Law students are often anxious, if not downright terrified, of being exposed as possessing the most shameful of all human traits—not knowing something. Well, we certainly act and feel at times like it’s that shameful. Days, even weeks, can be ruined by a misstatement during a cold call. Lecture can feel like a dunk tank, with the professor ready at any moment to throw a question at your target and drop you into a bone-chilling pool of humiliation. Early in my 1L Civil Procedure course, (the stellar) Professor Rubenstein asked me a question about establishing personal jurisdiction, and I blanked. I felt distraught for days.
Admittedly, fear is a potent motivator; I read the next case in Civil Procedure more diligently. But fear also erodes mental health through unceasing stress and contributes to alarmingly high levels of depression among law students.
The negative consequences of ignorance-shaming don’t stop there. Many students are reluctant to ask questions during class (or even privately during office hours) because they fear it will betray deficiencies of aptitude and knowledge that will render them less worthy of respect. Conversations with classmates about foreign topics are steered clear of. Rather than viewed as exciting opportunities to explore new terrain, classes on unfamiliar subjects are often avoided at all costs. Where learning could occur, ignorance persists, and the purpose of this awe-inspiring institution is defeated.
Why should not knowing something feel like a great moral shortcoming? A superior, alternative mindset may be best conveyed through metaphor.
In our minds, we each carry a strikingly gorgeous assortment of magic diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, and more. Each stone is an insight, perspective, bit of knowledge, or emotional quality we’ve picked up along our life journeys due to our experiences and inherent attributes, and each is magical in that it can be duplicated and gifted. These gems enhance one’s ability to enjoy life and to better the world, and no two pouches are the same – my set of stones differs dramatically from yours in color, shape, and type.
At law school, we’re exposed to many new stones each day in class, at lunch talks, in the organizations we serve, and in spontaneous conversations. A classmate displays some knowledge – for example, a crisp grasp of the federal budget process or fluency in 1970’s pop culture – and often, we become secretly dismayed. Why aren’t we good enough to have known that? Why didn’t we make more of our lives?
But these thoughts tragically underestimate our self-worth. We each own a multitude of stones that our peers neither have nor have even conceived of. I grew up in rural Illinois as the son of Iranian immigrants. My life is a beautiful tale shaped by a series of remarkable people and events. These experiences have afforded me certain stones that few to no other people on this planet possess. But for every shining sapphire in my pouch, there are many thousands more I lack and won’t come close to attaining without humbly learning from others.
So your classmate may know more about appropriations committees or Saturday Night Fever, but while they were learning about these things, you were out in the world learning something else; you were living and breathing and taking in different experiences and developing different expertise. You were gathering different stones. Perhaps, given your existing assortment, you didn’t appreciate the nuance in a particular reading assignment in the same way as some of your classmates. This doesn’t make you the slightest bit inferior. Your idiosyncratic treasury of gems will uniquely qualify you to appreciate a different element of the course and meaningfully contribute then.
If we accept that our experiences have afforded us valuable and unique insights and characteristics, or in other words, if we accept that our pouches are brimming with singular stones, we’ll realize that we have much to contribute and thus be at peace with making mistakes. Consequently, we’ll be more at ease during class, more secure in asking questions, and more willing to venture into intellectually foreign environments. This will lead to yet more learning and stone-gathering in a virtuous cycle.
Realizing we lack certain stones should thus bring exhilaration, not shame. Finding room for growth should engender delight. Be excited as well when you realize you possess a stone that someone else doesn’t. It’s a reminder that they, too, have unique ones to share, with both individuals made richer through mutual gifting. This is how education is supposed to work; already knowing much of what your colleagues know, or not regularly experiencing moments of deep confusion, is not an affirmation of self-worth but a signal that you’re in the wrong place.
Let’s also be sure to define what counts as a stone in an enlightened manner that captures the full academic and human experience. Mastering the Bluebook or the Rule Against Perpetuities is a breathtaking emerald, but so is an uncommon kindness, a generous appetite for service, the perspective that accompanies tending to an ill relative or burying a loved one, and the ability to pierce through tense moments with humor, among many other majestic traits.
Embracing these magic stones will crucially allow us to maximize our precious, fleeting time together at Harvard Law School, where our classmates are in fact our complements, not competitors. We each are puzzle pieces — small and limited on our own, eventually completing each other in ways initially unforeseeable, and our ultimate picture, or destiny, is interlinked and thus incomplete without everyone’s contribution. No piece is smaller or less significant; we just have different places on the board. Embracing the idea of magic stones will also encourage us to show deep humility toward those who aren’t as formally educated or as knowledgeable about law as we are. They have their own reservoirs of glittering jewels that we may only hope to bask in the glow of.
So rejoice the next time your professor perplexes you with a tricky question — you’re about to add a new stone to your pouch. By espousing this enhanced mentality and culture, we’ll become enriched by each other’s treasures, all while helping to fulfill a paramount duty — leaving this school to future generations better and more sparkling than we found it.