Letters to Law Students- Learning From Mistakes

Letter to law students #26 -learning from mistakes 

My dear law students

The political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once said : “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any  other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her  faults.”

I am not sure Tocqueville was right about America, but his point about repairing faults appeals to me, and I see no reason why his proposition about enlightened countries can’t apply to individuals as well. Today, I want to begin by asking a simple question: how do we learn from our mistakes, big and small, transient and ensuring? This is integral, not peripheral to our lives, for we can’t learnt to do the right thing without doing something wrong in the first place. We are faced with a challenge that looks innocuous but is extremely hard to meet: how do we recognise the fact that we are making mistakes?

The most efficient way to do this is to do a regular self audit of our behaviour, responses and decisions. In practice only very few among us have the kind of emotional intelligence and self awareness to do this properly. It is even more rare among lawyers, because we are trained to believe our position is right. It is very hard for our hard wired brains to doubt ourselves or to take a honest look at ourselves. Our training encourages us to defend any position with persuasive arguments, a skill that is not conducive to self criticism. Ultimately the more self-aware we are, the better we will become at recognising our flaws.

In the meantime, until we can do self audits properly, we have to rely on other people to point out our mistakes. This strategy, which is the only available strategy for many of us, comes with its own sets of problems. The main issue, of course, is that we must spend time with persons who can point out our mistakes. Identifying such people is not easy. Some people might point out our mistakes for malicious reasons. Others might do so in a manner that puts us off and makes us defensive. Then there are people who might simply be wrong, but are confident that they have found mistakes in our behaviour. Finally, there are well meaning ones, who will not point out our mistakes because they are too polite or like us too much to upset us. Such people are nice and lovely, but they do not rescue us from our mistakes.

The Goldilocks zone of external audit-the range of persons who can tell us when we commit mistakes are friends or colleagues we must seek out on our own.  Interestingly, 360-degree corporate feedback and appraisals are meant to enable others to point out our mistakes, but it takes a great degree of maturity on the part of both the appraiser and the appraisee to correct mistakes through a formal process. But you people are not yet at the institutional stage of correcting your mistakes. What you need to do is to identify those friends of yours who are mature enough to provide you with constructive feedback and seek their opinions on a regular basis.

This friend of yours is probably not your best friend, but there is hopefully one person in your group who can speak the truth to you, and speak the truth without making you feel bad about yourself. To find such a person, you have to make an effort. Try to develop a wide range of acquaintances across a number of different activities. Further, do not be shy of asking people, who you think might give you their honest and constructive perspectives on your behaviour, for their opinions. There will be some trial and error here, and some heartbreak. But eventually you will come to depend on a solid feedback mechanism that keeps you in check. It could relate to any activity-your time keeping, your manner of talking to your peers and your seniors, your methods of legal research and writing-in all these matters it’s important that there is someone to point out your correctible flaws. You get better in these activities by working on your flaws. This is why you need persons who serve as an external audit of your behaviour. They may not send you a birthday card, but they will set you up for life.

Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.

To read more from the series on ‘Letter to Law Students’, you could check out Professor Nigam Nuggehalli’s LinkedIn page here.  You could read more about Professor Nigam Nuggehalli here

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