Last October I found myself googling those exact words while sitting in a small studio apartment I was renting for the weekend in Studio City. It was midnight, the street outside my window was surprisingly quiet, and I was curled in a ball on the mattress, scrolling through blog posts about failing the bar, tears still pouring out of my eyes.
I have cried very hard for a myriad of reasons throughout my life, but I’m still convinced I have never cried as hard as I did that night. I could barely catch my breath and I wanted answers. I wanted someone who’d experienced this to tell me it was okay. I wanted one blog to confirm that someone else had gone through this, survived, chosen not to take it again and their life had turned out perfectly. But there were none.
All of my sadness and frustration with failing boiled down to one thought: I have to take it again.
I Am a Loser
Do you ever get the feeling that if I just hadn’t found this out it wouldn’t have been true? If I hadn’t gotten that email from the New York Bar Administration, I never would have failed. That’s all I could think about for weeks after the results came out. I went through this rollercoaster of emotions from minute to minute and the only thing that kept me distracted were these technical hiking trails I was traversing.
You see, at the moment I found out that I was officially a failure, I had just embarked on a road trip with my best friend throughout the Southwest United States. I think if I had been home I could have, and would have, wallowed a lot longer. I would have let the sadness get to me, sat in my funk and not tried to move past it. Instead, my friend and I were staying in this tiny town in southern Utah called Kanab, known to die hard hikers as the home of the Bureau of Land Management that every morning conducts a lottery for ten spots into Zion National Park’s Wave trail. Each morning, she and I would load up the truck with our gear, drive over to the BLM and enter the lotto. We never won, but from there we would head to our backup trail and hike for the day. It was during those car rides that I thought a lot about the bar, and being the incredible person my friend is she let me vent and talk each and every possible option out.
My Aha Moment
One morning, I started chatting with the manager of the gas station across from the BLM about marine biology. My younger brother is a marine biologist who works in coral conservation, which this older gentleman apparently had a significant interest in. He smiled and said my brother sounded very smart. My retort was that both my siblings were scientists and both of them were very intelligent. I guess my tone made him think that I didn’t believe the same of myself. So, he responded, “I’m sure you’re the smarter one.”
All I could think was – if he only knew I just failed the bar exam I’m not smart I’m an idiot How could I have failed that test How could I be here right now What am I going to do with my life I never wanted to be a lawyer anyways How did I get here I should have stuck with writing – but I smiled and hopped back in the car where the internal word vomit continued the entire ride to the trailhead.
Later, after a particularly long and humid hike, when I had a few minutes to myself, I realized I had to retake this test. That negative voice that had spewed so much hate at me for hours that morning could not be allowed to return. I didn’t know who I was without passing this test, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that an exam could hold so much power over my self-worth.
I wanted to take the bar exam again, and I knew that I would keep taking it until I passed.
The Bar Exam Does Not Define Your Self-Worth
In law school, we are trained to believe that our self-worth, our ability to bring value to our community, is solely reliant on passing this ginormous test. It starts the first day of orientation when we learn we don’t know how to write case briefs, and it never ends. Most of us go through school so afraid of failing that we don’t let ourselves shine.
That’s what happened to me. I was so crippled with fear that I was going to fail the bar that I wasn’t able to let the information I was learning sink in.
After I recognized that this was an exam, that I could retake it as many times as I wanted, that I would never let it be the basis of my self-worth, and that the worst thing that could have happened had already happened, I was able to acknowledge why I failed– I simply didn’t understand the material and I didn’t have enough memorized – which was a direct result of not calming down enough to actually learn it.
The second time I took the bar, I made a commitment to learning the way I learned best: making a schedule that didn’t overwhelm me and leaning heavily on my tutor’s expertise and encouragement. I visualized passing. I visualized the anxiety eating me up, overwhelming me, and then I moved past it.
When the exam finally came around, I was much better prepared and way less anxious. A switch flipped in my brain, and I no longer felt like my value as a productive member of society was connected to the bar exam.
So, you won’t die if you fail the bar exam. You will be heartbroken, but you will survive. And if you’re like me, you will even learn to thrive. Give yourself time to heal; give yourself time to decide what you want to do next, not what you think you have to do or what is expected of you.
If you decide to tackle the bar exam again, and I hope you do, remember it is only an exam. It does not define your worth – you are so much more than the result of this test.