A Little Happier: A Friend Found the Right Thing to Say Before My Important Job Interview

I often feel like I don’t know the right thing to say. I’ll be searching for the right words to help someone else feel comforted, strengthened, or understood, and I’m at a loss. So I always pay special attention when someone knows just the right thing to say.

I vividly remember one such conversation.

Many years ago, I was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. This was a rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experience. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

Very sadly, the Justice recently died, and as I reflected on her life and on our time together, I remembered something that happened when I was applying for my clerkship with her.

I was a third-year law student, I’d applied for the clerkship, and I was thrilled because the Justice invited me to come to Washington, D.C., to meet her in her chambers for an interview.

I traveled from New Haven to Washington, and it was the day of the interview. As you might imagine, I was nervous.

Fortunately, I happened to have a good friend from college who was clerking for Chief Justice Rehnquist at the time, so we met for lunch before my interview.

And he explained to me what a clerkship required, and told me how his year had been going, and at the end of the conversation, I confided to him, “The thing is, Jim, did you ever worry about whether you’re good enough for the job? I wonder, can I really do this?”

Jim didn’t say, “Oh, Gretchen, you’re great, you’re smart,” or anything like that. Which wouldn’t have made me feel any better.

He said, “Gretchen, she’s a Justice of the Supreme Court. She has hired dozens of clerks. It’s her problem to figure out if you’re good enough to do the job. You focus on trying to get the job.”

I found this enormously comforting. Instead of thinking, “Can I do this?” I focused on doing my best.

My friend found the right thing to say: Instead of offering me words of praise or reassurance, which wouldn’t have comforted me at all, he reminded me that someone else was in a better position to judge my ability. I realized, “If Justice O’Connor thinks I can do this job, I can probably do this job.”  It was comforting because it was true.




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