, wow, well you actually did very well on the exam.

I would cling to this one sentence as it was the only positive part of this process. I did very well. This was the closest I would get to a score. I, the kid who refused to spend money on the exam, who borrowed prep books from a friend, who barely studied the essay section, who prepared entirely on my own without any “professors” lecturing at me, I did very well on the exam.

This was where my sense of alignment came from. I performed extremely well at something on my own terms that others found difficult. I cracked the bar exam. I poured myself fully into a focused and concrete goal and it paid off. I left it all on the field. I demonstrated to myself that I could perform at the highest of levels if I exerted consistent and focused effort.

I’ve previously written about the power of consistent and focused effort, but what I am exploring here is the connection between high performance and “the degree to which your relationship to your pursuit stays in harmony with your unique disposition” as described in The Art of Learning.

I did not lose my voice in this process.

I had an idea of how I could take this exam on my own terms and worked at it until it came to fruition. It didn’t start super smoothly, but I kept pushing and working and things started to take shape. I developed a routine and process in which I was confident and became comfortable studying, learning, and repeating.

I came to value incorrect answers because they taught me so much more and had a much higher chance of causing a principle to stick in my mind in a useful way.

This intense focus actually reduced stress. I didn’t have to worry about what to work on. I just had to work. I just had to do the practice problems, review the answers, and be open to learning. I had to be open to being wrong and absorbing the why.

I am not sure which is more important to high performance and satisfaction, a process harmonious with personality and values OR a project that is substantively aligned with your values and interests. My theory is that both components are critical to optimal performance. Perhaps the hardest part is achieving the self awareness that enables you to identify and develop a harmonious approach.

One thing I know for certain is that the most fulfilling times in my life have been those where I poured my heart and soul into a specific endeavor. The endeavor itself did not have to be perfect. What mattered most was the level of effort.

My suggestion is to take an iterative approach and fully immerse yourself in a series of short term projects. Each project will teach you a little more about yourself and your values. While you develop your skills and experience the satisfaction of full engagement, you will eventually stumble on to your passion and learn how to execute in a way that is aligned with your personality.

If you enjoyed this or even hated it, please leave me a comment or share it with your peeps. Thank you.

Some of these links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase through these, I will receive a small commission. Much obliged. 

For help overcoming procrastination and mindset challenges, check out Peter Shallard. He is incredible. 

Front page photo (paper rocket) by Matt Biddulph via Flickr.

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William W Barnes

Creating and evangelizing world-changing products. I like Lions and Cows.
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