In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, Mike interviews Jordana Confino, Assistant Dean of Professionalism at Fordham Law School, about ways that law school applicants and students (and in fact, any applicant or student) can healthily cope with and reduce stress and increase overall happiness and well-being. Jordana is a graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, and in her current role at Fordham, she develops and delivers programs designed to promote student wellness, mentorship, and professional identity formation. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Fordham, teaching courses on “Positive Lawyering” and “Peer Mentoring & Leadership.” She was voted Fordham Law Adjunct Professor of the Year in 2021.
In this interview, Jordana discusses her academic and professional history, how law school and legal practice impacted her well-being, and specific tactics applicants and students can employ to improve their own mental and emotional wellness in stressful, high-pressure environments.
Mike and Jordana discuss a number of psychology researchers and experts throughout their conversation, including the groundbreaking work of Dr. Kristin Neff in the field of self-compassion—you can listen to our interview with Dr. Neff here. Mike also mentions a graph near the end of the episode that we have included for your reference below:
Mike: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about law school admissions, law school, life, a little bit of everything and we're going to hit the everything button today. I am joined by Jordana Confino, who's the Assistant Dean of Professionalism and faculty member at Fordham Law School. She went to Yale Law for her JD, Yale undergrad for her degree in Psychology, and that's what we focus on.
Jordana teaches a unique class, Positive Lawyering, and what we try to click on here in today's episode is that the application process is incredibly stressful. Being a law student is incredibly stressful. And being a practicing lawyer, maybe even the most so. But paradoxically enough, if you take care of yourself, if you can reduce the stress and uptick your happiness - and Jordana gives us a beautiful array of interventions to do so - not only are you going to be obviously happier and less stressed, you're actually going to be a more effective applicant, a more effective law student, and a more effective practicing lawyer. So they're not disparate, they're intertwined. Taking care of yourself, having balance in your life is the best intervention possible for better admissions results, believe it or not. So without further delay, we're going to get into it for about an hour about what you can do. And here's me and Jordana.
I am here with Jordana Confino, who has such an interesting background and multiple titles online, which surprisingly is not that uncommon, so I don't want to get it wrong. So I figured I would just ask you about where you are and what you do and how you got there.
Jordana: Sure. So, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It's really a pleasure to be on and I love that you are focusing on this topic in your podcast because it's just so important for anyone thinking about going to law school, been through law school, the legal profession, and the like. So I am the Assistant Dean of Professionalism at Fordham Law School, where I also work as an adjunct professor. And in those capacities I oversee our Professionalism office, which governs all co-curricular and academic courses focused on law student professional identity formation, as well as mental health and wellbeing and mentorship.
And then I also teach courses on peer mentoring and leadership and a course on positive lawyering, which is something I've created - basically positive psychology for lawyers and law students.
Mike: Are you aware of any other class out there, Jordana, that is titled ‘Positive Lawyering’ or even touches on that as a course or is that unique?
Jordana: There are now about a handful of classes out there that focus on wellbeing for lawyers. There were not any when I first started thinking about this and developed the syllabus for the dream class I hoped to one day create a number of years ago. But in the past few years, I think corresponding to the lawyer wellbeing movement, which has finally taken off, there are a few like this out there and coming from different lenses of course. So there is no other positive lawyering course out there in that way. There are some on wellbeing, but certainly not enough. I can probably count them on one hand. This is an area where, I mean, as – if you read any review for my class, they all say the same thing. One, “this is absolutely like nothing I've ever learned ever before, but especially in law school, couldn't be more different.” And two, “every single law student should be required to take this course.” And I'm biased, but I agree.
Mike: I mean, this is a huge passion of mine, as you and I discussed earlier today. I would agree with one, but then I would hyper-agree if you can agree more than 100%, I would agree with two. Not only every lawyer, I actually think this is stuff that should be taught at the high school level.
Jordana: Yeah, it's interesting. There's actually some really cutting-edge preschools and elementary schools that are now teaching little kids mindfulness and other aspects of positive psychology. So what they say, if a fifth grader can do it, maybe there's hope for lawyers after all
Mike: Your mind's more plastic and malleable at that age. On the flip side, if I look at six-year-old me or even 20-year-old me, I wouldn't pay any attention to this stuff. So I wonder how they balance that out.
Jordana: Yeah, I mean there's no way that I would have taken my course when I was in law school and for many reasons, which we can discuss, that ultimately led me to hitting bottom in the way that prompted me to literally Google how to be happy, which led me to my first class on positive psychology and ultimately brought me where I am today. So I hear you on that.
Mike: Well, I have these notes and somewhere on these notes I actually, I woke up a couple of nights ago and I wrote down different stages of my life. I'm not even going to share it with you. I’ll share it with Anna though. So Anna Hicks, our COO who is recording this, I'll show her this. I wrote down my happiness level at different stages of my life and then how psychologically sort of fit I felt I was. And it was fascinating to track the two. By the way they weren't highly correlated. So for example in high school, I was exceptionally happy, but as far as like understanding myself and having looked inside and understanding my traumas and mechanisms, I was like a D minus, but I was in an A plus happy. So isn't that kind of fascinating how they didn't track?
Jordana: It is interesting and I, and then I think it also depends on what you're measuring in terms of happiness. So is it subjective wellbeing - the experience of positive emotions versus a period of meaning and fulfillment. But also I think that it takes time for a lot of the effects of trauma and other aspects of misalignment for you to feel them. And I think that is why so many people believe that their misconceptions about what will make them successful and happy and a lot of them are completely contrary to how to live a happy life. It will work for a time. So you can be super successful, kind of killing yourself and running yourself into the ground for a certain period of time, or just completely ignoring many of the things that we now know are essential for happiness. But it'll catch up with you eventually. And that's why we see so much about burnout in the legal profession and just in general. Because even if you can do it for a little bit, it's not sustainable. And so I, I would be curious to see, you know, if you had continued exactly as you were, whether your happiness stayed as high.
Mike: It wouldn't have, it wouldn't have. It was hinged on external-based things. You say success is an interesting thing too. And then I just want to ping on your background one more time. I always use the word ‘accomplished’. To me, success is a measurement of am I passionate about what I'm doing? ‘Accomplish’ would be am I – how are my competencies? Am I good at what I'm doing? And that's new to me too, but I do like using the word ‘success’ to measure my passion for things. I want to measure my life in terms of not my resume, but how would I write my eulogy.
Jordana: Absolutely. And my whole – separate from my work at Fordham, I also coach practicing lawyers and kind of my tagline, my hope for working with them is helping people realize their own authentic definition of success. I think there's success with a capital S, which is what people think success means when they're applying for law school, going through law school, for many people their entire lives. And that's all often tied to extrinsic markers of achievement, like you said. But ultimately I think success is living in line with your own unique values and making decisions based on your passions, like you said, and not by fear or feeling like you need to prove to anyone. And that is something that is extremely hard to come by. I think an issue with a lot of people is they don't even know what their passions are because they've been so focused for their entire life on the other version of success and how to get all of those things that it blocks any space for self-reflection or awareness about what's actually important to you.
Mike: And you mentioned fear, which is going to be a great jumping point because people often think the opposite of happiness is sadness or hatred, but actually I think Gandhi had it right, it's fear. But let's just flesh out your resume, flatten the whole page. You went to Yale undergrad, right? And received your BA and your discipline was psychology, is that right?
Jordana: Yep, that's right. But the focus on social psychology.
Mike: Okay. And then you went to Yale Law School?
Jordana: Yes. Straight through seven years in New Haven.
Mike: I could tell you I'm in New Haven a bunch. I'm near Yale Law School a good deal. I stayed at that place, Study, which probably wasn't there when you were there, that hotel.
Jordana: It was there in law school. And yeah, so that's definitely my favorite place to stay when I go back.
Mike: It’s cool, it's got, you know, it has a little reading area in your room and they have books written by Yale faculty members downstairs.
Jordana: Yeah, no, it's very cute. Great restaurant too.
Mike: About two times a year I'm in New Haven, so I know Yale Law School well, I jog by it. What made you apply to law school? What made you pick Yale and during this time when you were at Yale, I'm curious, it sounds like just from the intro maybe you weren't, were you in interested in this intersection of happiness and wellbeing and positivity or conversely, were you getting more miserable? Is that when you sort of hit bottom afterward that got you interested in this component to it?
Jordana: I went to law school for all the wrong reasons. I ended up getting very lucky because I'm now doing work that I absolutely love. And I probably wouldn't be doing it in this way if I didn't go to law school. But if any pre-law student came to me and said that they were thinking about going to law school for my reasons, I would say, “Do not go. That's not the right thing for you.” Basically I was a psychology major, I was passionate about psychology, also teaching, but I just felt like it was too insular for me. All of my friends at the time were going into banking and consulting. Um, I felt like I had to do something bigger. What do a lot of students do, or at least back then when they don't know what they want to do, they apply to law school.
And so I had some friends at Yale Law School, it seemed like a really unique, special, fascinating place. I was like, “All right, why don't I give that a try.” And I was fortunate enough to get in. And so then you know, my mind looking back to resolve that dissonance, I was like, “Well, I need a better reason than that for why I want to go to law school.” So I had been very involved with anti-sex trafficking work from an advocacy perspective. And so basically, I learned that there is something called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, federal prosecutors, which is a very prestigious position, they prosecute sex trafficking. So I said, okay, “This is super prestigious. This will make me seem accomplished. I want to be a sex trafficking prosecutor.”
So I basically went into law school, like guns blazing, “I know that this is highly competitive, what do I need to get there?” I firmly believed that the best way to succeed in the way that we were talking about it before in terms of extrinsic external markers was to just put my head down, ignore anything that might promote my wellbeing, relationships, self-care, all of that stuff, and just hustle.
And so I did that and I was very good at getting things that I thought that I wanted. I had never once in my life reflected on what do I really want? But you know, the things that I thought that I wanted. And so I spent my summer at the US Attorney's Office. It felt wrong to me for a number of reasons. I ignored all of those feelings and just kept plowing. And then basically I lined up the two federal clerkships. I saw that everyone, or like 60% of the people at the US Attorney's Office in general crimes, which is the entry unit, had been at Davis Polk. So I was like, “All right, I need to go to Davis Polk, so then I can become an AUSA afterwards.” Did my second summer at Davis Polk.
Mike: Were you in their New York City office?
Jordana: I was in their New York City office. And that summer honestly, but also leading up to it, I just – it was finally really settling in with me just how unhappy I was and how wrong everything felt. And I also just saw a lot of people around me who were unhappy and no one seemed to care that they were unhappy, and no one was planning to do anything about it. And it just seemed like that was the accepted way and that was distressing for me. I also at this point was like the loneliest person on the planet. I remember telling my mom, “I am so lonely, it physically hurts,” because I spent 99% of my time studying. Also, my anxiety was through the roof. Another thing that I actually remember myself in my New Haven apartment saying to my father, I would talk to my parents like five minutes per week, was that I felt like a hamster in the microwave. That was the level of pressure and stress that I was putting on myself.
And so that summer I worked with a therapist and she actually had me do this very basic values discovery exercise where basically she said it was a list of one hundred values. It said, identify your top five or most important to you, and then think about how is what you're doing with your time and your life and your energy furthering those values or not. And I was like, oh my gosh, not only am I not furthering them, everything I'm doing is actually directly contrary to them. Because connection, learning, support, those types of things are my core values. So that kind of sparked my existential crisis but also I was just so unhappy. So like I said, I was googling how to be happy when I discovered this course on positive psychology. And so I started looking into that more and basically my brain exploded because I learned that everything I believed about wellbeing and also its relationship with even objective success, like performance in the workplace, was completely backwards. And that got me on that rabbit hole initially.
Mike: So let's back up to a few things you said. Have you heard the paradox of happiness?
Mike: So why do so many people do things that don't make us feel better? And then that relates to something you said about working in big law, which is, there's a handful of people out there I know who are just made for big law, they thrive in big law. It makes them happy and fulfilled and accomplished and successful. We had Jeff Chapman, the global M&A Chair from Gibson Dunn on our podcast. It's a beautiful podcast about communication. You can just tell he was made for big law. But that's a small percentage. I don't know what it is. Don't guess because we're going to upset half of our listeners who are gunning for big law.
So many people in big law do feel like that hamster in the microwave or at minimum rotating around the wheel, just running and running in place. And you mentioned that they don't want to do anything about it. I would argue that they are doing things about it. But it's that happiness paradox. They're self-medicating on something, whether it's obnoxious tweets, a form of self-medication that I see every day, or obnoxious posts online or there's a continuum of self-medication. Maybe they're working too much. That's the way to self-medicate. Maybe they're drinking too much or doing hardcore drugs. You see it all at big law.
Jordana: Yeah. And I just want to go back to your initial point. There are certainly people in big law who thrive on it. And I think it's important to say this cause my students are always asking me like, “Oh, so like are you saying that everyone should leave the law?” I'm like, “No, absolutely. I want you to learn about this stuff so that you don't leave the law so that you can stay in the law in a satisfying, sustainable way. And I think that part of that is identifying the type of work that is right for you, the type of legal work that really lights you up and drives you and gives you a sense of meaning and purpose.” And that can certainly be found in big law.
And then also I think all of the other things that even if you are passionate about your work, it can still cannibalize your wellbeing if you don't really fortify yourself and take the steps that are necessary to protect that, which actually will also impact your performance as well.
And I think that a lot of people, you know, think that success and self-care are mutually exclusive and positive psychology, there are two aspects of it. One is what are the foundational elements of flourishing and wellbeing. But the second is all of the science showing that all of those things, so feelings of engagement, passion, meaning, purpose, positive emotions actually fuel our energy. They fuel our cognitive functioning, they fuel our productivity, they fuel our performance. And so of course, you know you have to find a way to do it in a manner that still allows you to put enough time into your work to get something done. But it can actually turbocharge your performance in addition to just making you a happier and healthier human.
Mike: Unlike big law where you can’t just walk away. Although you can, you have free will. And so some people can walk away from the admissions process, but most don't. So I think what you're hitting on is something that is really going to be helpful for our listeners. There's a way to marshal your inner resources that is going to make you not just less stressed and more happy, things we’re sort of hitting on in this podcast, during the admissions process or as a law school student, you weren't doing these things as a law school student, but there's a way to marshal your inner resources, not only to make you happier and less stressed to the admissions process, but here's why I love what I do. If you focus on this aspect – look, I can do a podcast Jordana, and I can sit for an hour and talk about how to make the best resume on the planet, and thousands of people will listen to that podcast. Or I can do one on mental health and hundreds, not thousands, will listen to it. But the funny thing is, if you can have a stronger foundation throughout the whole cycle, you become a much more attractive candidate to be taken by a law school because you're brilliant and likable and upbeat and people say, “that person is the professional who's upbeat, I want them at my law school. So I'm admitting them off the waitlist.” They're not disconnected, they're the opposite. They're intertwined.
Jordana: It's so true. And I think that so many high achieving, “successful,” I'm putting it in quotes, people think that a lot of the things that they do are the secret for their success. So they're like, “Oh, well I study constantly. Like I barely see my friends, I barely sleep, I barely take care of myself. I'm super self-critical on myself because that drives me forward. And look, I'm so successful, I can't stop any of these things because then I'm going to lose my edge and I won't be successful.” And that's what I thought for so long. I was like, “Look at me, I mean this got me to Yale Law School, all these things that I've been doing, how can I stop this and give up on all of my future success? I'll completely lose my edge.
Mike: What were a few of those things? Because I had one that was off the planet bizarre, but I thought it was my edge. But what were yours?
Jordana: One, these are related. I just thought that literally anything that was not working was a sign of weakness. Laziness would drag me away from my mission. So I seriously, and I'm ashamed to say this, but I say it because it – I think it's so important. I remember looking at people in law school who would go out to dinner with their significant other on Saturday night and being like, “Ugh, they're so weak. They're not as driven as I am.” Having this feeling of superiority, which is so tragic because I was so sad and lonely. But also I now know that all the science shows, and we can talk about this later, that our relationships are literally the most important thing. Not only for our physical health and literally our lifespan and our happiness, but also for our performance in the workplace as well or in school.
Mike: I have three things that bring about happiness as an adult and that number one is the connectedness, the relatedness.
Jordana: A hundred percent. So that was one thing. Then any other form of self-care too, just put it in that bucket. We could talk about those things too. But then the other one was that I was, until very recently, the most ruthlessly self-critical person imaginable.
Mike: Eighty percent of the people listening to this would identify with that statement.
Jordana: If you could hear my inner monologue, it was just scathing. And honestly like if you would judge me for being such a cruel person, even if it was to myself and I thought that was driving me forward. I thought I was whipping myself into submission and that was helping my success. And then the great thing about positive psychology is that it provides tons of science behind other self-care related things that you might just be like, “oh, like that's a woo-woo concept.” It’s like no, there's actually tremendous neuroscience backing this up. But there's tons of studies that show that self-compassion, which is something that I would have never gotten near with a 10-foot pole until I completely burnt out and was desperate to try anything at that point. It has been shown not only to reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and make you happier and healthier, but it is markedly linked to motivation, drive, and also achievement. Including and this is in all realms, smoking cessation, dieting, anything like that. But in academics, students who do poorly on an exam and then treat themselves with self-compassion afterwards. And so like how would you respond to a friend who is in your shoes rather than beating yourself up as opposed to self-criticism? They were much more likely to stay engaged and try again, do better the next time they were given an exam.
Mike: That's a study out of Berkeley, and Dr. Kristin Neff was on our podcast and she came up with a self-compassion scale, but they gave the subjects the intervention of like you got this rah-rah confidence talk or the self-compassion talk. And those that got the self-compassion talk did better on the next test. Over those that got the “you're the best on the planet, how dare anyone think they're as smart as you” talk.
Jordana: And it's because if we beat ourselves up every time we fail, like it's just going to leave us so scared of making mistakes that we won't want to risk anything that might actually expose us as not being perfect. But that also prevents us from actually developing our skills because you learn by doing, which means that if you're doing something that you've never done before, you will automatically make mistakes. But also if you're just beating yourself up, you're not able to take a step back and say, all right, objectively how can I improve? Because if you're just stupid, you're just worthless, you're just lazy, you're not helping yourself. Then that's one that's because it's a mindset shift. It's not just a behavioral habit. It took more work to actually rewire my brain to tend towards self-compassion. But it's totally doable, which is the power and miracle of neuroplasticity.
Mike: Well, even if you leave yourself a voice memo and you talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend and not that inner dialogue you used to have, and I'd listen to some of those voice memos I've left myself where I'm not like, “Mike, you failure, you didn't overcome this obstacle.” I'm like, “hey Mike, it's okay, you can do it tomorrow.” When I listen to those voice memos, they almost move you to tears when you talk to yourself like you would a loved one. How beautiful the message can be.
Jordana: It’s true. But I mean for a lot of people it doesn't feel like that automatically. Like well, I don't believe that, so why are you just having me say these thoughts to myself that I don't believe? But the truth is that if you say those thoughts and you practice saying those thoughts and you practice thinking that over time, you strengthen the neural connections that are involved with that way of thinking. And then as that voice, that compassionate voice will start getting louder and more automatic and the menacing, you know, malicious drill sergeant will get quieter too and you can actually change your way of thinking. And that's the really good news with a lot of this stuff is that a lot of us have really deeply ingrained habits including ways of thinking. And you might just think like, all right, well I'm screwed. I've got this negativity bias that's so deeply entrenched I'll never be able to overcome it. And law school, because of the way that pedagogical methods and like what lawyers do, it actually deeply entrenches our negativity bias because it's just constant issue spotting. But there are ways to train your brain to work in that other direction and remarkably shown to again make us happier and also have higher performance in law school and in professional pursuits as well.
Mike: So we are hardwired evolutionarily as for that negativity bias. You hear a rustling in the grass and you say, “well it's just the wind,” and it's a lion or a snake and you die and you don't pass on your genes, two to three-hundred thousand years of that and we passed our negativity bias. Nine out of ten test takers I talk to, when they walk out of that test, they tell me they did worse than their actual score.
If I retire one day, I would love to just do this research for fun. Follow a thousand of these people around and see over time if that negativity goes – because nine out of 10 did better than they think they did.
Jordana: So this one, it actually was skewed, the year that I took the LSAT, I forget how the numbers were because it was a while ago. But it was one of those years where the number of points that you could get off and still get a 170 was like way higher than typical. So it was a, it was an unusually hard exam.
Mike: That meant it was a very tough test, right? Because the curve, was it like negative-12 or 13?
Jordana: It was something like that. I don't remember the specifics, but I do remember, I knew like seven other people from Yale College that were taking the LSAT with me, they all canceled their scores. Because they were all panicking so much and I was like, “well I've gone through all the practice tests so I just need to leave it,” because I don't even know how to keep studying and it ended up being fine.
Mike: That was a huge misconception about canceling because people thought schools’ average when they take the high. Now LSAC, because they love making money, you can buy to see your score beforehand and then cancel or not. I mean they charge you.
Jordana: And you see this in law school so much too. I mean they're just focusing on the negative. If you ask every single 1L, 98% of them will think that they are uniquely confused, lost, have no clue what's going on. They all got into law school by accident because they don't deserve to be there as much as their peers.
Mike: The imposter syndrome.
Jordana: Exactly. And I mean in law school, and I think this is important for applicants to know, is that this gets even more heightened once you get to law school for two reasons. So one, first of all and talking about the negativity bias in law school, I mean it's issue spotting. So you're looking for every single flaw, fault, problem and like planning for every negative thing. So you're becoming even more hyper-focused on the negative because that's what you need to do first in law school to answer the issue spotter and then ultimately safeguard your client's interests. But that habit of looking for the negative, it doesn't just shut off when you leave the classroom and you're literally training your brain to look for fault so you're going to see them when you look at yourself and your life outside the classroom unless you do something to counterbalance that. And there's really kind of simple strategies that you can do to counterbalance that.
Mike: Let's hit the strategies. We're going to talk about how to be more happy and less stressed. What are some of the interventions?
Jordana: Absolutely. So one, just going off of what I just said, so it's called the three good things strategy, and this is about cultivating gratitude and optimism. So if you just write down three good things that happen every day and so you make a habit of doing this, you can do it in the morning or at the end of the day. That's it. So Martin Seligman who's the founder of positive psychology, so he had this landmark study that's subsequently been replicated.
Mike: Quoted in this book I'm reading right here.
Jordana: Yes, yes. Everyday Vitality, awesome. He's written a number of fabulous books. Did this study, he had participants write down three good things every day and then he followed them over six months and what they found was that the results were really startling. So levels of happiness increased dramatically and levels of depression and stress reduced substantially. And there were lingering effects of this that extended up to six months following the intervention. And it's not that writing down three good things every day provides this immediate infusion of happiness. It might if you take time to really reflect on them and why they made you happy. But they can even just be little things. What it does is to train your brain to look for the positive things in your day or the things that you're grateful for because you know that you're going to be writing them down. And so you do this, within a couple of days that I had this experience, you really find yourself looking around like, “oh, there's something I could put on my list.” There's something you put on your list and you're actually increasing your awareness, you're consciousness of all of these positive things. Whereas usually the positive just kind of fly by because we're so hyper-attuned to the negative. So that's a really potent, just basic thing.
Mike: They don't have to be big things. Right? I could literally put on my thing at the end of the day, “I podcasted with Jordana and learned a lot,” and that would be a gain.
Jordana: Absolutely. And it's sometimes it's like, “oh the sun is shining today,” when like honestly in the winter that's a huge win. It could be something super, super simple. And in fact I love telling the students this, so this exercise is so effective that the biggest consumer of positive psychology is actually the US military. And so they incorporate that three good things exercise into their Master Resilience Training program, but they call it hunt the good stuff, which I just find kind of funny.
Mike: I come from a military family. “I didn't get shot at today.” That would be one of the things my dad would put on his three good things.
Jordana: That counts. And in terms of other things, so we already talked about self-compassion. I highly recommend it to everyone. I think it is one of the most potent things you can do for your motivation, also your happiness. You mentioned Kristin Neff, she's the queen of self-compassion, so self-compassion.org, she's got tons of free exercises, resources, meditations on that.
Mike: Just to point people in this direction, we had her on our podcast. So you can go to our YouTube or whatever channel and listen to her.
Jordana: Awesome. Yeah, no, she is the best. So her first book was just the Self-Compassion and then Fierce Self-Compassion, which is a totally different and equally fascinating angle on it, and also has to do a lot with drawing boundaries and other things like that, which especially once you're out practicing is really important.
Another strategy that I think is essential for applicants and law students and practicing lawyers is nurturing your social connections. And even if the way that you nurture your connections has to change during especially busy times of life. So in law school you may not socialize as much as you probably did beforehand and as you will afterwards, certainly not when you're studying for the bar, things like that. But even when students are studying for the bar, which I think is like one of the most intense periods, I always tell them you must create time for social connection. Because like you said earlier, it is one of the most important things in terms of our happiness but also our physical health and also our performance.
And so kind of like Kristin Neff is the queen of self-compassion, Barbara Fredrickson is the queen of positive emotions and also relationship science. And basically what she's found is that there's this theory called the undoing effect. So every time that we have a high-quality interpersonal connection, it causes our bodies to release oxytocin, which dramatically reduces our anxiety, also increases our mood and focus and makes us not only happier but better able to actually manage and recover from any of the physical negative effects of stress.
And another thing that our relationships do is that they make stressful experiences feel less stressful and we experience less pain, they've done a variety of studies here. If you put your hand in freezing water and you have a loved one there, which is very painful, you have a loved one there, holding your hand or even if you just imagine them, you actually rate the pain as less intense.
Another study they found so this was men over 50 and it found that those with high rates of stressful life events suffered a higher likelihood of mortality over the next seven years. And people who didn't say that they had lots of stressful life events, this was not true at all for the men who said that they had high levels of emotional support. So our relationships can actually cancel out the negative effects of stress on our health and also on our focus and our ability to perform. And they also just dramatically increase our energy and you don't need to be spending like five hours hanging out with your friends to have these effects. Even just a little touchpoint of connection can be enough to give us those energetic boosts and strength in our resilience in the ways that we need.
Mike: The part about being over 50, is it Arthur Brooks, the guy at Harvard Business School who teaches the happiness course?
Jordana: He does, yeah.
Mike: So I heard him on a podcast, he mentioned how men in particular, I'm 50, your inner circle gets really – like men over 50 tend to get lonely quickly and it makes sense. We all have families or loved ones or job responsibilities and they start aggregating. I don't think I'll have him on the podcast because he kind of – like you calm me down and Neff calms me down. And Gabor Maté and Guy Winch and all these people, he's (Brooks) kind of spazzy like I am, so I'm assuming he and I would just combust into a ball of stress. He said something like treat your relationships in your 40s, 50s, treat them like a startup. And that really rang with me because I was like, wow, when I started this firm I was spending all-nighters working on it. And if you want to maintain your core, and I do, I'm lucky enough to have a great core group. If you want to maintain your core group, invest in them like you would invest in a startup. I loved it when he said that.
Jordana: Absolutely. And I have so many thoughts and responses to this. It's funny that you say that about men in their 50s and their relationships. Funny, even seeing this in my husband, we're in our mid-thirties and as people move on in their lives, it requires more effort. And this is true in law school too. It requires more effort to maintain your connections because you're really busy, you have a lot of other things going on. And I think that the ease of access to proximity isn't there in the same way. But there's also something else that I think prevents a lot of men from maintaining the relationships that women don't, is that there's a greater fear about vulnerability and just putting yourself out there and reaching out to maintain those relationships too. And that's something that you see in law school so often and it's not about reaching out necessarily to socialize, but showing your real self.
There is this super intense, totally silent pressure in law school for everyone to walk around like they are totally cool, calm, and collected and to show no sign of weakness, vulnerability, fear, insecurities, etc., etc. And then I like to say that it's like ducks floating on water. Like on the surface they all look like they've got it all together and then below the water their feet are flailing about wildly and that's insecurities or fears. You can't really connect if you are presenting this armored-up version of yourself, which means that you can't actually be supported and feel like someone unconditionally accepts you, has your back if they're only seeing this super external version of you.
Mike: You said the word armored up, Terry Real we had on our podcast too and he's like sort of the therapist for all the celebrities, he used that exact term. That's beautiful, it's about self-doubt and how on the outside when you go to law school, so everyone's armored up and it looks like they're calm, cool, and collected. I love what Gabor Maté, who is like the world's leading addiction expert, what he said is what you're doing is you're comparing your insides with their outsides. You don't know a thing about their insides, but they're probably no different than yours. And I loved it when he said that.
Jordana: Yeah, no, absolutely. One of my favorite exercises that I do with my students is I have them all write down on a piece of paper anonymously something that they are struggling with or suffering from and that you wouldn't be able to tell just by looking at them. And then I gather them all up, I put them in a hat, shuffle it around, and then they redistribute and each of them reads out someone else's struggle as if it were their own. And what this does is it reveals all of this invisible pain and suffering and struggling that was in the room and it was there all along but you couldn't see it. It can be anything from imposter syndrome and things like that to people will mention chronic pain that they're dealing with, like serious mental health or physical health things going on in their families or with themselves, all sorts of things.
And yet you look, they all look at each other and they're like, “oh well, they have it all together.” And that is just so isolating. But the thing is, is that Brene Brown she's the one that I got the armoring up from. She writes about this quite a bit in Dare to Lead, which I love. So she talks about this, but she says something and I'm not quoting her, but it's along the lines of like shame thrives in the shadows, but when you bring it into the light it can't survive and connection is what heals. And I just think that so much of the pain and the stress and anxiety that so many people feel stems from their belief that they're unique and they're suffering and that there's something wrong with them. It's like there's nothing wrong with them, you're human. And so I think that opening up the conversation and creating a space where people can feel comfortable sharing this with one another in these relationships of psychological safety and trust and belonging, that's the stuff that, you know, will sustain you.
Mike: Dr. Paul Conti said it too. He's my new go-to guy. I've heard him on Huberman, Rich Roll, Peter Attia, and he wrote a book that just came out that you really should read, I have it, Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic. And he said the same thing that shame suffers in the dark and dies in the light. He said something so simple it was so elegant and so beautiful. At its core, at its foundation, the human mind just wants to feel safe and all of this armoring up and lack of vulnerability is the human mind trying to find a safe spot. A hat tip to the movie Arrival with Jeremy Renner who I hope we see again in a movie in the future. I know he was in that horrible winter accident. But in that movie Arrival, Jeremy Renner said something at the end that when he said it, I was in the theater and I wrote it down on my iPhone and made a mission out of it, which is she said, “if you could see your life in front of you, what would you do differently?” And Renner's character said, “I think I would just tell people how I feel more.” And we don't do that.
Jordana: Yeah, no absolutely. I mean at the beginning of this conversation, when you asked me how I define success, I said driven by values, not by fear. And that fear, if you elaborate on that, it's the fear that you're not good enough just as you are and finding relationships both with others and creating that relationship with yourself where you can feel like I am good enough, then it's not going to mean that you shouldn't strive for accomplishment and goals. Like of course you should be – you can do that out of a sense of passion and purpose rather than trying to prove or that fear. And so many people in an attempt to earn the validation that they so desperately crave, they cut themselves off from all connection and preclude themselves from actually feeling accepted and valued. And it's sadly ironic in a way, but also correctable.
Mike: Dr. Boardman, Samantha Boardman, in that book that I held up to you, Everyday Vitality, she mentions that the three components to that, and this is really important in the admissions process in law school, almost work against you. Think about as a law school student or an applicant, autonomy. These are like the anecdotes to stress or I am good enough. At 50, I have almost unlimited autonomy. I don't have a boss right now. Feels like it at times, but I don't. But as a law school student, you have faculty members who are evaluating you in giving you a grade on a curve that's like the opposite.
Jordana: And that's definitely problematic and you feel like you're very much at the whim of professors and you don't get a lot of feedback throughout. Like all of those things are problematic. I think the one, it definitely doesn't solve the problem, but I think one way of getting at it, and this again I often go back to values, is if you can identify your reason for going to law school and the thing that's driving you forward as learning, moving towards something that's really important to you, you can connect to, well at least I know I'm still moving myself towards furthering those values that are underlying it. Even if I don't have autonomy over like the grade that I'm going to get in this class, um, you can still stay connected a little bit in those ways, but it is really tough. And I think the same thing is true if you go into a job afterwards where it's like, well how do I have autonomy over my life when I'm tethered to my BlackBerry at the whims of whatever time someone wants to send me something. But I think that finding ways to stay rooted with your core self and to have an internal alignment in that way and identifying the things that you can control, even if you can't control everything, is still a way to at least increase your feelings of autonomy if even if you're not getting up to a hundred.
Mike: Yeah. And you develop it over time for sure. The first time when I was a young Assistant Dean, a message board popped up, the first time someone made up something stupid about me online and like almost drove me to tears. And now I just laugh. I have a core principle and I know myself, so if a stranger says something, it's almost comical. And that took 20 years to get from point A to point B, but point B is a lovely place to be in.
Jordana: Absolutely. But what I would say to law school applicants and law students is like the ranking of the law schools, certainly the rankings now. But the law school that you get into, the grades that you get when you're in it, like you are not defined by any of those things. And so don't let that deflate you or discourage you or prevent you from keeping moving towards whatever it is that's driving you to go there in the first place. Because I have seen countless law students and yeah, of course it's easier to get the things that you want, the higher grades you have, the more highly ranked law school that you're in. People overcome those obstacles all of the time. And often it is the people, and this is going back to what you were saying Mike earlier about like really shining in your law school personal statement and in your interviews. The people that follow their passion and are real humans that are driven by their interests and what's really important to you, like that will turbocharge your engagement and you will stand out and you will succeed in your own authentic way.
And if you just tell yourself, “I need to hit these external metrics and if I don't, then I'm screwed.” You're really going to be holding yourself back from reaching so much of your potential in addition to your happiness and all that other good stuff.
Mike: The best metaphor I can, or analogy I can come up with is you're on this arbitrary track. It's one lap, 440 yards or 400 meters, it is arbitrary. Unlike a real track, you know where the starting point is and then it finishes 400 meters later. But when you think about the rankings, you don't really know the starting point. Is Yale one better than Stanford or is Stanford one worse than Yale? Of course not. Is the 12th ranked school worse? So not only is the starting point made up, fabricated based on stupid metrics that are changing as we speak, by the way, with the whole U.S. News stuff going on, and I'm drawing this track since I'm a runner, I can visualize it. Let's say you get denied, not rejected, which is the word everyone loves to use, but you get denied because they're not rejecting you, they don't know you.
I've denied thousands of people entrance to law school and most of those people would have done incredibly well at my law school. I didn't reject them, I just, you only have room to admit a certain number of people so sadly you have to deny much more. So let's say you get denied to your top three schools and you go to your fourth school. Okay, let's pretend that this track is not arbitrary and the person that went to Yale, Harvard, or Stanford has a five-yard head start on you, that gives you 435 yards to make it up. If you're looking at this track, you have 435 yards.
Jordana: No, and absolutely and I think the two things that I would add to that is the one you don't have to kill yourself, which is what we've been talking about in order to make up those yards. And so like the way that you might think is the best strategy to making up those yards probably isn't if it includes like beating yourself up and driving yourself into the ground. Much more sustainable, better ways to do it.
Mike: When I was a sophomore in high school, I started, I would go out at 11 and run and then I was like, “well that's not intense enough.” So then I would get up at 12. And I remember when I reached this crescendo, I was at this train platform in the middle of nowhere at three in the morning trying to do a thousand pushups. And that's when I was like, “Mike, enough is enough. What are you doing?” That was my moment of clarity. Like no one cares. I wasn't even including my significant other in this and if I had, she would've been like, “I don't care if you can do one or a thousand.” But I remember being at that platform being like, “oh man, if I don't do these thousand, my loving girlfriend is going to leave me.” That's how crazy it got.
Jordana: That reminds me of things that I've experienced in different forms and it's actually not, I don't think that's uncommon and I don't think that will be shocking for a lot of people is when there's certain things that you can't control, you feel like you can't necessarily directly control your success in law school. What can you control? In what way can you push and perfect and like do this thing to the utmost to regain that? And it kind of sounds like that's what you were doing. If you can just do those thousand pushups at midnight, then you've got it all together.
Mike: Yeah, I would go back to Dr. Paul Conti. Something happens that overwhelms our brain's ability to cope. It could be minor, it could be major, but if, you can study this at a functional MRI, if it changes your brain's coping mechanisms that’s trauma. And we – I firmly believe that we all have some form of trauma. So then what do you do with that trauma? You try to control things that you can't control to cope. In my case, yeah, I was trying to control things but it was an addiction. The world rewarded me for that addiction, “oh, you're healthy, you're fit, and you're running fast.” No, that's not it, it’s not healthy being at a train platform doing pushups.
Jordana: I identify with that a lot, because there was a point in my life where my parents would describe me as a creative spirit and no one ever thought I would go to law school, any of these things. And I became insanely intense during my freshman year of high school when something very traumatic happened. And that's when my coping mechanism was to try to maintain control by becoming extremely intense about studying and my work. But it's a fallacy because we think that we're maintaining control in this way, but like you weren't in control of yourself and you were doing a thousand pushups at midnight. Like you were a slave to that impulse to go do that. And I think recognizing that. And so a lot of people think like, “oh, like I'm being weak. I'm losing control if I care for myself.” It's like, no, you're actually losing control because you're overriding all of these impulses triggered by your anxious brain that are causing you to cope in these maladaptive ways. And I think that the way to figure that out is like, look at what you're doing. Whether it's a gazillion pushups at midnight, whether it's just overworking yourself into the ground, whether it's just constant worrying over and over again in a way that's no longer planning or preparing, it's just driving you crazy and preventing you from getting anything done. Is that really serving you? And if not, overriding it, you know, pushing back, even if it means caring for yourself, which you might think is weak, is actually such a sign of strength.
Mike: Well and let me define maladaptive because this hits with what we're really getting at for applicants and students. So many things that they think they're doing to use your terminology to give them an edge is actually hurting their happiness but also hurting their performance. So adaptive would be if childhood me is doing something to gain control, which would be screaming so my parents come and give me attention. That's adaptive. You can be left as an adult. You can be left, but you can't be abandoned to a survival sense. You can't be abandoned. But as a child you can be abandoned and then you would die. So if I'm screaming and crying as a two-year-old, as an infant, that's adaptive. But if I'm in the grocery store and I've seen this and an adult is screaming for no reason, that is maladaptive.
And the reason why I want to define it is, and this is almost the theme of this podcast, so many things we do as law school students, armoring up, not showing off vulnerability, having what we think as an edge. They're based on the things that were adaptive as children, but they're maladaptive and you don't know it. When you walk in the orientation and you're armored up, but you have imposter syndrome on the inside, the best intervention possible would be to tell a friend, I feel insecure. I feel like these people are better. But we're taught not to do that. Would you agree that writing it down or telling someone or talking to a therapist or someone about it would be the best possible thing?
Jordana: A hundred and fifty percent. That would be the best thing that you can do. And you're so ingrained not to do it, but if you did it, then your friend would be like, “me too.” And then you know, they would be able to get over it too. But because no one does, everyone stays silent. But definitely, and just like another example of this that's even more tied to academic performance cause I know that's so important to people. Fixed versus growth mindset. Like a fixed mindset of you're not capable of improving. So either you're smart, you're capable, or you're not, that causes so many people, I won't just say law students, to avoid feedback because they don't want to get any negative feedback, even if it's constructive feedback. Because all they'll hear, and this is going back to the negativity bias is, “This wasn't perfect, therefore you are not good enough.”
And so a maladaptive coping mechanism, which this is one that I had for such a long time, is avoid any feedback. So either only do things that you know that you're good at and couldn't possibly do poorly, or you get your exam grade back, they don't give you feedback unless you asked for it in law school in the vast majority of circumstances. And you don't reach out to the professor because you don't want to hear anything. Or you look at your legal writing memo and it looks like it's bleeding in red line and you stuff it under your desk because dealing with it will just make you feel like incapable and incompetent. And an adaptive coping mechanism is putting on that growth mindset and giving yourself some self-compassion saying no one is perfect, this is a brand new thing. Like do not beat yourself up about this. And then saying, “So let me read into this constructive feedback. What can I take from this? How can I do better next time?” Viewing that as something that can help you. And that's not an automatic response of a lot of people. They just feel bad about themselves and stop there.
Mike: We can end on, I have a hard stop, I have a Zoom with a law school, and just for students to feel better about themselves, I missed my last Zoom with this law school because of the timing. We all make mistakes. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” So I think you're quoting Carol Dweck's work in growth mindset, right? You go do, if you fail, and I'm not going to fail at my 12:15 Mountain Time Zoom today, but if you fail, like I failed on my Zoom with this law school last time, just learn from your failures. It's not the end of the world. If you don't get admitted to your dream school, if you don't get the A plus on the class, it is so easy at 50 but I remind myself all the time, none of those things that I failed at in my 20s, it seemed like the end of the world getting denied from Brown or maybe it was Princeton, whatever. Getting denied from my dream college, getting the C minus in Advanced Logic at Vanderbilt. None of those things have had any impact on me today, except for just telling you about them, I even haven't thought about that in years, years. And we have a podcast on catastrophizing, the things that seem like a huge deal now, two years down the road, you're not even going to remember. They're not impeding your progress. Any final thoughts?
Jordana: Yeah, I completely agree with that. And I would just say, because I know that when people feel bad about themselves and or when people feel stressed, they tend to hunker down and isolate themselves. And I would just say that's the time to lean into your connections the most. Not only because it'll make you feel better, but like we talked about earlier, it'll actually mitigate the negative effects of that stress and those challenges and be kind to yourself, be kind to the people you love and you're going to be great, all of you.
Mike: I have a graph from this book I'm reading about and obviously interconnectedness is one of them, but another one is like just getting out in the sunlight, which I try to do when the sun rises every morning. So we'll put this graph because it has all the different stress mitigation interventions.
Jordana: Oh yeah. Also sleep and exercise.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah at 3:00 in the morning on the train platform. Thank you for joining us. This was great. It went right to the edge of our time limit, which means I think it was very enjoyable to me. It was great to talk to you about this stuff.
Jordana: It was my pleasure and thanks so much for having me.
Mike: We’ll do it again.
Mike: Be well.