Personal Responsibility – Can Failure be the Best Predictor for Success?

success-259710__340One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.  P.J. O’Rourke

A hard lesson to learn for some people is that failure is only a bad thing if you try to cover it up or blame someone else. As a Dean in charge of disciplinary matters in law school, I encounter students who are not unlike many of the clients I represented, as their defense counsel, for criminal charges. It always amazes me how many of the issues that arise concerning cheating could be easily resolved if the students involved simply owned up to the behavior alleged. Then we move on with the consequence phase of the process without a lot of fuss. Instead, they mount defenses that are full of holes or claim someone else was responsible for behavior that forced them to engage in prohibited conduct. In the process, they expend tremendous amounts of emotional capital and, in the end, most of them are found to be responsible anyway.

Why is this?

It is human nature to minimize our faults and emphasize our positive attributes. But the pressure placed upon many millennials to succeed in life is partially the product of limited self-confidence, and the FEAR, by them and their parents that they will EVER SEE same opportunities that my generation experienced. We “picked the low hanging fruit” and had advantages of a valuable dollar, with pensions,  and Social Security at the ready to feather our nest in our later years. Millennials and younger generations don’t see their future success as guaranteed. In fact, they are very anxious and concerned that the economy might collapse like we have seen in Greece or other developed countries. And they don’t believe Social Security or pensions will be in place to secure their future retirement. That fear fuels many of their activities and the competitive spirit that they display, in my opinion.  And the end justifies the means – even if those means include cheating.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone cheating or shortcuts. I believe understanding those fears requires a different approach to address the problem. Only then can we hope to change behavior.  Within organizations, businesses, and academic institutions we need to help those inclined to cheat understand that they are only cheating themselves. Not making the mark is not failure. What counts is that you gave it your best effort. If you fail and tried your best, then you should take pride in your failure as the first step in reaching success. The more you try and fail, but continue to try, should be the measure of your success. These are the people who will ultimately be the greatest successes in life. Because they are persistent and motivated.   But making excuses or taking shortcuts is a guaranteed path to failure, both in life and in your own self-esteem.

A couple of times in my career as a criminal defense attorney, I had clients who said “I did it, and I am willing to take my punishment.” Of course, I counseled them on their right to proceed to trial and force the prosecutor prove the allegations. They also knew the possible consequences of an admission before going forward. In every instance the judge was very lenient and the prosecutor even supported the most lenient outcome possible under the sentencing guidelines.

When I meet with students to counsel them, I explain why employers look for students graduating in the top 5% of their class or graduating with the highest grade point averages. They do this as they are playing the odds. Students who have been high performers in law school are more likely than not to need less “baby-sitting” or assistance to convert them from a “loss center” to a “profit center”. They are more inclined to find solutions faster and to be better writers and researchers.  And, frankly, they might be right. But, in my experience, some of the most effective students in my clinic, serving live clients, have been those who demonstrated persistence and motivation. Many of the low academic performing students actually understand how difficult it is to understand some of the legal concepts associated with estate planning. As a result, they often break things down and demonstrate greater patience than some of my high academic performers.

I tell students that if a potential employer is using as their only measure that student’s GPA, that that potential employer may be more likely to “use” them and burn them out. They might get paid more, but in time they burn out and either go out on their own or find someone who treats them with respect. I tell them to do the best they can and if that means that they achieve a 2.0 GPA, then sit erect, look a potential employer right in the eyes and tell them that you worked hard for those grades and you are willing to work hard for your clients. If that doesn’t do the trick – move on or go solo. Because that is not the person who values your persistence and motivation and will not value you as a person. First be true to yourself and others will be true to you as well.

 

Posted in For Established Solos, For Law Students, For Recent Graduates.

5 Comments

  1. As a person who gave their all to overcome overwhelming odds to get out of poverty by getting an education, only to learn affluent people will beat you back down to the poverty from which I came from, I call bullshit. What matters is affluence–nothing more, nothing less. If you are born affluent, you will have a good life; if not, affluent people like this dean will consistently blame you for the lack of success.

    • Jeremiah, I think you may have missed the point. First, work hard and do your best. If your
      GPA doesn’t match up to someone’s expectations, then tell them to “go fly a kite” and go out on your own. The only one who will determine your success as a Solo is you. Read the last paragraph – “I tell students that if a potential employer is using as their only measure that student’s GPA, that that potential employer may be more likely to “use” them and burn them out. They might get paid more, but in time they burn out and either go out on their own or find someone who treats them with respect. I tell them to do the best they can and if that means that they achieve a 2.0 GPA, then sit erect, look a potential employer right in the eyes and tell them that you worked hard for those grades and you are willing to work hard for your clients. If that doesn’t do the trick – move on or go solo. Because that is not the person who values your persistence and motivation and will not value you as a person. First be true to yourself and others will be true to you as well.” With a law school degree, you have the one thing no one can take away from you – knowledge of the law and that will allow you to beat down those who transgress against you. I was hardly affluent. Read the blog I just posted today before I read your comment. Read all 130+ posts in this series and you will see that I am for those who struggle and help them to break the cycle of helplessness. And, congratulations on getting that education in spit of economic hardship. You are the very type of person I am speaking to. . . .

      • I believe I understood the gist of your article and see that my response may have come across as attacking. That was not intentional and I apologize for coming across that way.

        In my humble opinion, the most important predictor of success is affluence, because affluence affords you the opportunities necessary to keep playing until you can succeed. If you succeed at everything, but you cannot afford to keep playing–e.g. you graduate in the top 5% from a top-tier law school, and win every motion/hearing/case, etc. you handle, but cannot afford to eat–you will eventually lose to an opponent with the resources to undue you (or you will starve and die). However, if you lose everything you touch, but can afford to keep playing indefinitely, you will eventually win (if by nothing else, becoming an expert in how to lose). In other words, the single most important factor is the ability to have and maintain the bottom levels of Maslow’s Pyramid.

        By contrast, I do not think personal responsibility, education, or persistence is the silver bullet for success. I can provide anecdotes wherein the opposite was true; accepting personal responsibility—and refusing to make excuses—directly resulted in going without food. But, instead, for a more public example, see e.g. pg. 5, 2nd para. of the Supreme Court denial of certiorari dissent available here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-7848_nmip.pdf. While I make no evaluation of the merits of this case (and have no knowledge, expertise, or interest in criminal law) it seems personal responsibility was less important than affluence enough to hire an experienced advocate.

        In that context, even being used and “burned out” by a firm, but compensated enough to maintain the absolute lowest levels of Masolw’s Pyramid.

  2. Persistence and intrinsic motivation are absolutely the keys to success. Giving up when someone is “holding you down” is not being persistent. Persistence is finding a different path as is suggested by being a solo practicing attorney. My 12 year old son demonstrates these qualities on a regular basis. He rides his bike to football practice in full gear because he wants to be there before his coach. He is there for every practice and game sometimes hours before they begin. He decided that to be a on a better soccer team he has to play all year round-even during football season. He is a solid C student and finds school appalling. I am fine with him doing the best he can in school, because I know the grades might help people get jobs, but its persistence, intrinsic motivation, grit and determination that get you ahead and keep you there. Affluent people will remain affluent, and they will try to beat you down. It’s your decision to accept it or move down a different path. Interestingly, I just read a book called Drive by Daniel Pink discussing this very topic.

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