Ask Polly: I Can’t Pass the Bar!

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Photo: MikeLaptev

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Dear Polly,


I finished law school a year ago, and I’ve spent the last year trying hard, but not passing the California Bar exam. This has been a really difficult process for me, because I’m used to working hard and succeeding, or at least, trying something different and having the next “attempt” at whatever I’m doing work out. This has not been like that. On the first attempt, I think my nerves and stress got the better of me, and had to deal with some standardized test baggage. On the second attempt, I hired a tutor and thought that would be the magic pill. I felt confident and ready to kill. I was really fucking close, but no cigar. Could I do more things? Always.
Do I think the Bar graders can eat multiple dicks? Of course. But whatever the reason, being really close seems to suck harder, because it means I was really close to having a life for the foreseeable future and being closer to realizing my dream of being a kick ass civil rights lawyer. I know all of this is temporary, and many people have to take this godforsaken test a number of times in California, but it still sucks super hard.

At the same time I know I’m unbelievably blessed. I have amazing friends and a supportive family. I have a great boyfriend and great roommates and an actual legal job with colleagues who are such down-to-earth and lovely people, and I didn’t need the test to keep my job. That has greatly eased my stress. The universe made my boss another woman of color who took the bar three times herself, and she’s so open to talking about her process and all the feels involved with me. But it’s still hard to deal with this insecurity and feeling of intense sadness that comes with trying something and not succeeding, facing the world, and explaining your failure, over and over again.

The whole process of attending institutions in this country is to indoctrinate you into the belief that these things matter, when they don’t. I’ve legitimately not given a fuck about that stuff since high school, because I went to a school where everyone was insanely competitive, and I decided then to do my own thing. I went to law school because I love to nerd out on constitutional law. When I didn’t get into a top school, I still wanted to go. So one silver lining is that how I feel in this moment, through this so-called failure, is the closest I’ve been to myself since I left high school — when I studied and learned for learning’s sake, where I was intellectually curious not for the rewards or the awards, but because I was just hungry for knowledge and energized by it. I’m not talking about the joys of studying for the bar (the bar can go fuck itself), but simply existing and working because I like what I’m doing and the shininess of some social-success marker matters less than being a good person, treating your friends and family with love and respect, and being motivated by something intrinsic versus extrinsic.

This time I’m taking the bar on my own terms. I’m feeling freer and more loose in my studying, and I’m not permanently tired all the time. But I’m concerned about the stress this puts on my relationship. My boyfriend is supportive, understands the injustice of this fucking test, and even encouraged me to say “Fuck it” and take it again. But, he passed the first time, he works as a lawyer, and is right where he wants to be career-wise. Even though he can empathize, I’m envious of where he is and the fact that it was so easy for him. Yesterday evening, I was studying into later in the evening than I have been and walked in on him watching porn, and I got super-weird. We have a great sex life, even with this bar madness, but instead of thinking “He’s masturbating because he didn’t want to bother me while I studied,” I immediately went to “I hate this test,” “It’s destroying my sex life,” “Will he even want me if I never pass this?“ (“Will I want me if I don’t pass this?”), “Fuck this country and its stupid arbitrary barriers,” and made him feel bad for masturbating. I apologized soon after, but hate that I’m behaving so irrationally, and I’m letting this test make me act a damn fool at times.

No matter how much I try to detach myself from this thing, I feel like it’s taken over my life and is making me forget who I was without it. I’m reminded of it every time I look for a job where it says “ACTIVE BAR LICENSE IN CA REQUIRED,” every time I go out with friends and they ask me how it went and try to assure me how smart I am, and how I have to say that I know, and it’s a stupid fucking test, etc., ad infinitum. Every time someone from my law school thinks they know how to pass, because they did it one time and moved on merrily with their life, they want to give me advice like they have the secret keys to success. I know it’s temporary, but in the present moment, it’s hard to disentangle myself — my dreams, and my value and self-worth — from what feels like the fattest setback ever. If I don’t need other people to assure me that I’m hard-working, and talented, then why does it still hurt so bad?

Please Help Me Let This Go and Live My Best Life

Dear PHMLTGALMBL,

I know this will probably piss you off, but as I read your letter, I kept thinking, “She needs this.”

I’m taking a leap of faith to tell you such an obnoxious thing. But I have to trust my instincts. I want to get you out of this torturous nowhereland of self-doubt! And to do that, I can’t give in to my own self-doubt. I have to believe that I’m capable of stringing words together in a way that might set off a brilliant flash of light inside of you.

It would be easy to feel doubt, as I put words on the page today. I got five hours of sleep last night because I had to stay up late to give my younger daughter a puffer of albuterol because she’s had a bad cold that’s messing with her asthma. I also came down with a weird rash on my legs last night that (irrationally!) makes me think I have a chronic malady like everyone else I know who’s oldish. “This is the start of a bad short story that ends in death,” I told my friend on the phone today, and we both laughed hard. She’s waiting for some scary test results, like all humans on the planet are at the moment, or at least they are inside my jumpy rodent skull.
Who would want advice from this rashy, rapidly aging rodent? What crumb of wisdom could I possibly offer you?

I’ll tell you what the fuck I have to offer: I know how to take a leap of faith. I know how to resist the urge to look for reassurance, as you’ve been doing for weeks now, bringing up the bar and how you didn’t pass (or maybe just hinting at it) even though you don’t really want to hear a goddamn word anyone else has to say about it. You keep opening that door. Maybe you’ve always done that. I’ve done it for years, but now I know better. When it comes to the things that always make my old rodent brain go jittery and needy and weird (these triggers still exist, somehow! I haven’t outgrown them!), I say FUCK NO to myself. I say “Don’t take anyone’s temperature on how you’re doing! You don’t really want feedback.”

Because at some point I noticed that the act of looking for reassurance from people who seem alllllmost but not quite equipped to give it was a bizarre, immature, self-involved compulsion and I needed to cut that shit out forever and ever. I needed to tune into how I felt RIGHT AFTER ASKING. That feeling of “Why am I compulsively demeaning myself right now?” And also the cringing at actually being reassured, because it doesn’t even help. It’s like starving in the desert and asking for more sand.

You already know you’re smart, young failer of the bar. What you’re having trouble with is remembering it when you’re in a situation you can’t fucking stand. No wonder you’re also struggling with recalling actual, concrete facts and appearing confident when you’re put on the spot. You are fixated on trying to remember (as opposed to knowing, for certain). And you resent being measured. That is clear in every line of your letter. When you walk into that room to take the bar, you are angry. You don’t want those fuckwits to measure you. You’re panicked, too, because you think your anger means that you were meant to fail. You’re an impostor, and you always have been.

But it’s easy to feel like an impostor when you’re subjected to a new standard of measurement! Last year, after living under a rock for almost a decade, I had to promote my book, and I was ambivalent about the whole exercise. I was also involved in pitching myself, my ideas, and my supposed “brand” in meetings at the time. Nothing makes my existential rash flare up quite like the word “brand.” I don’t want to be a thing that people buy. I don’t want to seem like a professional. I prefer “sloppy jerk.”

Or this was my hang-up last year. But instead of hiding, I got very granular. I changed how I got ready to do these difficult events and meetings. I said reassuring things to myself while showering, while blowing dry my old rodent hair, while putting makeup (makeup I had researched) onto my old rodent face. I resolved not to ask “How did I do?” I resolved to say to myself, “I will do well. I am damn good.” And then I did do well. I was damn good. It was all so simple.

Some of these things didn’t pan out. I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. So instead of sitting around, being fawned over, stacking up big piles of cash around me, I spent this spring struggling to write a new book (selling it was a big victory, admittedly) and battling one stupid malady after another. I’ve seen my general doctor every other week for the past three months. They’re just small things, to be clear. But it’s taken me off my game a little. I’m feeling my age. I’m feeling fragile.

And this is actually good for me. Right now I’m not even a tiny bit distracted by the notion of grand success, of my giant ego, of glory and specialness. Even though I haven’t really wanted those things that much since I was very young, sometimes the stars can align in such a way that I hope for them and indulge in magical thinking in spite of myself. But I know now that what I really need to do, instead of being whisked into a fast-paced new world of tall dollars, is to soak a washcloth in hot water and Epsom salts and press it onto my fucking eyelid boil for three hours a day.

I sit around and talk to my clever freaky children while I’m soaking my witchy eye boil. Or I think my thoughts. I think about how much I love my life. I think about how fucking lucky I am just to be here. And I’m very healthy at the moment, in many ways: eating well, sleeping well, exercising like a rat on a wheel, more than ever. I am working hard just to stand still, and it feels good, actually. This is where I need to be.

You are also working hard to stand still, because this is your moment to let go of other people’s reassurances, to step back from bad conversations, and to center yourself and REMEMBER. Remember what you already know about who you are. You are brilliant, but you refuse to leap.
You are sure that you will fall and be crushed, because people are MEASURING. (Those measuring motherfuckers! How DARE they?! )

You’re also afraid to leap into a vulnerable space with your boyfriend. But you have to tell him all of the things you told me: You’re afraid to mess this up. You know it’s not about him. In spite of your best intentions, you’re envious of the ease with which he pulls it all off. What can you do? You’re human. And even though you 100 percent don’t buy our culture’s binary of winners and losers, you still feel really vulnerable and jittery right now. And you should tell him that you want to be vulnerable with him. You know you don’t have to be perfect. You know he accepts you for who you are already.

Now I want to string together a message that you’ll never forget! (Rat brain, bring the magic!) You are here right now so you can leap into the darkness, so you can be more vulnerable, so you can connect with your boyfriend, with your friends, with the world, with yourself in a whole new way. You already have all of the passion you need: You love the law. You’re going to fight passionately as a civil-rights lawyer, and you’re going to love the hell out of it. You know that. So stop sitting in a room, beating yourself up for being not quite enough, and savor those goddamn facts instead of blindly stuffing them into your brain. This is not torture for you, at all! Stop acting like it is! Savor the fuck out of every word.

This is where you are: In nowhereland. It doesn’t mean anything. There will be more nowherelands ahead. You will spend many of your days on Earth working hard to stand still. If you try to speed through this, you’ll miss the magic. You have to see that this setback makes perfect sense. If you passed the bar the first time you took it, you would hit this crisis at your first job. “Am I valued?” You would be asking right now. “Does anyone see how good I am?” You might fail at that job, because you’re too paranoid about being measured. Getting too much too fast can be a curse. You need to remember how strong and sure and solid you are when you tune the world out, when you don’t get jittery and backtrack and drag all of your worries into the open. You can only tell people the truth when you’re vulnerable about it. You can’t tell them a lot when you’re defensive. It just confuses them (and you).

It’s natural that you’re fixated on some objective truth about yourself that maybe you can’t see. Because what you have and what you believe in, as a lawyer, are facts, building blocks with which you can prove that you’re smart, or prove you’re right. What you’re missing are those times where you don’t have any facts at all, but you dig deep and you improvise and you trust yourself. You’re missing the leap into darkness that makes up 90% of intelligence. Before I knew how to make that leap, I didn’t write as well. Or I could only make leaps if I didn’t know there was a cliff there.

Now I know that when I leap, I’m smarter. I also recognize how the people who really thrive are people who don’t nervously look around and compare. They trust what they already know. They know how to talk to themselves calmly. They know how to be very afraid and still leap.

You’re exactly where you should be. Savor it. This was the year that you learned to take a sure step — so sure that it could bring tears to your eyes, at how lucky and grateful you feel. This was the year that you learned to take a sure step and then leap. This was the year that falling finally started to feel like flying.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I Can’t Pass the Bar!