10% Of Thoughts Are Wasted On This Focus Killer

It’s a Saturday morning in May and a three-year-old Thoroughbred is led to the track at the Kentucky Derby. The track is wet, the air has a damp chill of humidity and the crowd is raucous. The horse’s mind meets sensory overload—the coolness of touch to the hooves, the smell of food permeating, shrills of delight sounding overhead and the sight of the crowd donned in pastels.
Every year on the first Saturday of May (well, except for 2020), 150,000 people dressed in top form gather to watch Thoroughbreds sprint a quick two kilometers. Challenged to perform amidst tremendous pageantry and fanfare, winning is not only the result of a Thoroughbred’s athleticism, but focus.
I’ve never ridden a Thoroughbred, let alone raced one, but the most competitive environment I’ve navigated was law school.
The competitiveness of law school is illuminated by the fact that 40% of people who apply to law school aren’t accepted.
The 60% of law school applicants who are accepted enter an environment where all of their peers are great. This person graduated summa cum laude, that person is Phi Beta Kappa and she volunteered for the Peace Corps. To further exacerbate the competition, the pedagogy of law school is unlike anything these students have encountered—a law student’s grade is made up of only one assignment: the final examination. And to really send things over the edge, law school courses are typically graded on a forced curve, typically meaning that only one person can attain the highest grade available in a course.
The weeks leading up to law school final examinations best resemble an antacid commercial (seriously, though—why hasn’t Pepto Bismol used law school as the scene for an ad?!). The anxiety within a law school in early May and early December is palpable, as students adopt a belief that that their future livelihood is predicated on one grade.
To punctuate the anxiety, law students engage in “fact finding” expeditions. These fact finding expeditions are synonymous to Teddy Roosevelt’s saying that, “comparison is the thief of joy.” In these fact finding expeditions, law students set out to compare their studies and knowledge to others, under the auspices of predicting where they will fall on the curve.
“How much have you studied?”
“Have you memorized the rule against perpetuities?”
“Did you do all of the reading?”
“How long is your outline?”
The hallways of law schools leading into final examinations look like the paths Thoroughbreds take to get into their stalls: lots of looking around and little looking ahead.
When the tests are graded and the race is finished, who will win?
Thanks to social media, our ability to compare ourselves to others (many of whom we’ve never met) has been exacerbated. In real-time, we can evaluate our progress, failures and attempts against the progress, failures and attempts of billions of people. We engage in these comparisons so frequently, that research shows “MORE THAN 10% OF DAILY THOUGHTS INVOLVE MAKING A COMPARISON OF SOME KIND.”
Beyond potential damage to self-esteem, the problem with comparison thinking is it STEALS YOUR FOCUS.
Ahead of the Kentucky Derby, if a trainer finds a horse unfocused, he will put blinders on it. This simple piece of equipment was invented with one end in mind: To keep the horse’s gaze forward. With the roar of the crowd and sights of fans and other horses, it is easy for a horse’s focus to shift off of the track ahead. In doing so, the risk is great: Losing.
In our own lives, we must assess the risk we incur when we stop looking ahead and shift our gaze to what is around us.
This is a lesson I learned as a 22-year-old 1L.
A relatively shy person before I truly get to know people, I spent the first year of law school studying alone. I trusted my ability to learn the material alone. As finals approached and I overheard others talking about their study groups and lengthy outlines, I questioned my approach. The anxiety intensified as I heard classmates recount legal rules in ways that were not what I understood them to be.
I began comparing my method to theirs. And because it neither looked nor sounded like theirs, I began panicking.
Quickly into the panicking, I realized I had a choice: Keep panicking or trust my preparation.
I realized that if I was going to perform at my highest level on the final examination, I had to believe in the study strategies I adopted and knowledge I accumulated. Succinctly, I needed to believe that I knew what I knew.
Over the final weeks of that semester, I put on blinders. I tuned out the noise of people around me. I put my head down and my face forward, looking only toward my goals and belief in my preparation.
While I wasn’t rewarded with a crown of roses, a few weeks later I got my reward: I earned the highest grade.
In an age of constant comparison, your best achievements will come when you put your head down, tune out others, and go forward knowing your preparation will be your success.

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