• Wenee Yap

The Fear of Making Mistakes

The other day I came home from work and cried.

Firstly, I’d like to say that it is okay to cry. As a law student, I know that we like to feel capable, confident and unflappable. When threatened with thoughts of academic or professional inadequacy, we pretend to be all of the above and more. “Fake it till you make it” is, after all, our unofficial mantra.

But it’s okay to admit to yourself that, beneath your calm and capable exterior, you sometimes feel inadequate. Perhaps you have just entered your first year of law studies, and are suddenly feeling like a very small fish in a rather large and deep pond. Or maybe you have just begun a new job, and are the newbie in the office who jams the printer and forwards emails to the wrong people. Even if you are comfortably in your third or fourth year of law school, you may be facing the competitive arena of seasonal clerkships for the first time in your university career.

Whatever your circumstances are, we all, if not as law students then as mere human beings, sometimes feel out of our depth, embarrassed and even humiliated by inanimate objects.

For me it all began with a printer. My instructing solicitor asked me to print a document for her. Two hundred and thirty pages, double sided, single staple in the top left-hand corner. Easy. As I stood in front of the machine eagerly awaiting the product of my excellent IT and printing skills, I realised that the printer was spewing out ream after ream of paper with text on only one side. To make matters worse, the darn machine was one of those twelve-functions-to-make-your-life-fantastically-easy-or-just-as-easily-stuff-you-up models.

So when I pressed the emergency ‘stop’ button it merely beeped at me disgruntledly then carried on merrily printing away. When I finally bribed it with extra reams of fresh paper to print what I needed, I was so flustered at having single-handedly slaughtered a rainforest that I forgot to print a second and equally important document for my solicitor. This resulted in me awkward jogging the two city blocks between the office and the court twice to deliver documents. Not to mention the embarrassment of having to twice slink into an active court room in front of half a dozen prominent QCs.

From there on my day only went downhill. I misunderstood instructions and spent an hour doing work that was meant for somebody else more experienced and efficient. I placed a file on a desk that had spilt water on it without looking. I tried to change the toner for the printer but only managed to spill black dust all over the carpet. Towards the end of the day even the formatting on the word processor had become an insurmountable challenge. The bullet points simply refused to line up.

So when the work day was finally over, I collapsed in bed and cried.

The discipline in which we find ourselves is one that demands exactness and rewards attention to detail. As law students, we train ourselves to strive for perfection and usually we do it very well. So well, in fact, that when we do make a small mistake it can feel monumental and be blown out of proportion by our own expectations. It can feel earth shattering that somebody who is capable of reading a Lord Denning judgment from beginning to end in one sitting, can be reduced to frustrated tears by misplaced punctuation. Or maybe that’s just me.

Consider for one moment the idea of making mistakes. We all know that it is okay to make mistakes, but we don’t often admit out loud how bad it can feel. This is a friendly reminder that you will stuff up, and when you do, it will feel bad. You might even cry a little. But the on next day, you will tell yourself to get over it and carry on with a calm and competent composure.

Fake it till you make it.

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