Atychiphobia – the fear of being wrong – is a condition that has plagued many a law school tutorial. Common symptoms may include: periodic muteness, an aversive gaze, prolonged bowing of the head presumably to stare at desks or shoes, and the tendency to end all statements with an upward inflection. Though highly contagious, it is swiftly remedied with a teaspoon of confidence, a dash of humility and a swig of Dutch courage, alas minus the Dutch (save that for after class).
Why are we afraid?
For me the cycle usually begins with a feeling that I might not have the right answers, which is closely followed with the logical realisation I could be wrong. I am then left with two options: share my answer in class and risk being wrong or shrink back into my chair and avoid all eye contact.
But why are we so mortified at the prospect of being wrong? The first possibility that springs to mind is that we don’t really want to appear embarrassingly unintelligent or underprepared in front of peers and tutors. Perhaps participation is assessed, you haven’t done all the readings (or any of the readings), or your tutor has a CV as long as the Nile and practically published a library and, writing from personal experience, is fluent in eight languages including braille!
These reasons are easily done away with when you give it some proper thought. By and large, the general consensus is (casting dumb lawyer jokes aside for the moment) that you need more than half a brain to get into law school, let alone study it, so the notion that one mistaken contribution will label you the class dunce is in itself foolish. Or maybe the answer lies in our inherent quest to be lawyers: our minds unconsciously fast-forward to the courtroom where being wrong could land you a lengthy lecture from a displeased judge or hand a victory to opposing counsel.
Why we shouldn’t be afraid
Whatever the reason, law school unlike the courtroom of the real world is a safe place where training wheels are securely fastened and creativity is fostered through pushing the boundaries and cultivating innovative thought. Being wrong is essential to the formulation of new ideas. I remember in one of first my ever tutorials I wrongly found a charge of criminal damage based on a harm to intangible rather than physical property. After pointing out my mistake, the tutor said that it was an interesting idea told with me run with it to see if I came to a different conclusion.
When we are wrong it’s quite rare that we are completely outside the realm of logical possibility. There is usually a good reason as to why we arrived at that particular answer and it’s often worth exploring. Also, without the fear of making mistakes we actually learn and develop faster. I remember a visual arts elective I did on drawing – it was most fun I’ve had while earning credit points. At our first tutorial we had our erasers confiscated, given sheets of expensive paper and told to draw a portrait of another student in the class. The horror! There was however method to this madness, after a couple of hours, a few attempts and a number of apologies to our subjects, our portraits actually turned out to be pretty accurate expressions of likeness.
Don’t let the fear of being wrong hinder your journey through law school. The mistakes that you will make could well lead to an interesting class discussion or even a thesis topic. There is definitely right in being wrong!
Enjoyed this post? Sign up for the Survive Law weekly newsletter for more.