I’ve written before about the totally real stress of being a teen: decisions about college and what you are going to do, every day, with the rest of your LIFE. Yesterday, I was reminded how that can feel when I was talking to a kid I’ve tutored. He plays hockey at an elite level and is trying to get a D1 athletic scholarship for college. He started out the season strong, but then he got sick and he’s been struggling since then. His team hasn’t done well either, and there have been a lot, and I mean a lot, of player cuts and trades. His coaches are really big on team bonding, but the revolving door for players reminds me of that scene in Lady and the Tramp when Lady is at the shelter and we see Nutsy, in shadow, being taken out to be euthanized. Lady asks where he’s being taken and one of the dogs says in a gangster’s voice “true the one-way door, Sister. True the one-way door.”
My advice to him was that he needed to shut out all the noise that’s not relevant to his story. It’s easy to let people into our heads who don’t have any business there. The ones who detract from our self-confidence. The ones who don’t care if we succeed, or not. The ones who have their own agenda in how they deal with us, but it’s an agenda that really doesn’t have anything to do with us at all. It’s really about them.
When I was a junior in college, I decided that I should go to law school. I really had no idea what being a lawyer was about, beyond television. I knew you wrote a lot of papers. I knew some people went to court. I definitely did NOT want to do that. But the papers part sounded pretty good to me. I pictured myself sitting in an office pushing papers and getting paid decently to do it. I wanted to work in copyright law. For a television station. I wouldn’t have to deal with people, I thought, and I conjured up a pretty nice, safe, and boring life for myself. A sweet gig for a nerdy girl who loved books and words but was painfully shy with people. Anyway, when I got accepted to law school, I remember some of the boys who were in my circle of friends laughing at me, basically saying that I wasn’t cut out for law school and wouldn’t make it. I assumed they meant that I wasn’t smart enough. I still don’t know if they meant that, or if they maybe meant I was too shy. I don’t even remember them individually or what they specifically said. But they were the first people outside of my head to openly question my ability to succeed in law school. They cracked open a hole in my confidence.
When the fall rolled around and I started law school, people were talking a lot about The Paper Chase, a television drama about kids at a top law school. I think it was Yale. I had never watched it, but I knew about it the way you know about the Kardashians. Everyone knew about this show. The kids in it were put through hell by teachers who, I believe, ultimately cared about them and wanted them to succeed. But in a drill sergeant kind of way. But all the talk about the show made me nervous. Especially when, my second day of Property class, my Property professor picked me to be his that student. You know, the kid who gets picked on. Every class. All class.
It started out innocently enough. I was sitting in the back because, hey, that’s where the shy or bad kids sit. He asked me to close the door. A simple enough task. Except that, I couldn’t figure out the mechanism that released the door. Everyone began to look, then stare. My professor started to say things about how he hoped I was better at law than closing doors. My heart was racing. I was frantically looking at the door, completely clueless, like in algebra class when my teacher had asked me about those two stupid trains that are traveling in opposite directions, but somehow I was supposed to know how fast they were both going. I knew there was no way I was going to get out of this situation with any dignity, but I was frozen there, trying to figure out the door because what alternative did I have? Then, one of my male classmates took pity on me and rescued me like a prince riding in on a charger. He got up and walked over, reached up and pushed the release. The door closed and I slunk back to my seat after a few whispered, fervent thank you’s. But the damage was done. I was that student.
Then people started the law review talk. Nothing matters more in law school than who will be in the top 10%. Because, if you are in the top 10%, you basically can go work anywhere you want. The bottom 90% will be lucky to get a job that doesn’t need to be supplemented by a bartending gig on the weekend. Some people bragged that they were sure they would be law review. Others just speculated on who really had a chance. Constantly. Someone ripped pages out of books in the library that we all needed for a research project, apparently with the hope that this would make everyone else look bad. The competition was fierce, to the point that people were willing to cross ethical lines to be on top. It was crazy to me, one of the least competitive people on the planet. I just wanted to get out alive and go push papers quietly in an office with a window.
I wanted to change schools. I had been wait listed at another school, and I planned on applying as a transfer student. Finals week came for the first semester. There was so much noise in my head between my Property professor picking on me daily and the competition between my classmates that I let myself get ridiculously worked up about my Property final. I was so nervous by the time that I took the exam, I couldn’t even focus. All I could think about was getting out of the room.
When I closed my exam and walked out of the room, I felt terrible. I knew I hadn’t done well. It was an easy subject, but I didn’t even remember what the questions were, let alone the answers I had put down. I ended up with a C. I wasn’t going to be transferring anywhere.
But it was, maybe, one of the best lessons of my life, even if it came at a high price. I learned from that experience that, if I’m going to fail at something, it’s going to be for the right reasons. It’s going to be because I didn’t understand the material, or because I’m not smart enough or not talented enough. It will never again be because I let other people’s noise get in my head and psyche me out.
And that’s what I told my hockey player. Because he’s amazing, but he’s making mistakes because he’s not focused. I told him to shut out the noise of who just committed to what school. Shut out the noise of who has better numbers or which teams passed him over that he now has to play against. I told him to shut out everyone who doesn’t belong in his head. I told him to embrace the chance to fail, but only fail for the right reasons. I told him that, if he’s going to fail, fail because he wasn’t fast enough, or because he couldn’t read plays well enough, or because he’s on the small side for a hockey player. I’ve watched him play, and I don’t think any of those reasons can beat him. But, if they do, at least he’ll know he did everything he could to make it. I told him don’t ever fail because you let other people rock your self-confidence. Anyone who isn’t invested in your success should be irrelevant to you. Sometimes easier said than done, but it’s a mantra that you have to actively practice, just as you practice or prepare for anything. Just as you work on your homework or practice at a sport or music, you have to work at shutting out the noise that can derail your success. We all have enough of a critic in ourselves, constantly questioning if we can really pull off that new thing we are trying to do. Letting people outside of us influence how much power our self-critic wields is the quickest way to satisfy the doubt demon.
My oldest child is a senior in high school this year. He really has no idea what he wants to do or how he wants to do it. As I’ve talked about before, his learning disability has made his journey a pretty tough one. But I’m constantly being asked by other, well-intentioned people if he knows where he’s going to college next year. So I smile and say no, he’s still figuring it out. And that’s okay with me. Because the frenzy of senior year is just noise, and the only thing that really matters is that he ends up somewhere where he can thrive.