Law in Contemporary Society

External Validation and the the Success Trap

-- By JoshuaDivine - 22 May 2012

[I would like to continue revising this essay throughout the summer.]

Our class’s discussion of grades stood out as the most emotionally resonant exchange I witnessed anywhere at Columbia during our 1L year. The discussion’s emotional character was rooted, I think, in the fact that we were not just discussing law school grades as an evaluative mechanism. We were discussing the broader system of self-validation that has guided (and perhaps trapped) many of us for our entire life. As Anne Steinberg’s recent paper on grades and motivation suggests, we confronted law school grades as symbols of a deeper psychological conflict.

For many of us, learning to ignore grades constitutes more than a process of adopting a more rational system of self-evaluation in our legal careers. It means moving from a system of external validation to a system of self-validation for the first time in our lives. I and many of my colleagues (particularly those who went directly from undergrad to law school) have never been forced to develop a capacity for internal validation.

A Columbia Law student, almost by definition, has excelled at any evaluative mechanism thrown at her. She has mastered standardized tests and earned great grades, likely from a young age. She may have attended one of the world’s most prestigious colleges. She may have worked for renowned consulting agencies or staffed an influential legislator. For almost all of us, institutionalized evaluation has meant little more than an ongoing pat on the back. Few of us have developed any ability to evaluate our lives on our own terms. I cannot really blame us for this failure; it is hard not to love evaluation systems that amount to masturbation.

We have grown up in a world with more varied and weighty systems of formal, institutionalized evaluation than ever. We need to understand that such systems can trap successful kids just as they can suppress struggling students. While struggling classmates learned to appreciate themselves in a world that didn’t always appreciate them, we skated from success from success, blind to our failure to develop a capacity for independent self-evaluation. This failure, I think, can function as a coercive push toward ill-considered life choices just as surely as the same metrics can punish kids with learning disabilities. Many of us, in short, are addicted to formalized success.

And so in this course when we were confronted with fundamental questions like “Why should grades matter?” and “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” we instinctively fell into a defensive crouch. We were reacting to a challenge not just to our approach to law school, but life. I do not want to impute too many of my own feelings to my classmates (I certainly know some who are entirely self-validated, unconcerned with grades, and passionate about becoming lawyers for specific, great reasons), so I would like to briefly comment on my own path into and out of law school.

Like many of us in college, I was a political science major with good grades and no real plan. I was passionate about making an impact but had no idea how. Friends and mentors began to recommend I consider law school, as mentors seem inclined to recommend to every directionless but vaguely successful liberal arts student. I took a few pre-law courses; I enjoyed them, but quickly realized that my brain did not find legal reasoning very stimulating. But as graduation marched closer I began to crave another formalized path of guaranteed success after college. I was never particularly concerned with money. In retrospect, I was simply looking for another fix of external validation, an institutionalized guarantee of more pats on the back. I signed up for the LSAT the summer before my senior year. I was still not truly interested in becoming a lawyer but saw no harm in taking a test. In a crescendo of external validation, not unlike a euphoria-inducing hit, I found myself with a perfect score and a full scholarship to Columbia Law School; I never thought twice.

I realize now that I never actually decided to become a lawyer. I wanted more validation, and the prospect of Columbia Law School gave it to me. I drifted through the first semester of law school disinterested in academics for the first time in my life but unsure why. As we began our second semester, my boredom and dissatisfaction become more acute. But (in a testament to my fixation on continued external validation) the thought of not continuing law school honestly never crossed my mind.

Finally, when Professor Moglen asked us “Why do you want to be a lawyer?,” I found myself without a good answer. And over the following weeks I first allowed myself to provide an honest answer to the question: “I don’t.” Slowly, I came to decide that my first year in law school would be my last. To my surprise, the decision felt uplifting, not discouraging. I believe it was the first decision I ever made based entirely on an internal, independent sense of validation.

I do not intend to encourage my classmates to leave law school. Our class if full of talented, confident individuals who will become great lawyers. And many, if a few less, will make for happy lawyers. But as I discussed my own decision with my colleagues, a concerning number replied something like “I kinda feel the same way. But man, I just can’t imagine pulling the trigger on a decision like that.”

I want only to suggest that, in this highly institutionalized society, the successful can be trapped by addiction to external validation just as the less fortunate can be beaten down by a shortage of the same. I hope that we can all find the power to live our lives freely, confident enough to validate our choices internally, whether such validation points us toward or away from the law.

-- By JoshuaDivine - 22 May 2012

Joshua, I found your essay extremely poignant. You mentioned that you did not wish to impute too many of your own feelings to your classmates, so I wish to lend another student’s experiences as support to your paper. I have been 100% addicted to external validation, and I did not fully recognize that until I read through your work. I distinctly remember ENJOYING studying for the LSAT. Thinking back, it is easy to see why. Everyone told me it was one of the most important tests for lawyers, and I was good at it. No wonder I enjoyed taking the practice tests; they told me I was bright and good even if I was not learning to the extent of my capabilities in my concurrent undergraduate courses.

That said, I do not necessarily agree with the notion implicit in your statement, “I do not want to impute too many of my own feelings to my classmates (I certainly know some who are entirely self-validated, unconcerned with grades, and passionate about becoming lawyers for specific, great reasons)…” I may be reading into too deeply, but I find it suggesting that (1) grades are unimportant if you are self-validated and (2) you need specific “great” (I love justice, I love law, etc) reasons for wanting to be a lawyer in order to be happy practicing as one.

1. Grades can be important tools for evaluating yourself even if you are internally validated. Among my aspirations as a lawyer, I hope to become an expert on a practical subject matter. My grades have helped indicate to me my relative success in the various law subjects. My constitutional law grade, for example, indicated that my preparation for that course did not lend itself to a nuanced understanding of constitutional caselaw. That grade let me know that there is something I can work on as I move forward. My grade, therefore, has helped me move closer to my internal goal of lawyerly expertise (even if it did not open the doors of Sullivan & Cromwell.)

2. With respect to requiring specific “great” reasons for wanting to be a lawyer, I may be imputing into your statement a theme of the class suggesting that we need a specific, humanitarian interest in the law in order to derive satisfaction as a lawyer. If that is what you were asserting, then I do not think it is true. Professor Moglen challenges us to be creative in order to both (1) do well and (2) do good. But what “good” means is subjective. Part of my “good” does not involve establishing world peace, ending hunger, and curing cancer. Part of it involves having a family while my parents are still healthy, and to be able to provide for it at a certain level. A ticket to Columbia Law, even with the oversupply of young lawyers throughout the country, is still a decent means to this end. My internal goals may not be as specific or humanitarian as has been suggested is necessary, but if I achieve them (and it may be easier to achieve mine then it may be for others to achieve theirs) then I will have a happy, successful professional career.

Again, LOVED your paper, and I enjoyed the brief time we knew each other. Best of luck, you’ll do both well and good with whatever is your next step.

-Alex Buonocore


Thanks for your thoughts. I basically agree with you on both points, and addressed them more explicitly in an earlier draft. 1000 word limit and all that. I also felt completely the same way about the LSAT.

I definitely think grades can be a guide regarding interest areas and skills. Of course, they're also an extremely hazy guide and should be taken with about a dozen grains of salt. The broader problem, I think, is the number of students who don't pragmatically account for grades as you seem to, but treat them as a moral barometer for their entire life.

Also agree with the subjectivity of "good" vis a vis career choices. I've always thought it's silly to have some epic motivating narrative to your career path at age 23. So when I say "great," I guess I mean "rooted in an actual vision of where law school will take me." I think, like you, that mastery of a given subject area might be a perfectly great reason (like you finding a sort of vocation, and having a family, are fairly big priorities for me; bigger than saving whales or whatever). What I see too much of is folks chasing the next success (grades-->best journal possible---> best clerkship possible--->best firm job [or most prestigious PI position. I don't think the goodie types are immune to this sort of thinking] possible. Chasing success and nothing else without ever pausing to consider what success means, or whether success, institutionally defined, is what we really want.


That was Divine. Keep in touch and keep fighting the good fight.


Josh, Thanks for sharing this very honest and well written introspective. I commented on a related topic in my essay Defaulting into Education. Your reference to 'external' vs. 'internal' validations offered a fresh perspective, and I enjoyed thinking about these influences in context of both my specific thesis and the broader social trend. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you great success.

-- AlexKonik - 04 Jul 2012

Thank you so much for sharing this essay - I found it so thoughtful, honest, and poignant. As I edit my second paper, your piece has given me a new lens through which I may reflect on my decision to take a job in finance despite having no real interest in pursuing a career in the field. I think back to how, as a junior in college, I desperately sought and was elated to accept a position in my former company's internship program - solely because of the program's selectivity and the external validation inherent in being selected. And at the end of that summer, seeking more external validation, I partook in the firm's interview process for full-time positions, through which the intern class was whittled down to those who would return the following year as members of its graduate training program. I was ecstatic when I received an offer - in fact, I accepted it on the spot - and suddenly, my post-graduation plans were set, despite the fact that I knew after spending my summer interning that I didn't have any discernible interest in finance.

Anyway, even though the experience I wrote my paper about isn't related to grades, your insights on 'external validation' certainly seem applicable, so thank you for offering a new way to think about it. Your essay sheds so much light on why I made the choices I did, and moreover, why I was (mindlessly) thrilled at the time I was making them. Thank you again for sharing - your paper is so insightful and has been really helpful to me as I work to revise mine. Best of luck to you - you will be great in whatever you decide to do next.

-- CourtneyDoak - 05 Jul 2012

Just wanted to echo the sentiments above. Really well-written, thought-provoking piece, Josh. Thank you.

I would also like to push back a bit with a thought that is half-formed and something that I may not even believe , so take it for what it's worth. But sometimes I feel that external validation is actually not all that bad of a thing to seek. The fact is that all of the "accomplishments" in my life - going to Columbia, getting that internship, getting that job, etc. - have brought me happiness, both in the short term and the long term. The immediate elation of being validated by getting into Columbia was surely there, but I also think that being at Columbia has also satisfied me in a way that other schools wouldn't. If I were at a lesser school that had less pressure, less competition and less competition, I think it would be much more likely that I would be wondering what I was doing there. Would I really want to be putting in this effort when what I'm doing is not impressive and is not going to lead to anything? What would I think about my life?

I thought about this a lot when I was deciding whether or not to do the writing competition for law review. Doing law review seemed rather miserable (so many citations!), but I thought I would want to do a clerkship after school and that this was a necessary step and (more importantly for the content of this essay) I would regret it if I didn't try. I think I (like many of you) am someone who feeds off challenging myself and derives a lot of happiness from meeting those challenges. Maybe "meeting those challenges" simply overlaps with external validation, in part because it's difficult to meet challenges without external metrics of some sort.

This all needs to more fully developed and actually makes me feel a bit queasy reading it, but I don't think it's untruthful.

-- JaredMiller - 07 Jul 2012

Or maybe the problem with this way of thinking is that once you do end up failing to meet that challenge, you have nothing to fall back on but your own happiness. Perhaps the right (but difficult) move is to stop chasing the challenges and try to seek what substantive things really make you happy. This seems to be what Josh has done.

-- JaredMiller - 07 Jul 2012

Josh, I have a lot of respect for what you're doing.

-- HarryKhanna 07 Jul 2012


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r10 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:59 - IanSullivan
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