For this book club selection, we're going to move into nonfiction territory. Like my fiction tastes, my proclivities in nonfiction are kind of all over the place: Indian royalty, personal finance, Renaissance history, and childrearing, are all random topics I like to explore. But I do consistently move towards prescriptive books -- particularly prescriptive memoirs. Generally, prescriptive books end up making me feel guilty, because I feel like I ought to be doing something that I'm not. That's why I was thrilled to stumble across Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, because she doesn't actually give you a bunch of steps to follow to achieve happiness (or get organized, or find God, or whatever), but rather a framework with which to think about happiness generally.
Now, I will admit that I didn't know much about this book when I picked it up, and was initially attracted to the bright blue cover with the kid-like lettering on the front (props to her publisher). But, I was immediately engaged with Ms. Rubin's project, partly because I totally related with her as a person. Ms. Rubin is a Yale Law School graduate -- just like me. She sends a family photo/update for Valentine's Day, instead of Christmas...just like me! She ends up getting frustrated and annoyed with other people's imperfections. Just. Like. Me. Just as I was imagining what it would be like to be BFFs with Gretchen (I felt like we should be on a first-name basis), I discovered that Gretchen doesn't like pedicures. As some of you 203 readers know, one of the things I fantasize about, particularly during admissions season, is getting a nice, relaxing pedicure, preferably while sitting in a massage chair and reading the latest Ok! magazine. So maybe I and Ms. Rubin (we were back to being professional colleagues) wouldn't hang out all the time after all.
Even so, acknowledging that I enjoyed something that another intelligent, very successful person doesn't only highlighted one of Ms. Rubin's personal Secrets of Adulthood -- and the one I think most relevant to aspiring law students -- namely,"You can choose what you do; you can't choose what you like to do." In other words, it's pretty easy to go along with the current, but you may want to stop and think about whether the current you're in is where you want to be in the first place.
That's the crux of Ms. Rubin's Happiness Project. Who are you at your core? How do you want to change? What do you like to do? Where do you want to go? And, most importantly, Are your day-to-day actions aligned with your answers to all of these questions? Taking her inspiration from Benjamin Franklin, who tried to achieve "moral perfection" by cultivating a different virtue every month through a resolutions chart, Mr. Rubin attacks a different area of her life every month for a year, from health to sprituality. With a spreadsheet of resolutions for each area, Ms. Rubin follows the guidance of life gurus including Montaigne, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and Oprah, among others. Along the way she finds the happiness-boosting impact of such simple things as organizing your closet (and leaving one shelf empty) and more difficult things like not nagging (trust me, a hard habit to break).
Figuring out what makes you happy is a worthwhile endeavor (I'm allowed to use that word because it's on a blog, not a P.S.) before starting law school. Law school, apart from encouraging conformity, also tends to equate suffering and apathy with intelligence. To quote Ms. Rubin:
Some people associate happiness with a lack of intellectual rigor, like the man who said to Samuel Johnson, 'You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.' Creativity, authenticity, or discernment, some folks argue, is incompatible with the bourgeois complacency of happiness. But although somber, pessimistic people might seem smarter, research shows that happiness and intelligence are essentially unrelated.
Of course, it's cooler not to be too happy. There's a goofiness to happiness, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing.
For some reason, law school is filled with this ethos (perhaps because the profession attracts so many philosophers), so it's important to get grounded in your own values and interests before you start. The brief interview I had with Ms. Rubin elaborates on this further:
203: Let's start with your career. You achieved the legal trifecta: Yale Law School, Editor-in-Chief of the Law Journal, and Supreme Court Clerk. What made you leave a career path that most law students can only dream about?
Rubin: I was interested in law and had a great experience in my legal jobs, but for me, the pull to become a writer at last became irresistible. While I was clerking for Justice O'Connor, I was working on a book in my free time - though it took me a long time to acknowledge to myself that that's what I was doing (that project became my first book POWER MONEY FAME SEX: A USER'S GUIDE). When I look back at my life, there are many clues that I wanted to be a writer, but I ignored them. At last, though, the impulse became strong enough that I admitted to myself that that is what I really wanted to do. I realized that I would rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer, so I just had to give it a shot.
203: I'd ask you if you regret going to law school in the first place, but I know you met your husband there so I am assuming you don't! But in terms of your overall happiness (like if you were to graph it relative to other major points in your life), how would you rate your experience at Yale Law School?
Rubin: I loved Yale Law School and had a fantastic experience there. I loved the intellectual challenge, and all the people, and even the feel of the building. I remember thinking, as a third year, that I was so at home in the library that I wouldn't hesitate to walk in wearing my pajamas and blow-dry my hair at my carrel! (though I was never actually tempted to do that). It is really an extraordinary place, and I feel so fortunate that I was a student there. Plus, yes, meeting my husband was a definite high point.
203: More and more people are applying to law school (our volume was up 12% last year!) and yet it seems like more people are leaving the legal profession in droves. Based on what you've learned about happiness, do you think there's something inherent in the practice of law that's antithetical to being (and staying) happy?
Rubin: Well, some people argue that the confrontation inherent in a lot of law practice might lead to more unhappiness, or its constant search for what can go amiss or how people might wrong each other. And of course it can be stressful, with long hours and a lot of pressure. So all those factors are in play. But I would also make this observation: the people I know from law school who WANTED to be lawyers, or teach law, are happy with those jobs. But so many people go to law without any idea about whether they want to be a lawyer. So then why is it surprising if they don't love that career? Law school attracts people who don't know what else to do with themselves - people who are good at school, good at humanities, and who want to be told what to do in order to succeed. That's why I went! But in the end, being a lawyer will only make you happy if you enjoy being a lawyer. Many people do. Other people don't.
203: Do you have any advice to future or current law students about how they might maximize their happiness amidst the challenges and stresses of law school?
Rubin: Get enough sleep! This is HUGE! And get at least a little bit of exercise - even a twenty-minute walk - most days. Take time for fun. DON'T GET ANY EXTENSIONS on your papers - that is the highway to hell! And spend time with people, take time to build relationships. My one regret from law school is that I didn't spend more time hanging out in the dining hall, getting to know more people. Once you graduate, you don't have the opportunity for that kind of easy socializing, so make the most of it.
You can find more happiness tips and tricks suited for the Type A personality at Ms. Rubin's blog. Stay tuned as we return to more P.S. advice next week!
Sorry I've been away from the blog...we admissions deans take vacations too, and I was in the Great State of Texas for the past week. Love Texas -- I have to be honest, if you like Mexican food, Connecticut is definitely not where it's at.
Anyway, this week we'll look at the ever-popular Overcoming Obstacles essay. In Part I of this topic, I am going to focus on what constitutes an "obstacle." But before I go there, let me just give the profile of the OO essay, which is pretty straightforward: the OO personal statement starts out with a problem that the applicant confronted and then details (ostensibly...more in Part II) the steps the applicant took to get past the problem. The intended effect of the OO essay is to have the reader say, "Holy cow! That's amazing! There are very few people who could have done that!" This reaction, in turns, provides a compelling reason to admit the applicant if the other parts of the application are extremely strong, or at the very least to overlook parts of the application that may be somewhat weak.
Let me start by saying that I have nothing against the OO essay per se. I have admitted people who have written very compelling OO essays. However, this is a very delicate essay to write, and you should think of your sitution very carefully before moving in this direction. To wit, you should first recognize whether the problem you intend to write about is, in fact, an obstacle.
By way of illustration, one of the personal statements I read last season involved a student who had some very interesting experiences -- including a legal internship at a major nonprofit in New York City. However, she focused her entire personal statement on her attempt to take an advance math course without taking the prerequisites, and her subsequent failure in the course. The applicant was upset, because to that point she had always done well in her classes. After a period of intial anger at her professor, then herself, she took all of the prerequisites for the math class, then the same class she originally failed again, and aced all of them.
Folks, here is the deal. There is a difference between an obstacle and a disappointment. Obstacles are major hurdles in your life -- things that many people, if they are fortunate, will not have to deal with. These are things like serious illness, divorce, abuse, war, poverty, fleeing from persecution,etc. Remember that I am reading close to 4,000 applications a year, and they include people who have dealt with these and other issues. Having gone through something like this doesn't automatically give an applicant a leg up in admissions (more on that in Part II of this topic), but it does provide some perspective with which to look at the entire pool of applications.
Disappointments are things you wanted, but you didn't get. Disappointments are good things: they encourage us to reflect on what's important to us, and give us opportunities for personal growth. But, because they are based on things you wanted -- and may have expected (which is why you are disappointed when you didn't get it) -- what comes across when you write about them is not your aplomb or resilience in the face of adversity (which is usually unexpected), but self-absorption and immaturity. Things like failing a class, losing an election for class president, or getting rejected from a dream school, while they were probably a big deal at the time, aren't that important in the grand scheme of things...and your self-awareness and understanding of where you are going in the grand scheme of things is what I want to read about.
Focusing on disappointments can also give a mistaken impression of your priorities. For example, the student who chose to write about her grades rather than, say, her experiences at her legal internship (which I would think would be more relevant to a law school personal statement), suggested to me that she was extremely concerned about external validation. This would make her a poor fit at Yale, which has no grades or class rank. What you choose to write about (and not write about) says a lot about what you think is important, so make sure to choose your topics wisely.
What if, though, your disappointment is something that has affected your application, like in the case of the failed class above? Well, this would be the perfect opportunity to use an addendum. If this applicant had simply added a short addendum which said, "In the fall of my freshman year, I attempted to take a very difficult math class, which I failed. I subsequently took the prerequisites for that class, and retook the same class again, and received A's in all of them. I hope the Admissions Committee will take this into account when reviewing my transcript," she would have covered all the points she needed to about her grades, while freeing up her personal statement for other, more important topics. In fact, she probably would have gotten the reaction she originally desired, which is for me to admire her tenacity and perserverence in mastering a subject. You don't need two pages for that.
There's a mistaken impression generally that you have to have suffered in some way in order to be a compelling applicant. That's not true. If you're fortunate to have encountered only minor bumps in the road on your path to greatness, consider yourself lucky and think about how being in that position has affected your choices and values. You'll have a clearer picture of why you're at the point of applying to law school, and have a better personal statement as a result.