On Elitism in College and Law School


I hope something about this sets in. It's a brief and obscure story, but all too common in college and law school.

Early in my career, I was giving a tour to prospective law students. Part of the was to walk into one of our law school's moot court rooms, in this case the small and high-tech one, and show off the technology. I walked in to a professor speaking; he happened to have decided he would conduct his class in that room that day. Who knows why. As I put one foot inside he snapped around, sized me up for a long second, and proclaimed, "What are you doing in here, aren't you just staff?"

Because I was in my twenties, because I was new to my job, and because I was insecure about things like literally every single one of us at some point in our lives, I internalized this. For the first few years of my career, I thought of myself as "just staff" and different from faculty, who by default must have superior to me.

If you are reading this, you likely have started college or law school. It will be new, and you will most likely be in your twenties (although, as I have also discovered, youth and elitism aren't really as intertwined as I once thought they were).  One of those most crippling dynamics is that it can feel elitist and you can feel inferior at times. But that elitism isn't even real; it's just perceptual. To quote four-time best selling author Dr.Gabor Mate who we had on our podcast:

You're going to look at all your confident classmates, and you're going to go in there with all manner of self-doubt. You're making the big mistake of comparing their outside with your inside. You have no idea what their inside is like. And believe me, you're not the only one.

That's it. They aren't actually better. They are pretending to themselves that they are. They are pretending they are better for the very reason that they are insecure. Welcome to academia. In fact, welcome to life. So much of how we interact with one another is based on our need to deafen our own insecurities.

If you are a living breathing person in this society you have already encountered elitism. You'll see it in full effect in college and law school – or at least the odds are incredibly high that you will. My point is that it isn't just a college or law student effect; it's happening with the adults around you in academia as well. And while the faculty around you are all going to seem brilliant, what matters is never how smart they seem, but in how they treat others. When you have 10 years experience in a given field, guess what. you will seem brilliant to someone with no experience too.

I'll conclude with this: I am currently reading Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." He talks in the book about how when he was barely getting by, working odd jobs and writing when he could without much success, he would fantasize about having a magnificent oak wood desk. A true writer's desk. It would be huge and in the center of his study. Not his words now, but it would dwarf others. He eventually found success and bought the desk. It sat in the middle of his room drowning out everything else. Yet he was still deeply insecure about his writing and, because of these insecurities, each night he would write he would drink. A case of beer or more a night. The desk looked grand and he surely should have felt grand there in the center of his room writing at a desk more important than any other – yet he still felt incredibly diminished. When King got his life on track and became sober, he got rid of the desk and to this day has a small one in a corner enclave of his room. Sitting at the small desk in the corner is a testament to how secure he now feels about his writing and himself.

Don't worry so much about seizing the grand desk in the middle of the room. Those that are desperately trying to, that is the litmus test that elitism matters to them, but in that very test is the simple fact that there is nothing better about them. In academia with its rankings and intellectual capital emphasis, so many people will pretend they are there – at the big desk in the middle of the room. I encourage you to embrace the small corner desk – because it and you are going to be whatever you want to be, and there is no amount of insecurity from anyone else than can take that away from you.

-Mike