What gets lost in the rush to achieve.
By Jordana Horn
IN THE CORNER OF every kindergarten classroom in America, there is a whirring noise. You approach the slight sound, evading blocks and playmats strewn on the floor, and behold: The Hamster. In his cage by the window he steps on the big red wheel, and he runs. And runs. And runs. The wheel whirs, the wheel turns. The Hamster goes nowhere.
Through my time in law school, I have experienced numerous flashbacks to the world of Hammy the Hamster. Please don’t get me wrong — I am very happy to be at Penn Law. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, and feel very prepared to go into the legal profession. But that preparation has taken on various forms.
The explicit preparation of legal education is inevitably, at any law school, coupled with the implicit preparation of The Cycle. To get into law school in the first place, after all, you have to do well in college, your post-college career, and the LSATs. You get into law school, and then you have to do well your first year — get good grades, make a journal — to get the best possible job for your first summer. Then you come back to school in the fall to try to get the best job possible for your second summer, which hopefully (as you will work towards over the summer) will result in an offer of full-time employment. Then you try to do well in the remainder of the semester so that you can have the option of going to another job if that job you just fought for doesn’t work out. Then you start applying for clerkships. Then, if you are me, you return from winter break early to compete in one moot court competition, while trying to write your journal article and compete in another moot court competition simultaneously.
Then, the morning the second moot court competition brief was due in four hours and I had 10 pages more to write, I stopped for a second (a second, mind you, that I did not have time to waste). I looked at the clock and realized: I have not slept in three nights. And then, the question appeared out of nowhere: What am I doing?
I do not think, necessarily, that there is anything profound about this thought — other than the fact that it was only at 8:17 that Monday morning, having climbed more and more increments of competition and having reached the apex of absurdity, that I managed to actually have it.
In fall of my first year of law school, I wrote something that still holds true: “I know that law school is good for me as an individual, as a context in which I can develop discipline and patience, which I will need in whatever I do — but in doing so, I once again am stretching myself so as to place as high as possible on the scale of someone else’s designation — not my own.”
I love ambition — an implicit part of my character — but loathe what it can do to me. I fear all these competitions leading not to my distinguishing myself, but rather stretching me out to the point of unrecognizability on the rack of accomplishments. I had heard, before going to law school, of how the lens of perspective is more easily turned by a $1,700/ week salary than any of us would like to admit. Perhaps even more frightening, though, is how easy it is to lose sight of the “what for?” in the blinding light of “what next?” In law school, we are always working toward some new honor which will give us some form of recognition or validation. I have a sneaking feeling, though, that none of these things will ever really, wholly and completely bring either one.
This is what I am learning at law school, and it is a lesson for life: the danger of weeks not being about time, but more like time slots, in which we slide ourselves between doors of always-departing trains going to the next destination — which, of course, we will soon leave. I fear the absence of meaning, time filled in by frantic strokes of the last few yards of each competition, to be followed by commutes, suits, and traffic lights: time carefully parsed into smaller and smaller bits of less and less meaning and content.
I used to think that the challenge would be to find that meaning elsewhere — in some exotic locale like a political march in South Africa, a demonstration in Beijing, a boardroom in Hong Kong, or a White House black tie reception. My drama has yet to be played out on these grandiose stages of my imagination. The real challenge, though, is to escape the modern hamster cage of our sensibilities, and to find meaning not only in the places where we will be, but also in the places where we are.
Jordana Horn, C’95, is a second-year student at Penn’s Law School.