Most of you have probably heard by now of “flow”, a state of being where one is fully immersed in their work, bringing with it an intensity and a clarity of focus that borders on ecstasy. The paradigms of performers in flow are elite athletes and artists, for perhaps obvious reasons. Yet flow can come just as naturally to law students (and law deans) in job interviews, taking exams, or making oral arguments. Time stands still, distractions have faded away, negative feelings are nowhere to be found, and there is nothing in the world but dedication to the task at hand. The feeling is truly unparalleled.
As the above shows, I am as much a fan of flow as anyone. I believe that my previous posts, relating to mindfulness, belonging, and gratitude in particular, help bring it about. I imagine most could readily understand why flow does not happen all that often to a resentful person seething about a social media post who is in a professional setting where they do not feel welcome, and why balanced, centered, and grateful people who are in a place where they do belong are more likely to find it.
Still, despite all this, there is a problem with the flow mania that I think is underappreciated. Flow does not happen much of the time when you need to perform. Most of the time, we are all at least a bit distracted, anxious, or annoyed about something that causes us not to be able to remain fully focused for every long. And to me, the sign of a successful professional, legal or otherwise, lies in their ability to summon the resources necessary to complete the task notwithstanding the obstacles. That underappreciated virtue is not flow, but grit, which is what you have to call upon when you have to do something and flow is not coming.
The most common image of grit is of one nearing the summit of a mountain, the end of a marathon, or overtime in a football game, and coming up with that last little ounce of strength necessary to close out some magnificent and previously unimaginable feat. Yet as a marathon runner, I don’t think that I rely so much upon grit at that moment. When thousands of fans on Boylston Street are cheering me on, and I can see the end of the Boston Marathon, it’s not all that difficult to finish.
Six miles earlier, with a full 10K left to run, in rather intense pain, with many fewer fans around, is a different matter altogether. And even more different than that is the day I venture out for a 12 mile tempo run, or a 22 mile long run with no fans around. Some days, indeed perhaps most, I can start these runs and find myself in a state of flow rather quickly. (Mood follows action and not the reverse, the adage goes—an adage wise enough to deserve another post in the future.) And yet many days, because it is raining, because I had a bad night’s sleep, or because something happened at work that is very much weighing on my mind, those negative feelings sit with me the entire time. The true value of grit is the ability to recognize them, sit with them in full awareness, and nonetheless carry on in less than ideal conditions, returning the focus again and again to the task at hand, knowing that ultimately at best I will turn in a performance that I will estimate at mediocre. It is the ability to do that, time and again, which to my mind separates high performing professionals from their peers much more than the capacity to enter into a state of flow slightly more often.
Moreover, it is easy to underestimate how much one can achieve in a slog, through grit alone. One major categorical misconception I find in many early professionals is a belief that somehow if they are not in a state of flow, then whatever they are doing is subpar in the best case, and not worth the doing in the worst. It is hard to overemphasize how wrong this is. I don’t imagine Eliud Kiphchoge was in a state of undistracted ecstatic focus when he made it to the end of the 2015 Berlin Marathon, blistered and bloodied, with quite literally half of each shoe dragging along behind him. I imagine that the missing of half of each shoe might have served as a distraction from time to time, over the course of the two hour race. On more prosaic and more personal terms, I did a deanship interview a few years ago in which I found myself in the greatest state of flow I have ever achieved. An hour felt like 45 seconds. The search firm chief told me it was the best interview they had seen in a decade of witnessing such interviews. I did not get the job. The job I did get began with an interview that followed a night of three hours of sleep and a sick child where I consciously sipped a coffee after each question as a means of convincing myself that the little jolt of energy provided by that sip was what I needed to answer the next question well. I did not feel as good at the end of it, and I estimated my chances of a call back at 15%. Obviously, I miscalculated, because here I am. I would like to think of this position I am so privileged to hold as my 2015 Berlin Marathon.
So what to do on that day when nothing seems to be going right, and you can’t seem to focus on your writing assignment, and yet you push through and do the work you need to, deciding at the end of it all that it isn’t your best work, though probably good enough? Two things. First, remember that how you feel has little to do with how more objective outsiders, who have no idea how you felt, will assess your work in the end. Second, after that reminder, go buy yourself a nice ice cream sundae. And then prepare yourself to do it again, when the occasion arises. Because once that part is mastered, it is all downhill to walking across the stage with a cap on your head to shake my hand.
Take care of yourselves and one another,
Those of you who have spoken with me, or heard me speak (voluntarily, at a drop in or lunch, or less so, at orientation) are aware of the high value I place on mindfulness and presence. Indeed, I find it the single trait I seek to cultivate most in my life, to ensure that I am able to achieve what matters most on a given day. In the absence of it, the hurly-burly of the world has the potential to sweep me away, so that what is actually important is sacrificed to what feels in the moment to be the most urgent.
I thought I would take time to write today on a companion practice to mindfulness, that of gratitude, which I likewise find core to personal and professional success in law school and in legal practice more broadly. Like mindfulness, my sense is that gratitude has a long and storied presence across cultures and eras, and that it has gotten short shrift in our consumer-driven, mobile-friendly, distraction-laden world. In both cases, in my view, we have lost something, and to recapture it will redound to great personal and professional betterment.
Interestingly enough, across the various trends of thought and belief that emphasize the benefits of gratitude, the primary beneficiary of giving thanks is expected to be the one who gives it, not the one who receives it. Certainly, I have been in no shortage of leadership seminars where the importance of expressing gratitude to others is emphasized as a means of boosting their morale and improving their performance. And I do believe that the community to which we aspire at UC Law can only be built through frequent giving of thanks to one another, to support each other in overcoming respective challenges. Yet an even more common sentiment with respect to gratitude overall is that of Solomon in the Qur’an, who proclaims that the one who gives thanks, gives it for the benefit of their own soul, and the one who withholds it, withholds nothing from the Lord, who remains giving and abundant. More secular expressions are perhaps even more obvious—I don’t imagine many believe that Alanis Morisette is thanking everything from “India” to “consequence” out of any expectation that this will, or even should, do something for the recipients of her gratitude.
Speaking only for myself, I view gratitude as providing the framing on which mindfulness is built, and out of which personal and professional success can be achieved. When one is mindful, they are aware of all that is around them. When they are grateful, they frame that into a mindset of positivity that then helps shape how they carry out their lives. The point is not delusion—to count blessings and not problems does not entail inventing blessings and denying problems. Instead, it is to frame a life around the riches in hand, rather than those out of reach. Where the latter leads to envy, resentment, and the building of a culture of toxicity and distrust, the former leads to positivity, contentment, and a shared mutual commitment to support each other to the betterment of all.
I do not think I am as grateful as I can be. Years ago, I think I struggled even more. I might have wished I was making more money, or was better recognized by colleagues for my scholarly achievements, or had offers to teach at law schools that were higher ranked on US News. I suppose in my failings I fell into the trap many do—of believing that somehow where mindfulness was a practice, gratitude was a disposition that required no work. One was simply grateful or they were not. Years of prayer, meditation, and journaling have managed to convince me of that which I wish I had known better years before—that gratitude is, like kindness and awareness, a state of being that comes about only through consistent practice, and that, as human beings, we are all capable of backsliding from time to time. Continuing the practice and being as forgiving of myself as I try to be of my friends and family are the only way I have managed to forge ahead, to the extent I have been successful at all.
It has taken me years, which is why I emphasize it alongside other core virtues that also take years, from cultivating deep relationships to building awareness. To my mind, this is the foundation upon which the skills you are developing in law school are built. So long as the foundation is solid, the skills will come. You do not need three years to learn how to brief a case. You will need much more than that to be at peace with your own thoughts in the most tumultuous of times, and grateful for all that you have when rejections or defeats, and with them self-doubt, start to pile up. This happens to all of us after all, me very much included. Knowing how to write a killer brief will not get you up when life throws you that punch, but mindfulness and gratitude will.
So I encourage you to consider a gratitude journal, where you note down three things you are most thankful for each morning, before you start your day, or each evening, when you end it. Make it a regular practice to think of a few blessings you have when your mind takes you to a few problems. And, when someone does something nice for you, small or large, just say thank you. It might very well make their day. And it will, over time, do wonders for yours.
Take care of yourselves and one another,
In my various meetings with students over the past four weeks, I am often asked whether I visited Cincinnati much as a child, which is after all only 90 minutes from my home town of Columbus. The honest answer is that unless Mason, and specifically King’s Island, count as “Cincinnati”, then I did not. I can, however, point to a specific trip I made to Cincinnati as an adult, in June of 2003, shortly before returning to Baghdad to live and work for three years. The singular purpose of this trip was to visit the Contemporary Arts Center, which had been designed by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
By 2003, every Iraqi I knew was aware of who Zaha Hadid was—Iraq’s premier architect, from a nation that had no shortage of them. A year after completing the CAC, she would win the Pritzker—the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architects. She had been the subject of much international acclaim, and was for many of us a source of inspiration, including those, like me, who had no real experience with or training in architecture. We also knew something else. When selected to design the CAC, she had only completed three free standing buildings in her life, and none in the United States. She had faced formidable barriers entering the construction world as a woman, an Iraqi, and a Muslim.
None of that became easier after she was selected, and groundbreaking began in May of 2001. This was a difficult time in Cincinnati of course, only a month after the killing of Timothy Thomas and the unrest that followed. It was also soon to be a very dark chapter in the American Muslim experience as well, following the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All of us remember the tragedy of that day, the senseless loss of life, and, of course, the aftermath that followed. Those we had thought of as friends and supporters repeated rumors and lies respecting immigrant schoolchildren knowing the towers would fall days before they did, thereby giving credence to the calumny that we were all in on it. More than one person I considered a friend asked me what I thought of the attacks, as if there was somehow a possibility that someone who had spent so much of their life working in social justice and human rights causes would deem the targeting of an office tower a justified military venture. And, of course, I have never since been able to enter or leave an airport without worrying about whether I will be “randomly” stopped for additional security measures, which seems to happen on nearly every international trip and quite a few domestic ones, to this day.
I thought at the time that the CAC would surely rethink its decision to continue with Hadid. That she had nothing to do with 9/11, and that everyone knew that, was as obvious to me as it was naïve. Neither did I, and yet I still pay a price, more than two decades later. Yet they stuck with her, and Zaha Hadid’s first American building was opened to the public in May of 2003. I saw it three weeks later. And, from that time forward, to any who mocked Ohio on the East Coast, where I spent so much of my adult life, I would frequently point out that Cincinnati, and not New York, Washington, or Boston, was the place where Zaha Hadid made her American debut.
It would be pretty to connect in a straight line that visit to my acceptance of the Deanship of the University of Cincinnati twenty years and two months later, when the University of Cincinnati appointed America’s first Muslim law dean. Yet life narratives are never so clean. As Hadid once said, and as her work has demonstrated to us all, the world is not a rectangle. Nobody is disturbed because they can’t find a clean corner in Burnet Woods, a stone’s throw from where I sit now. My journey, like the trails of Burnet Woods, has been convoluted, winding, and wonderful, as all are, and I hope to tell you more about it in future messages.
Instead, I only tell you this story to make a single point. What the Contemporary Arts Center chose to do in selecting Zaha Hadid as their architect showed remarkable courage, when safer options were available. I, and countless other Iraqi Americans and Muslim Americans living in very difficult times, took note of that courage. We appreciated it, and we honored it. And twenty years later, when an opportunity came my way in Cincinnati, I certainly remembered it.
I hope we all can work on trying to find it within us to extend that same kind of courage—I’ll call it Cincinnati courage—to fellow members of our community when the opportunity arises. Extend a hand to a classmate who is struggling under the weight of anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Speak up for another who feels voiceless, and let them feel heard. Empower, enable, and, if nothing else, show your fellow students you see them. It might seem like a small thing to you. And it might end up meaning the world to them.
Take care of yourselves and one another,
As excited as I am in beginning my service as the 27th Dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law, this fall marks a wistful occasion for me as well. For the first time in 16 years, I will not be teaching Contracts in the fall semester. I will not be walking into a large classroom full of newly minted, excited, and ambitious law students to begin teaching them about the law of binding promises. That has long been a great joy for me, and one I am sad to forsake.
This is not a lamentation—I very much want to be your Dean, and I cannot be your Dean effectively, certainly in my first year, if I am also trying to teach a first year course at the same time. Instead, the point is that teaching Contracts, and the sense of reward and satisfaction I derived from it, helped keep me focused on why we professors do what we do. We are teachers first and foremost. Beyond the important and impactful scholarship we produce, and the vital service to the profession that we provide—all work in which we take the greatest pride— in the end, we work in law school to educate and inspire our students to pursue justice and advance the role of law in society. I am privileged to work with an incredible staff that I know shares the same priorities and seeks to advance the same mission. Whatever our differences, on the principle that our students come first, we are all in agreement.
The irony, of course, is that as the leader of an institution which exists to educate and inspire students, I find myself more isolated from students than I would be as a faculty member. I therefore need to be more intentional in reaching out to all of you, and to maintain a steady and consistent line of communication, so that you are aware of all that we are doing as a law school, and all that I am doing as your Dean, and you are able to communicate to me your own commitments and concerns, for us to take into consideration as we plot our future course. To that end, I have planned biweekly drop ins with the Dean, designed exclusively for meetings with students, along with lunches with 1L students, regular meetings with the SBA and leaders of other student groups, including the affinity groups, and, of course, this blog, written for students, on issues of student concern.
So, I hope you will take a little time every other week to read this Dean’s Corner Blog. I hope if you are a 1L, you will sign up for a lunch, and if you are an upperclass student, you come to a Dean’s drop in. I hope you follow me on Instagram and Twitter (@cincylawdean), or LinkedIn (under my name). If you are an athlete (or, in my case, pretend to be one), I hope you will follow me on Strava. I promise to do the same. I want you to get to know me, and I want to be sure to get to know all of you. I look forward to our future connections, and to building a bright future for UC Law together.
Take care of yourselves and one another,