Reason, Success and Being Yourself: The Lessons of ‘Legally Blonde’

Reason, Success and Being Yourself: The Lessons of ‘Legally Blonde’

A beautiful sorority queen who isn’t taken seriously as an intellectual defies the odds and gets into Harvard Law School. You know who I’m talking about—it’s the iconic, hilarious and endlessly fashionable Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon).

This is it, folks. We’re finally talking about Legally Blonde on SUCCESS Movie Rewind. Really, it’s long overdue, because this is the perfect personal development movie. What I left out of that basic description above is the personal development part: Elle goes to Harvard Law School after her boyfriend (who is also attending Harvard) dumps her, and along the way she learns that there’s a lot more to life than what she thought there was. Oh, and she graduates as the valedictorian.

Talk about some serious personal development. And that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Welcome back to SUCCESS Movie Rewind. Let’s learn what Elle Woods has to teach us about improving ourselves.

Be serious about being yourself.

Elle Woods is such a likable character, and I think at least part of that is down to her unflinching dedication to being herself—no matter how much pushback she receives from her family and friends, she carries on. 

She’s trying to get into and subsequently graduate from one of the best, most competitive law schools in the world, and we get enough background in the film to see that law has not really been her “thing” up to this point. Still, she has decided this is what she wants, and she takes it seriously even when her own parents express their doubts. And, if you’ve seen the movie, you know her seriousness and dedication to going after what she wants pays off.

It’s a perfect personal development lesson packaged with a pink bow: Be serious about being yourself. This is our first SUCCESS Movie Maxim (trademark pending) for today. But really, you’re not giving yourself the best possible chance of success if you aren’t being serious about being yourself.

In my other life, I’m a lawyer. I’m good at it, and I take it seriously. But I also get on this podcast and talk about Marvel movies. I’m both things, and that’s OK. Elle is a (future) lawyer and a sorority girl, and that’s OK, too. You probably experience some version of that, and it’s important that you dedicate yourself to being who you truly are. It’s the only real way to pursue your passions to the fullest possible extent.

Success is a skill.

As Elle is preparing to take the LSAT—the standardized test required to enter law school—we hear from a few key figures in her life about how she’s throwing all of her success away by pursuing something that, at first glance, is not likely to be successful. After all, she was first runner-up at the Miss Hawaiian Tropics contest.

But she really throws nothing away except her self-doubt. She was successful in her life before law school, and she rises to the rank of valedictorian during her life in law school. The reason why is also the second SUCCESS Movie Maxim for this week: Success is a skill.

Skills lead to success—we’re all familiar with that way of thinking, and it has merit. But success is a skill in and of itself. It’s a set of traits that make you antifragile, resilient, ready to take on the next challenge

Career-changers or just-about-to-start-a-business people, this is for you: If you’re feeling self-doubt, remember that what led you to success before this moment can lead you to success in your next endeavor. Boil your success down to the basics—observation, planning and execution—and make it happen again.

Reason is worthless without passionately felt personal values.

If you’ve never been to law school, you may not be aware that the amount of Latin we hear in Legally Blonde is actually less than you hear in real-life law school settings. It’s just how lawyers have named things and expressed concepts. Two bits of Latin we hear in the movie are some really helpful ethics terms: malum prohibitum and malum in se.

“Malum” means “bad,” “prohibitum” means “prohibited” and “in se” means “in and of itself.” So malum prohibitum is “prohibited bad” and malum in se is “bad in and of itself.” I’m not here (or qualified) to give you a Latin lesson. I’m trying to tell you that you have to decide what your malum in se and malum prohibitum are.

I’ll explain. If you’re an American driving on the wrong side of the road when you visit the U.K., you’re pulling a malum prohibitum but not a malum in se—there’s nothing inherently wrong about driving on a particular side of the road, but you’re still breaking the law.

We get those terms now—great. Now, let’s discuss our third SUCCESS Movie Maxim: Reason is worthless without passionately felt personal values

The moment from Legally Blonde that I’ll use to support this one is, in some respects, the biggest moment in the film. It’s Elle’s valedictorian speech. She says, in part: “On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard, I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law and of life. It is with passion, courage, conviction and a strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world.”

She’s absolutely right: Reason without passion is worthless. Your values—the malum prohibitum and malum in se you choose to live by—dictate not just who you are, but who you will become. And we’re all trying to become someone we respect, aren’t we?

To quote Elle Woods again: “Congratulations, Class of 2004—we did it!” And by “it,” I mean we finished our discussion of Legally Blonde. Rewinders, I hope you’ll join me for more movie and personal development discussion next week. See you then.

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Alex Stevens invented motivational media criticism and reinvents the genre every week on SUCCESS Movie Rewind. Alex is also a lawyer, creative consultant, and artist, sometimes all at once. Alex lives with his family in Dallas, Texas.

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