In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews Ellen Cassidy, author of the acclaimed Loophole in LSAT Logical Reasoning and founder of Elemental Prep, on LSAT strategies, handling expectations (both from others and self-imposed), trends in law school applicants/LSAT-takers over time, and more. Ellen, as an LSAT expert and former applicant who was admitted to Harvard Law but turned them down thrice, has a great many nuggets of wisdom to share about confidence, bad advice, mentorship, destiny, and imaginary ceilings. Listen below.
Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. I'm here with Ellen Cassidy who is the author in the six year making The Loophole in LSAT Logical Reasoning. And we might get into it with the theme of the podcast is going to be on handling expectations. I have so many questions though, like why did you pick logical reasoning and not the other two, which is probably a pretty good bet given that games is going away, right?
Ellen: I would like to say that I'm an actual psychic and I knew that in 2012 when I started working on The Loophole, but no, I mean, it was just pure love. I say it in the introduction of the book that the first time I ever did a logical reasoning question, it felt like I was someone wandering in the desert who heard their native language for the first time. And there's nothing more fun, more exciting to unpack just for me.
Mike: Good lord, I don't have any of that in my life, Ellen. I need to get out more and discover things. I like trail running, can I monetize that? Can I write a book? I don't think anyone's written a book on running before, I would be groundbreaking in that arena. We’ve met before in Napa.
Ellen: We did.
Mike: You thought it was surreal, why is that?
Ellen: First, we went to the Spivey/PowerScore event, Dave from PowerScore invited me to go and you kindly allowed me to go. And so we were in this back room of this bar and it was like all of these admissions consultants, a couple of students, and it just felt like all these people in one room that you hear about on the internet and a bunch of students. It was fun, but it was just like, “Where am I?”
Mike: Well, trust me, if you knew me better, and Anna Hicks-Jaco, our soon to be president of our firm who is recording this, would affirm this statement, I have no authority over anything, so I couldn't have kept you out if I tried but I certainly didn’t try. The back story is really funny, I had made a bet on Reddit that no school would come in with a median 175 LSAT score. I was certain enough to say on Reddit, “I will post an event for everyone on Reddit at a bar over the age of 21.” You could have been 15 years old, you wouldn’t have gotten alcohol. The reason why I was so certain, our company does a lot of stuff for law schools and universities on U.S. News reverse engineering, other equations and algorithms. And there's no advantage between a 172 and a 175. Maybe for bragging purposes, but for ranking purposes you'd want to come in with a 174 and a 4.0 GPA, that would actually help you. And this was the year that Yale was tied with Stanford. So through the lens of what I do, now Yale doesn't call me for rankings help, they've been ranked number one for many, many years. But through my lens, I was like, this is just nonsensical to try. So I was wrong, Killoran bailed me out and he got the funds to buy the bar out.
Ellen: It was awesome. Any time I can go to Napa to hang out with Dave is like a, it's a great excuse. And so it was a fun night.
Mike: I’d go there like once a year just to strategize with Dave.
Ellen: I would love to say I have a set schedule of how often I go visit Dave. But for listeners who may not know, Dave has been my mentor and favorite person in LSAT for actually 10 years. I love him. I can't say enough good things about him. And I feel like it's this lesser known thing in LSAT how close we are.
Mike: And just for the listeners, I'm Dave’s mentor and he calls me for business advice. Maybe you didn’t know, that's a joke. So you wrote this beautiful book and you picked the right one and you run - I know there’s people at your firm - but Elemental Prep which prepares people for the LSAT. Is it just that one section or is it –?
Ellen: Oh no, all three. Yeah, I have methodologies for all three. It's just that I haven't done all the legwork and put out books for the other two.
Mike: You shouldn’t for the other two. Are you going to do another book?
Ellen: I have been working on it for a long time. I think I might veer more into the online course arena, just because it's more easily update-able and go from there. But The Loophole is very applicable to reading comp, like the translation stuff, which is basically how I teach people to read and remember when they interact with complex text. It's super portable over to reading comp. So the most likely thing is bring up an online platform and then doing kind of add-on like material for reading comp and going from there.
Mike: Okay. We're going to talk about applications and I think we both have interesting stories. But I also am keenly aware of our listeners who want any hack they can. Can you give us a hack for reading, a hack for logic?
Ellen: Sure. I would say stop reading for speed as your only goal, and actually read to know what you read. Because sure, you know, the LSAT’s a timed exam, life is timed, billable hours are timed, all that kind of stuff. But you'll never do something fast before you do something well. And the way to do it both fast and well is to do it well many, many, many times. And so you have to build a habit of quality over the zeal for speed above all else. It's like this instant gratification desire of like, “okay, well I just have to do it either fast now, based on wherever I am right now.” That's wonderful and I totally respect the intention. But you can't do that to the exclusion of considering the quality.
Mike: It's something very similar to what our listeners have heard me talk about time and time again, which is, do not race towards an arbitrary submission of your application. Don't say, “I'm going to submit by September 15,” because this myth of an early bump is not even real. I could go into three hours of depth why it's not helpful to apply September 15 versus November 1. But what would hurt you is if you speed race to submit September 15 with a poor application, that's probably a pretty similar analogy.
Ellen: The other day I said to Dave, I was like, “can you gut check me on something?” And he was like, “okay,” and I was like, “the less someone knows about law school admissions, the more of a game changer they think it is to apply early.”
Mike: The old mythology, Ellen, which you might remember, is that schools average LSAT scores, so you’d better only take it once. And the reason for that mythology is many, many years ago, law schools had to report every score to the ABA, those schools did average. Now, we're talking like 18 years ago. But 15-18 years ago, that got changed and law schools only had to report the highest score to the ABA, but because of the previous mythology, that myth lingered for like eight years. And people were just butchering themselves. They were only taking the LSAT once, getting a 160 when they had diagnostically tested in the 170s. And there was large, horrible advice online, and this is where I'm going with this, “you should only take it once.” If they take it a second time and had gotten a 170, they would have gotten full rides at top 10 schools. And they were following bad advice. It is part and parcel of that, the less they know. But I think there's lots of information out there that's bad. So it's the less good information they know. And there were people every year that doubled down on this silly myth, including an LSAT prep company that has no experience in admissions, saying you have to apply in September or not at all. People say things with a lot of authoritative confidence behind them that are dead wrong. And so they think they know, but the reality of the matter is they've never done admissions. So it sounds logical, if I apply early, I'll get read earlier and maybe have a better chance while there's more open spots. I don't want to get into all the nuances, but it's just categorically wrong. And then what about another hack for logic?
Ellen: How about respond to what you read when you read it all the time. Basically, whenever you're reading anything, if you want to be doing quality reading, that's going to improve your reading skill, you should be having a conversation with that text all the time. And it's that kind of active conversation that makes the LSAT easy. It makes it much easier to remember, much easier to interact, much easier to critique, everything essentially is easier if you cultivate an internal conversation. That like I read a sentence and I laugh at it or I'm like, “oh, come on,” you know, I have some kind of emotional reaction, joke, critique. That was the thing I brought to logical reasoning back in 2011 when I first took the test that made it feel so easy for me, that is the kind of secret sauce I've been spending my whole LSAT career trying to unlock and systematize for others. And so the more you can outside of the LSAT, and of course, within the LSAT, cultivate that active conversation, the easier it's going to be to be able to step up to the plate when you actually have to answer it for you know, a point or whatever else.
Mike: I give a lot of advice holistically on the LSAT, but it's along the lines of how to stay calm. I've mentioned to you, we have a world-renowned MD coming on next week. We do a lot of this. How to get into parasympathetic mindset, how to stay calm, but I don't have any technical advice. Any overarching technical advice for the test itself?
Ellen: Sure, I can go into how to train for it. I think of the LSAT like a sport, not a test. We're going in and we have one day where we compete and we're in training up until that day. And it's better if you think of it not like, “oh, I want to be perfect. I want to get it right,” but, “am I getting better?” The feeling of getting better when you're doing sports or say lifting weights or something, very naturally we know that the last rep of a set is the one where we're going to be like, “ooh,” you know, and that's okay. And I call that good pain. That's the pain of growth. That's the pain of making something better. Everybody can pass that as this is positive, I know this is good. And I think that a lot of times people hold themselves back as regards to the test and endeavors in general excellence by confusing good pain with bad pain. Because that pain in the last rep of a set of weights and the pain of your putting your hand in the fire are actually two different things. But when you put your hand in the fire, your body's like, “oh! Hurt, want to not! Don't do again!” So when someone is training for the test, very often when they encounter something difficult or they feel like they can't or whatever else, it hurts. They're exhausted. They're pushing themselves harder than they’ve pushed themselves before in other academic endeavors, to classify that as this is good pain. This is not bad pain. This is the pain of me gaining a new skill, me getting better at something and I need to lean into this the way I would lean into the last rep of a set because I know this is how my brain is literally changing physiology to be able to do this exam at the level that I wanted to it at. And do not run from that. That this is actually a gift we've been given to have this moment in our lives where we actually have the privilege of getting better at something that is going to serve us for the rest of our lives and our careers, in our studies in a lot of different domains. And so I’ll just try and flip the script on perspective in the print there.
Mike: I think that life is almost as simple as this, what is the greatest gift that we have as humans if not that we can do better? That is just one micro, we can be better people and friends, we can be better partners. I can do a better job in the gym and do that last set of failure which neurologically changes your pathways. And you can do that last set when you're in the mood, when you're in the game grinding away, you can do those last painful sets of practice because it's good pain, not bad pain, that's getting you better. What I love about the LSAT, this is not my area of expertise, is in a microcosm and what I love about admissions is you can get better and better. What we see from our clients, we see their first draft of their essays and then two months later we see their application and it's like the progress that they make is just, heartwarming is not a strong enough word.
Ellen: No, absolutely, absolutely. And as people think of improvement in an LSAT sense, I would urge them to zoom in as much as possible, because I think in LSAT-land, people tend to get really worked up about scaled scores. How often have I ever seen somebody, “oh, stuck at 153, any tips?” And there's about a million ways to be at 153 and a million potential tips that could resolve the situation. If you get obsessed with scaled scores and how do I go from 168 to 171, there's kind of no answer to that question. There are a million ways you could stay at 168. When you get obsessed with improvement, get obsessed with the foundational skills that are underlying your ability rather than just accumulation of minuses that end up on a scale.
Mike: Clearly, given that 168 and 171 are within the standard measurement of error on any given day if you're taking the same test. Don't worry so much about the static score. The more you worry about growing in the foundational areas, that static score, can grow over time. My weight on the scale bounces around and it’s just as likely to be water weight. if I'm out exercising and doing the right things, who cares?
Ellen: No, I just tell my students that all the time. And in fact, a peak behind the Elemental tutoring curtain, a lot of people at Elemental, I put them on something called scoreband. And so what scoreband means is they're not allowed to check any of their sections throughout the week. And only with me when they meet with me, I camo at, the camo review is a methodology I have of how to review sections on the website. But I hand-camo the sections with them and do or do not reveal the scores. But it's really funny how the absence of knowledge of the scores actually by itself improves the score. And that's because if throughout the week, somebody has one bad section where say, “oh, I missed X on games or X on reading comp whatever it is, they will then sabotage the rest of the week of prep. “Oh, I saw that score and I was just so discouraged, so demotivated. I didn't do anything for five days.” Or, “I was so upset. I knew I couldn't do it. So who cares about the next section?” And then it will tumble further and further. If they don't know it, and they're just concentrating on how it feels, concentrating on what they're putting in rather than what they're taking out. There's kind of like an altruism there. Then they kind of just based on the things they can actually control, as opposed to this like imaginary chasing of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I totally agree with you. I feel like we’re on the same page about a lot of this stuff.
Mike: Advice, I've been giving this for 25 years ever since I was in law school admissions is, all right you're taking the LSAT, do what I did when I was a football player and I was a football coach. I coached for a year, but more of a player. I wasn't the kicker, but what we had the kicker do is in practice we narrowed the goalposts. So they were really narrow and then in the game when the kicker was kicking, it looked ridiculously easy. What I've been having people who I've been talking to about the LSAT do, obviously not every example, but in large to great success or good success, even just some success, give themselves two and a half minutes less on the test on a couple of practice tests. Then take it again, see what happens with your score. If it shoots up five points, because you don't feel as rushed, maybe take the final two practice tests before the real thing with three minutes less time because you're narrowing the goalposts.
What I was thinking about when you were talking is the former runner in me comes out. This guy set a record, a personal record, what’s called a PR for a mile because his coach takes him to a track, one lap is a quarter of a mile. At every lap his coach gave him a false time that was faster than he was really going. So he wanted to beat a four-minute mile, at mark 1 the coach said something like 51 when he was actually at 59. So you could do instead of giving them no information, you can flatter them with false information and see if that's even a better intervention.
Ellen: That would be so fun.
Mike: Well, let's not drive business away from you by having your clients think that you're giving them false information. I like your system. I know it's incredibly well regarded. Your background is fascinating to me. You went to Stanford and then you went to Oxford for theatre, for Shakespeare theatre?
Ellen: Oh well, I was in Oxford for a term while I was at Stanford. So they have a partner program that you apply to.
Mike: But then here's the point of interest, you were admitted to Harvard three times. How was your experience at Harvard Law School?
Mike: Exactly. You denied Harvard. This is great for our listeners. And we'll put this in the show notes and we'll circle it, “Ellen Cassidy denied Harvard three times.”
Ellen: Well, I have to asterisk it. So I got in properly through the cycle in 2012 and I'll give a little bit of the insights into how all these decisions were made. I at that time was about to teach my first LSAT class, I taught my first LSAT class in May 2012. And when I was making that initial decision after getting in, I had a friend at Harvard Law School who was a 3L who I knew in college, who he said to me, “Ellen, if there is any other thing you could potentially love, you owe it to yourself to do that thing, and try and see if you could love it before you come here.” And I was like, ‘Well, there's the LSAT,” and he was like, “go do it. Just make me a promise for a year, you'll give it a try.” And he changed my life. After that year, I got three deferrals. So I deferred at that admissions point then I got another deferral, then I got another deferral. And they told me on the last one like, “this is the last one you're going to get.” I was like, you know, I'm okay with that. I understand.
Mike: Okay. So I have seen that when I was at Vanderbilt Law School, I have seen that. It makes a lot more sense. I read your bio at 3:30 this morning. That makes a lot more sense. You didn't keep reapplying.
Ellen: No, I mean, I feel like it'll be a little disrespectful to keep applying.
Mike: Trust me when I say they see goofier things. We have this on one of our TikToks, that three people walked into Harvard Law School, this isn't a joke, three people walked into the admissions office. Two dressed as chefs, one as a lobster. And they said, “Do you admit lobsters into Harvard Law School?” So they see weirder things than retracting your application and then applying again.
Ellen: That is so wild.
Mike: Oh, yeah. I mean, I’d think of stories to blow that one away. But let's shift gears. So what I wanted to do and which is how you and I ended up talking about this, is society today, it is my considered opinion, puts more pressure on college students than ever before in the history of homosapien existence. You and me, the vast majority of people applying to law school are under more psychological pressure. And I won't go into all the reasons why, we have many great podcasts with people like Dr. Gabor Maté, Dr. Judson Brewer, next week we'll have to plug in because it's on motivation, dopamine with Dr. Daniel Lieberman. So tune in next week too. But what I've learned from reading all their books, when you podcast interview someone you have to read their book, although I didn't read Loophole. I'm sorry, Ellen.
Ellen: Exception permitted.
Mike: I have no interest in taking the LSAT, for many reasons there’s a lot more pressure. And we see it in our clients. We see these expectations placed upon 18 year olds, 20 year olds, 25 year olds. I once admitted a 12 year old at Vanderbilt Law School, 12 year old, true story. And you and I can talk about some of the ways we help our clients handle the expectations. Correct me if I’m wrong, you did not have expectations placed on you and mine came much later in life. So do you want to get a little bit on your background?
Ellen: Yeah, yeah. I think when people see all the marquis names of schools in my background, they may think I grew up in a certain way and I definitely did not. I was born in Western Pennsylvania, a pretty nowhere town, and then moved to Philadelphia when I was five. And my upbringing was really characterized by my mom's drug addiction. My mom eventually disappeared when I was 11 then popped back in and out of my life until she died of a drug overdose actually when I was admitted to law school. It was right around that exact same time. And so I did not come from the kind of background where people are putting you with tutors like me or in lots of systems turning you toward this gilded future. I really saw academics as my escape. You know, it was the thing I could do. And it was how I saw myself as special and how I was going to get myself out of the situation that I was in when I was really young.
Mike: You speak very candidly and with a lot of groundedness about that, but thank you.
Ellen: Well, of course. It's always very important to me to be open about these things because I always want number one, to show people that where they come from is not their destiny. And you can make the future that you want. I always say my personal mission in life is to show people that ceilings are imaginary, and it's like sacredly important to me to show people that. And to be the help that I did not have, that's what gets me up every day. I mean, a lot of the expectations I had for myself were probably self-imposed, 100% self-imposed. That I literally remember when I was young, like third grade, I went to a library, I went up to a library and I asked for a college book and she went and got it. And I was like, “which one is the best and the furthest away?” And she opened it up and she said, “Stanford,” and I looked at her and said, “that's where I'm going.”
Mike: Did you have any resiliency? The word is resiliency factors. You made it out of a tough situation. Did you have a kind grandparent, a kind neighbor, a teacher, a mentor take interest in you or were you your own resiliency factor? Because you know, I'm writing a second book, but there's a third book down the road and if you were your own resiliency factor, that would be an interesting tale.
Ellen: I’d say I probably was my own resiliency factor. One of the hardest parts of growing up in the way I grew up was I actually was just thinking about this this week. I didn't really have anybody to talk to, to figure out and process what was going on. Like, I didn't really understand it. I just knew that a lot of chaotic things were happening and that I didn't have any control over it, and I was scared. And as all of these like events are unfolding, there wasn't really any adult who was like, “listen Ellen, let's work through this stuff.” And honestly, the first and only mentor I've ever had in my life is Dave. And that's why I appreciate him so much, and I couldn't say better things about him. He's the only person, and I could get choked up about this, but he's the only person I've ever met in my entire life who actually was like, “I'm going to help her.” That's why I just can't appreciate him any more.
Mike: Yeah, that's beautiful. I've been on both ends of that. I've had several great mentors and hopefully I've mentored some people. And beyond the scope of this interview, people who are listening to this 10 years from now will have incredible mentors in their firms or employers. And then 20 years from now they'll get to do the mentoring and there's no better feeling in life.
Ellen: And I get to be a mentor to so many amazing, you know, chickadees that I love so much. And like, I think that's where I'm comfortable, maybe from being my own resiliency factor is like, I'm used to having to you know, be the rock, the one that you can count on, the one that's there for you.
Mike: You're now the resiliency factor for other people and maybe we'll get into a little bit of that. Mine’s not dissimilar, both my parents were from the Deep South. No one in their family had gone to college. They both went to the University of Alabama. And I didn't feel like I had much expectations placed on me growing up. I don't think I was very good at many things growing up. I was slow to take to things early on, I couldn't whistle. I was the second slowest kid in my grade. You know, I always came in second to last on field day. And my parents just touted, “all right, just get into college.” My dad was military. My mom was corporate and my dad was military. So they had a seriousness about them but they certainly were very grounded. So even when I started coming out of my shell around freshman year in high school and became an All-American athlete where the expectations were there, but not from my parents, they were from coaches and the media and townspeople. They were still pretty grounded, “The pyramid gets really steep at the top, son, so even though people are writing stories about you being the second fastest kid in the nation or whatever, that's one year. And you're not going to be an Olympic sprinter like you think you are, dumb dumb.” I don't know if you know this about me Ellen, but I was not an Olympic sprinter.
Ellen: I did not.
Mike: So I was pretty grounded in low expectations, another way to word it. And then in college, same thing. But I feel that now running a firm of 35 individuals, and I wake up every morning thinking about responsibilities not just on me, some 40 people with families and a thousand roughly each year clients, maybe not that many, I don't know the exact number, that are really counting on us.
Mike: There’s a driving factor in my life which is, it's 4 AM, do I want to go write a blog? No, probably not. But do I? Yeah, probably so. Because there's a lot of expectations to help the market and help other people. But I don't think either of us feel it nearly to the extent that people applying to law school now feel it. Would you agree with that?
Ellen: I think that there is a lot of pressure on me now, but it's the pressure I seek that I want to be there for people. I want to do all these things. This is the life, you know, I chose. Like I often joke about the song Surface Pressure from Encanto. This is the star who is like the strong one is give it to your sister, your sister is stronger, that in the song, she's not loving this responsibility. I'm like the same, but I'm like, “no, give it to me. I'll do it.” I don't run from it. It's hard, of course, when you have the more human elements of your life that are needing attention and you can't give it to the extent that you would like. It's always a balance. But I think I am my own pressure cooker in a way.
Mike: It is always a balance and a lot of people listening to this are going to relate to this. The only thing I do in moderation is moderation. I can be incredibly obsessive, but you’ve got to balance that stuff out or you're just going to burn yourself out.
Ellen: Do as I say not as I do because, you know, I am someone who spent six years writing a book alone and definitely have an obsessive streak. It's when you're choosing the things that you love and want to devote yourself to. It's very different than an external narrative being placed on you and having to do things for external validation of like, somebody's going to think I'm smart, successful, etc. But when I finally made the final decision three years or two years in a row whatever it was to let Harvard off the hook, I made the decision because I was like, I'm not going to live my life for what people think about me at a cocktail party when they first meet me as like, “oh wow, she’s smart,” and it’s like I can't wake up every day and be me oh so that they are more likely to come up.
Mike: Right. I watched a documentary with Tony Bennett on Amy Winehouse, the very last sentence in the documentary, it’s a beautiful documentary, sad, obviously tragic but beautiful, is he mentioned “I wish Amy had just made it a little longer because life has a funny way of figuring itself out if you live long enough.” What you're referring to was what's psychologically called performance-based esteem.
Mike: I had a ton of it in my teens and 20s. Did I win the race, did I score the touchdown? But that's conditioned. Someone could be faster than me. Someone can tackle me. The area you want to morph to and it takes time, I mean, some awesome people listening to this they’ve already found it, but is the unconditional self-esteem because that's not conditioned on anything. You have a bad day, you still love yourself. But a lot of people are hinged on that and hinged on performance. So let's talk test-takers and applicants. I've been doing admissions for 25 years. I've been doing consulting for 12.5. I feel like I've seen a real shift in the expectations and pressure people put themselves on versus 25 years ago.
Ellen: I feel like, I've been doing this for 11 and a half years, I think, something like that. And as my scope has widened, like I teach a lot of students in Korea and China now, and my sample has selected to be more and more intense. I've probably seen a side of the LSAT test-taking population that is very, very dedicated to that perfectionism and that means a lot of what I do. Because I always say, I teach the person, not the LSAT. And the things like scoreband like I was talking about earlier, to manage those performance-based pressures of the exam more and more, that how people think they're doing and the like external pressures that are on them are more of a factor than ever.
Mike: Look, I'm going to plug your business and we've only met once. We don't know each other well. But I'm impressed how quickly you picked up the term performance-based when clearly you had never heard of it until five minutes ago. Now you're seamlessly using it in sentences. So that's probably a good sign of a good tutor. Agreed, and we have a lot of people who work with our firm all over the world. It's different in different cultures. But in general, what's happened and rankings play a huge part in this, which is one of the reasons why we talked a lot in the media about how absurd rankings are. Is the fifth-ranked school two spots better for you than the seventh-ranked school? That's an absurd statement, and rankings change every year. Did the ninth-ranked school all of a sudden get too worse overnight when they became 11th ranked? But people are really tied in, faculty, I mean, most of my career was at law schools. Let me tell you, if you think it’s bad on Reddit or on Discord or message boards, it's even worse in law schools and faculty, a lot of their entire existence is hinged on, “oh, I'm at 10, not 12, I’m 15, not 10. It's just patently absurd.
So a couple of the antidotes to these expectations that I found is one, to ask yourself, all right, who are you applying to Harvard for? Who are you applying to Penn for? We hear this, you heard this, “I have to get into a top three because X person, my parents or whomever, told me to.” Literally to the point where the punch line is, “I'm only applying to the top three because I'm not going to another school.” Now, if you want to be a successful lawyer or change the world, that's a horrible way to approach this process. And I've lived this, I’ve been in three law schools. I've seen students from Colorado, WashU, Vanderbilt go on to do just amazing things, working for Supreme Court justices. Now that I've done this for 25 years, being with, you know, luminary famous people out there in the world, one of my former students is a billionaire now, who gives tons of money philanthropically. Maybe he can set us up in Austin at that Four Seasons cigar bar. Which we said offline that I was not giving a date for when we are going there. Maybe in February, maybe in 2024. You know, he went to Vanderbilt, he was our last admit off the waitlist. And now he's giving tons of money philanthropically. Point being, number one is, it's not what ranked school you get into. Look a little further down the road, what do you want to do with your life?
And let me tell you from having lived this life for 25 years, you can do amazing things from Drexel Law. Of course, the start might be slower. You go to Harvard Law School versus Drexel Law, the start of your career might be slower from Drexel. But once you start making things happen in the real world, no one's going to care because you're producing results for people that matter. So that's one anecdote, who are you doing it for? What's something you tell people you work with as far as how to handle expectations?
Ellen: I often deal with this on both the micro and macro scale. The expectations one has for a given question is something from The Loophole. How well I'm doing it, of evaluating their performance on a micro and macro scale as the action is taking place. I always try and separate that out as much as possible. But one analogy I like to use is that when you're performing an activity, it's like you're growing a sapling. And at first that tree is going to be able to be knocked over by an excited dog because it's a little tree. And that tree is like your ability to believe that you're the horse you want to bet on. You have to protect that sapling for a while, that confidence that you actually can do it. And so we protect it with things like scoreband with all different kinds of ways to protect it until it can grow. And as that sapling grows and grows, it becomes an oak tree and nothing is going to knock over that oak tree. It just comes from reinforcing a success in a given environment enough times over and over again that that sapling grows. And once the sapling has grown, then you can walk into a room regardless of which law school you ever went to or whatever. And you can look disconfirming evidence of your competency in the face and say, “oh yeah, but that doesn't matter.” And look at confirming evidence and be like, “yeah, I knew it all along.” Because you are the horse you want to bet on. You know that you're going to be able to show up regardless of what the world might tell you, what a person might tell you like, I can't tell you how many people have not believed in me in my life and have told me, no, I can't, etc. I have people question whether I know what a conclusion is all the time. No one's ever going to convince me I don't know what a conclusion is.
Mike: For me, there's nothing more motivating than when someone tells me I'm incapable of doing some things.
Mike: And I wrote a blog on this called Failure is a Liar. Dating back to first grade when my first grade teacher told me I was like the worst in the class, bring it on. I probably would have stayed the worst in the class if she hadn't said that. But if you want to light a fire under me, to doubt me.
Ellen: 100%, and honestly, I think a lot of this conversation comes down to the reaction to that exact moment. I feel like if you have built this tree within yourself that is sturdy, you're going to look that person in the face and be like, “Yeah right, let's go.” And if you haven't, you know, you've been kind of mowed down too many times and you haven't gotten that kind of sturdiness within yourself yet, you're going to look at someone telling you you can't do it and believe it. And to me, that's the scariest thing on earth. And that's why I said my whole mission is I want to show people that the ceilings are imaginary, you actually can do it.
Mike: Yeah, and part and parcel of that is people come to me almost every day in my life because I've been doing this so long - family, friends about their kids applying to college, “hey Spivey, what is the hack? What is the one line to get my beloved son or daughter into college or law school?” If there were a hack, I would just put it behind a paywall curtain and sell it. There are systems just like you teach systems, there are systems to change your chance of getting into law school, a certain law school from 40% to 55% or 60%. But there's no hack that is going to take you from 40% to 100%. So what necessarily follows from that is everyone in life, everyone listening to this podcast is going to have to deal with rejection and disappointment throughout their lives. Obviously, we have successes too, of course. But we also have lots of failures. I've failed more times than I've succeeded, I’m not sure if I’ve ever sworn on this podcast, who the fuck cares, fall down seven times, get up eight is all that matters.
So in respect to expectations that are placed on you, you can only go to one law school anyways, you can't go to two law schools at the same time. Although Ellen kind of almost tried to. So don't worry about if Penn, NYU, and Columbia deny you, the applicants use the word ‘rejection’ but it's really just a denial. They don't know who you are, they're not rejecting you as a human. They're denying of stack of paper. Take that one or two or three or four or five or six admits, pick the best fit not the highest ranked and your whole freaking life is ahead of you. You can flip it around 180. Don't worry about expectations, think about opportunity.
Ellen: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think people sometimes think of acceptances a little bit too much like Pokemon. I've got to catch them all that they aren't thinking about it as, hey, you only need to get lucky one time. I remember when I was terribly dating and was so sad and I had a wise older friend who was like, “hey Ellen, it's a numbers game and you've only got to win one time.” And I was like, “yeah, but…,” and she was like, “hey, if you were a poet and you were trying to get your poem published, would you send it to one journal or would you send it to 50?”
Mike: If 49 people say no and one yes, the poem is no more beautiful.
Mike: I can't state this strongly enough. You have no less potential to do what you want with your life if Harvard and NYU say no than if they say yes. Maybe one or two exceptions and I even doubt that, you're going to get admitted to law school if you’re listening to this, you're probably going to get admitted to some great law schools. And then what you do going forward from there is going to drive what you do with your career, not the name of the law school. It's not the expectations, just opportunities, I think and hopefully that's comforting.
Ellen: Yeah. I think this paradigm comes down to, I think a lot of imagined versions of what these schools are when you're looking at them from a distance of this kind of idea you have in your head of what is Harvard Law School? And like Proust actually talks a lot about this or imagined versions of people versus who they actually are. And you may think that a given school is like, “oh, it's the perfect fit for me,” but you want that school and this is all based on things you've created in your own head. But actually you don't want a relationship with a person, institution, etc, that isn't the right fit for you. You don't want to be someone's friend just because they're really cool on the outside. You want to be someone's friend because you both can provide healthy value to one another over the long term and create a great relationship with one another because you're, you know, ready to give something to them. They're ready to give something to you and there's a fit there that is like magical and wonderful. You don’t actually want to just be taken by an institution that actually is not looking for what you have to give. And there's no value judgment associated with that. Everybody has different kinds of things to give. And not everybody has to be everybody's friend in life. And that's okay. I think this is something that like you learn as you get older, is that we just weren't meant to be close.
Mike: Yeah. And to that point, agreed, but also at 51 my age, I couldn't care less when I'm at a cocktail party and someone comes up to me and says, “I went to Princeton,” or they say, “I went to the University of Alabama.” I'm getting to know that person, not the school they went to, I couldn't care less about the school they went to. The pressures today, I'm going to add one more thing being on social media, it's like mainlining all that other stuff you just talked about right into your system. “This person got into Harvard,” “This person got into Stanford.” You're literally mainlining expectations straight to the source straight to the vein.
Ellen: And comparison, which is the absolute freaking worst.
Mike: That's what I mean. So we said it before on this podcast, we'll say it again. Compare yourself with yourself. Compare yourself with the growth and this is a great time to talk about this because it's right around New Years, who are you today versus who were you a year ago. If you're growing in that dimension, you're probably going to grow in your career as well whether you go to your top-choice school or your second-ranked school. Kudos to you if you get into your top three ranked schools. It's rare. Maybe you get into two of three. One of three, one of six. But at the end of the day to the extent possible if listening to this helps, I can assure you going to the University of Alabama for my business degree didn't probably help my resume in week one of my job search. But doing very well on my first job which turned into promotions and doing well on my second job has landed me where I want to be now and I couldn't be happier. So cheers to holding ourselves accountable and having expectations for ourselves, but not letting external sources drive them. Is that a good way of wording it, Ellen?
Ellen: Yeah. No, absolutely. When we talked earlier, I said one way I'm extremely lucky is that I never really wanted to compare myself to anyone else. I've never really thought what anyone else is doing even when I was very young was like super relevant to what I was doing. And even in LSAT I don't really see the other people in the industry as like they’re my competitors. Nobody does the exact thing that I do. And so kudos and hats off to everybody else, you know, everybody do their thing. Live your journey, have your fun. Great. And I'll do me. And the only thing that's really relevant to me is number one, how I'm making my students feel and how my students are doing. But is when I look within myself, am I moving in the right direction? I guess one way people try and put expectations on me is like, “okay, well, what's your goal for five years?” and all this stuff. And I've always found that kind of thing extremely arbitrary. Like it’s always good to have a North Star, but I would prefer my North Star to be an angle of improvement as opposed to a given destination. You can always trust an angle.
Mike: I look at it directionally.
Mike: In sum, live your dream not someone else’s. I'll quote my business partner, Karen Buttenbaum: “You do you, boo.” Thanks Ellen, it was great to have you.