Why Meaningless Assignments Might Be Important

One of the aims of military boot camp is to break a person down so that they can be rebuilt in the way the military desires.  This might sound insane, but it’s pretty important to know that your soldiers are going to follow orders, respect the chain of command, and act without hesitation, even if they don’t totally agree with the decision coming from the top. This is precisely the reason similar training exercises are adopted outside the military.  If you’ve ever been on a sports team, you’ve experienced this to some degree.  But realize, this phenomena is more about the mental aspect than the physical, than actually acquiring the skills, and so its application is not limited to the physical world of combat or sports.

In law school, one of the first assignments was to learn how to use the library.  Sensible right?  Actually, not at all.  Everything is online now.  Lawyers don’t use libraries anymore because it’s cheaper and exponentially faster to use LexisNexis or Westlaw.  The only time you would ever need to venture into the stacks is if you were looking for some obscure old text that isn’t updated anymore.  So, why waste the hours on this assignment?  Well, it was immediately clear that a very sizable number of people were able to get in to law school without working very hard.  Some of these people were bright enough that they didn’t need to put in hours and hours and hours of study to do well in high school and college.  Most of these kids just didn’t have the diligence or study skills required to be a lawyer.  And so, assignments like this one were our boot camp.  They were tedious, time consuming, and more or less completely unnecessary.

Now, law school can still be gamed; like high school and college you can still do well without investing massive amounts of time, but the curriculum is definitely set up so that you’re supposed to be spending massive amounts of time reading and studying.  If you can beat the game, isn’t playing it a waste of time?

“Training is one of the most neglected phases of athletics. Too much time is given to the development of skill and too little to the development of the individual for participation. Training deals not with an object, but with the human spirit and human emotions. It takes intellect and judgment to handle such delicate qualities as these.”

– Bruce Lee

For some people, yes, it is a waste of time.  But it’s important not to forget the boot camp aspect of the experience.  Coming out of law school, you’re likely to sit behind a desk reading and writing for 10 hours a day.  If you’ve never had to study or work like that, and haven’t been trained to do that, it’s hard.  It’s hard to stay focused on something that’s nearly incomprehensible for 10 hours, or 50 hours, or 200 hours in some cases.  It’s frustrating.  It’s draining.  It’s not fun.  So, in part, law school is about developing the individual merely for participating in the game.  Only having observed medical school from the outside, it seems like a lot of it is similarly geared towards ensuring graduates can handle the hell of residency as much as it ensures they’re competent to practice medicine.

Long story short, before you brush something off as pointless or a waste of time, stop and think about what other goals might be wrapped up in the assignment.  Sometimes developing the individual for participation is more important than developing the more glamorous skills.

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2 Responses to Why Meaningless Assignments Might Be Important

  1. Interesting observation. Also, it was fascinating for me to read the first sentence about military training – I hadn’t even thought about this concept of ‘rebuilding’ someone to fit a purpose. I also love the Bruce Lee quote – we’re not just bodies and muscles – we’re emotional beings, and that’s a big aspect of any training. Great post, keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: Yes, It Matters, Even If No One Sees | The Blog of A.J. Kessler

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