Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome

You’ve been studying for the bar exam for weeks now and you are proud of yourself for working so hard and learning so much material. Things are starting to come together and you are just about to be cautiously optimistic when you get taken down by the Impostor Syndrome.

You on the outside: You get top grades. You have a great job lined up. People describe you as amazing.
You on the inside: I’m a fraud, my past successes have been flukes and any minute everyone is going to find out I don’t deserve to be here.

If you’ve ever felt this way, you are not alone and this feeling has a name: The Imposter Syndrome. In a 1978 study psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Immes identified the impostor syndrome as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” These people “are highly motivated to achieve [but] live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

You feel like each step forward pushes beyond the bounds of your ability. The self-doubt is overwhelming, almost paralyzing.

What do you think you’re doing?

Who gave you permission to be here?

What made you think you could do this?

We imposters hold ourselves to impossibly high standards that we’d never expect someone else to be able to achieve. Our thinking tends to be, “If I don’t know everything then I don’t know anything.”

The Impostor Syndrome causes us to overthink and second-guess ourselves. We spend too much time worrying about how everyone else is judging us (FYI: they’re not). Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy writes, “Impostorism steals our power and suffocates our presence. If even you don’t believe you should be here, how will you convince anybody else?”

I hope you noticed how I’ve used “we.” That’s because almost everyone experiences the Impostor Syndrome. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in my office struggling to get work done because I’m caught up in feelings of inadequacy. I’m afraid I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I’m more competent than I actually am. I did not earn this success and there is no way I can sustain it. And then I whine about it to one of my sisters and get a much needed reality check: my success is not a fluke and I know what I’m doing.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why, in spite of past achievement, do we view ourselves as imposters?

A big part of it is failing to internalize our success. The good news is that there are things we can do about it.

  • Normalize it. Imposter syndrome is a situational phenomenon so call it out when it hits. Take away the power of the feeling by talking about it. Not only will you feel a sense of relief by putting it out there but you’ll see that other people feel the same way.
  • Own your achievements. Accept praise and positive feedback. Allow yourself to feel good about what you’ve done and acknowledge that you earned it.
  • Stop being your own worst critic. It’s impossible to know everything so give yourself a break. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Don’t diminish your contributions. Present your ideas without qualifying them with negative disclaimers like, “this is probably dumb but…” or “you’ve probably already heard this but…”

This is easier said than done and although our feelings of inadequacy won’t disappear instantly or even completely, we don’t have to let the Impostor Syndrome control our lives.

-KSK

Want to learn more?

Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, Your body language shapes who you are, or read her book, Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

Mid-Prep Motivation

I talk about motivation every year around this time. That’s because we are at the slap-happy stage of bar prep. You’re getting the work done and haven’t lost all your drive but that laser-focus from the first few weeks isn’t there. A quick look at social  media reveals lots of clever bar exam posts, photos, tweets, and hashtags. I’m not saying you need to go off the grid or avoid social media as it can be a wonderful way to find and share motivation but the key word is motivation. This is the psychological drive that compels you to a certain goal. It is intrinsic and comes from within. It means that you attribute success to factors under your control and believe you have the skills to reach your goal. So please stop with the those unstaged pics of you with caffeine , you about to study, or you working really hard. Not motivational and so overdone. You can do better.


According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, an object at rest will remain at rest. There is a natural tendency to do what we’ve always done. It’s called inertia. But taking even the smallest step is starts the momentum that keeps you going.  Staying motivated is not always easy. But you have a choice- you can stay where you are or take action. The decision to act is a scary one but crossing the threshold is liberating.

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credit: Karmun Loh, British Blogger

Motivation and inspiration don’t happen to you. You make it happen by taking the first step. Although this ultimately has to come from within, sometimes you need a little external push to get going. Nothing wrong with that- just get going.

-KSK

Incorporating Mindfulness Into Bar Study

Free your mind and the rest will follow.

-En Vogue (1992)

Mindfulness means being aware of the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. It is the ability to be fully present of where you are and what you are doing, and not being overwhelmed by what is going on around us. A common way to practice mindfulness is through meditation but before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as something you’re not interested in, don’t need, or don’t have time for, think again. Why should you practice mindfulness? Because it works and not just for bar prep. Click here to check out some of the numerous physical, psychological, and social benefits.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to sit in the lotus position and say “Om.” If you are in the midst of experiencing intense emotions (say, feeling overwhelmed by all of the material you are supposed to learn for the bar exam), take one minute to just stop and breathe. Pay attention to your breathing, notice the rhythm and feeling of how you take the air in and push it out. It’s not as simple as you think. Our brain is so wired to do everything that it we need to remind it to really notice the senses in a given moment, the ones that normally slip by without us ever being consciously aware of it.

How mindful are you? Take this 5 minute mindfulness quiz and find out.

Chances are, you are not as mindful as you could be. You could be a bit more accepting of yourself and your feelings, a little less self-critical and judgmental.

Here is a simple exercise to get you started:

  • Set aside some time. We’ll start with one minute.
  • Breathe in for a count of seven, hold for a count of seven, then release your breath for a count of seven. Repeat this cycle two more times.
  • Focus on the present moment. It’s not about quieting your mind or achieving a state of zen. The goal is to pay attention to the present moment without judging yourself.
  • If you notice judgments entering your thoughts, make a mental note, let it pass.
  • Return to the present moment. Again, don’t judge yourself for any of your thoughts. Simply bring your wandering mind back to the present.

The process is simple but not necessarily easy. You need to keep doing this- even once a day is sufficient.

One great thing about mindfulness is that it is so much more than breathing. You can do it with anything, any time. Below is a list of resources to help you get started:

-KSK

How to Address Bar Prep Stress

Address the Stress

StStressress is any demand placed on your brain or body. A certain amount of stress is normal and can often help you overcome challenges. But too much stress can be both physically and mentally detrimental. It takes control and starts to have a negative effect. Pay attention to how your body and mind respond to stressful situations, acknowledge what you are feeling, deal with it, and take back control. Recognizing you are stressed is the easy part. Dealing with it takes a little work.  Here are a few tips to help you address the stress:

    • Stop making this a competition. It doesn’t matter if you’ve completed 24% of the commercial bar prep assignments and your friend is at 29%. It doesn’t matter if your friend is creating flash cards and you’re not. Stop trying to win the bar exam. Comparing yourself to others is stressful. Focus on your progress and don’t worry about everyone else.
    • Focus on the process, not the product.  You don’t know the material yet so stop trying to answer questions from memory. Use your notes and outlines to answer questions and learn in context. You will go off-note in July when your brain has had time to process the material.
    • Protect your productive time.  I don’t want you stressing out because you’ve been *studying* since 9am and are still at it at midnight. If other people are interrupting you, there’s an easy solution: Move. You are not a tree. What is more difficult is to stop interrupting yourself. Studying for the bar is not fun so there is always something you’d rather do. I fully acknowledge there is a lot going on in the world but do you need to know right this second? Use a timer to track your billable study hours. Every time you stop studying, stop the clock. It won’t take long to see if you are truly protecting your productive time.
    • Take care of yourself. Eat right and exercise. You don’t have to go on a juice cleanse or work out 4 hours a day. Taking care of yourself means drinking a glass of water, eating an apple or carrot every now and then, going for a walk around the block during study breaks. Give it a try and I promise you’ll be amazed at how much more energy and focus you have.
    • Go to bed early.  Go to bed before midnight and get 7-8 hours of sleep. I don’t mean get in bed and watch videos until 2am. I mean: Go. To. Bed. No electronics. Head on pillow. Eyes closed. Sleep makes an enormous difference in being able to manage stressful situations. It gives your body the defenses to fight disease. No one wants to get sick during bar prep.
    • Avoid external stressors. If someone stresses you out because of their attitude, competitiveness, panic, etc. then stay away from that person. You can use the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech and (nicely) say that you are having trouble studying/focusing and are going to find another place to study.
    • Believe in yourself.  Enough said.

-KSK

Working While Studying for the Bar

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Guest blogger Allison Meena is a 2016 graduate of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and sat for the February 2017 bar exam. She is currently the student services liaison for the Office of Career Services at Moritz

For those of you who don’t know, I didn’t follow the traditional path to taking the bar. I chose to skip the July bar and took it for the first time in February. I was able to avoid a lot of the distractions that come with beautiful weather, but instead found myself studying while also working 40 hours a week. It is certainly not an ideal study situation, but it can be done.  For those of you in a similar situation, I have provided some insight from my experience below.

  • Create a study schedule: I think this can be helpful for everyone, but is especially important when you have more things on your plate. My normal schedule was to wake up at 5:00, study until 7:00, work until 4:30, break until 6:00, and then study until 11:00. I had flexibility depending on whether or not I was able to get any studying done while I was at work, but sticking to my routine helped to give me normalcy.
  • Track your hours: It was really helpful for me to track my hours studied and hours worked to make sure that I was devoting enough to bar prep. Professor Kelly can help you to set a minimum or maximum amount of hours that you should target when studying.
  • Quit working 4 (3 at the very least) weeks out: Communicate with your work early on that you will be leaving a month out to focus entirely on the bar. You need this time to mentally prepare and finish mastering the material. At the end of the day, they want you to pass the exam, so it’s in their best interest to give you this time.
  • Learn to say “no”: This was one of the tougher things for me to master. Whether it is saying no to friends or a supervisor who is asking you to do an extra project, sometimes it has to be done. You won’t have time to do everything, and you need to make studying for the bar exam a priority. FOMO is temporary- bar admission is forever.
  • Listen to Professor Kelly: This is the golden rule of bar prep. If she says to do something, you do it. There’s a reason she’s the Bar Wizard.

Good luck to all of you; I have every confidence in your abilities. Trust yourself, your feelings, and the journey, and I look forward to congratulating you on the other side.

-AM

Learning in Context, Part II

You already know that studying for the bar exam is different from studying for law school exams. Law school exams are at the end of an entire semester of learning, they are spread out over a week or two, you can study for one subject at a time and engage in more linear/sequential learning: organize your notes, create an outline, memorize the outline, practice using it to answer questions.

This doesn’t work for the bar exam because you are tested on all the subjects (and skills) at once. You can’t study and learn one subject and then move on to the next because this linear/sequential method only stores the material in your short term memory. Your short term memory is like a file folder- it can only hold so much. It works for law school exams because you are tested on one subject at a time. For the bar exam, you need to store information in your long-term memory. It’s not about what you know but what you can do with what you know. question-2004314_1920

This is why the commercial bar prep companies assign practice problems throughout the process. Answering questions when you don’t “know” the law feels counter-intuitive. However, it’s based on proven learning theory called retrieval practice which basically forces your brain to recall information and helps develop memory cues. In order to learn both the substance and the skills, consider using your notes/outlines to answer questions. It’s not cheating. It’s learning in context and it’s a focused and efficient way to learn. Stop trying to memorize pages and pages of notes and then doing practice problems. You’ve basically created a trash bag of information in your brain that you have to sort through and file. Instead, streamline your learning by seeing how the material is tested while at the same time organizing the information in your brain.

Another method of learning and storing information in your long-term memory is the concept of interleaving. Click here to learn about interleaving and how it works.

The next time commercial bar prep assigns practice problems, resist the urge to skip them in favor of memorizing your notes. Instead, embrace the concept of learning in context and use those notes to work through the questions. Your brain will thank you.

-KSK

Get Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

What does “get comfortable being uncomfortable” mean? It’s something I’ve been saying for years. When I coached swimming, I said it to my athletes all the time. In swimming, every hundredth of a second matters so when you’re five meters from the wall and you think you need to take a breath, don’t. You are less than a second from finishing and taking a breath (or lifting your head) creates drag which can mean the difference between winning the most Olympic gold medals ever or… not.

Getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable also means not being afraid to fail. Swimming great Katie Ledecky fails “spectacularly” and that is why she wins.

There’s no magic bullet…[Katie] doesn’t have this incredible wingspan. She doesn’t have webbed feet. You look at Katie, just like with Michael [Phelps], and you realize the differentiator is between the ears. And their hearts. Their appetite for competition, their unwillingness to lose, and their embracing the challenge. And not just the challenge on competition day, which is a huge part, but the challenge of the training grind.

– Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s coach

At the Rio Olympics Ledecky finished so far ahead of the competition that she spawned Chuck Norris-like memesLedecky1

So, what does this mean for the bar exam? It means that you push yourself past your comfort zone. It means you don’t quit when things get hard. It means you mess up, make mistakes, and fail. A lot. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable means you are prepared for and can handle just about anything. Things don’t have to go perfectly for you to succeed. You have learned how to adapt, adjust, and move forward. No one likes feeling uncomfortable but avoiding that feeling and being afraid to fail is exactly why people fail the bar exam. They are afraid to make mistakes and afraid to be wrong. They are afraid of what others will think and that their best isn’t good enough.

It’s week two of bar prep and the uncomfortable feelings are creeping in. You can avoid them and take a breath or you can hold on, push through and get to the wall first.

-KSK