Sonia Sotomayor Has Pursued Her Calling

Last year David Brooks wrote a column about Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor's life and career, pointing out the personal sacrifices that accompanied her amazing professional journey. It's good follow-up to my post last night:

As a young woman, she earned a reputation as a fanatically driven worker, who lived on caffeine and cigarettes….

Her marriage broke up after two years. She was quoted as saying, “I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage.”

Later, during a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, she referred to her then-fiancé, “The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness.” She addressed him, saying that he had filled “voids of emptiness that existed before you. … You have altered my life so profoundly that many of my closest friends forget just how emotionally withdrawn I was before I met you.”

That relationship ended after eight years, and her biographers paint a picture of a life now that is frantically busy, fulfilling and often aloof. “You make play dates with her months and months in advance because of her schedule,” a friend of hers told The Times….

These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn’t yet been captured by a novel or a movie — the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships — the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own…. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn’t anticipate at first.

… Sotomayor’s life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don’t succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus, and struggling against its consequences.

(thanks to JP Adams for the pointer)


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7 comments on “Sonia Sotomayor Has Pursued Her Calling
  • Ben, you’re committing a thinking error here. It is the “swimmer’s body” fallacy that Nassim Taleb writes about in The Black Swan: it is not necessarily true that swimming gives you a swimmer’s body; it is likely true that people born with swimmer’s bodies excel at swimming and therefore keep doing it, and those not born with swimmer’s bodies struggle with it and give up: what you’re left with is a group of swimmers with swimmer’s bodies.

    I’ve met lots of high achievers, and I haven’t encountered any who I’d characterize as warm, nurturing, relationship-oriented people. Task-oriented, goal-oriented, outcome-oriented: most certainly. I can’t help but think that they work as hard as they do because it’s highly rewarding and protects them from the unhappiness that their other life-skill shortcomings constantly return to them.

    I would agree with David Brooks that professions that require single-minded focus and punishing hours choose people who have those qualities, but the fact is that those same people are not well-suited to a life outside of that job. People who have life skills beyond career-enhancing skills get rewarded for a broader range of experiences than high-achievers do, and have the benefit of experiencing the rewards of a full life. The loneliness of high achievers is not appealing to well-rounded people. I think it’s less true that one’s profession changes a person than it is that you select the job that ultimately meets your needs.

  • Is this “ambition” or “sickness”? Personally I think our country would be better off elevating human beings with a complete and fullfilling life into positions of authority. Rather than the cyborgs our society seems to reward with positions of power after sacrificing everything that makes them human.

  • “Sacrifice” and “calling” are both words that originate in religion, and which had/still have a lot more meaning than just “the stuff you don’t get to do because you decided to do something else instead”.

    Hitler deliberately avoided marriage and family to focus on his successful career as a fascist dictator- did he “sacrifice” for his “calling”? It seems more appropriate to describe his choices as logically characteristic of a violent sociopath. Not all supersuccessful people are positively motivated.

    If we lose the meaning of words, we lose the ability to express complex ideas accurately. You may not feel like going much deeper with this, Ben, but your posts do still beg these bigger philosophical/ academic questions.

  • I strongly agree with the points you’re making here. There’s a lot of signifying embedded in this language.

    We could as easily say that Sotomayor ran from emotional intimacy into a life of the mind and sought social acceptance through her work rather than sacrificing career advancement to spend time doing the really hard work of building the relationship skills she needed to live a well-balanced life. This is a great loss to the men who loved her, the friendships she neglected, and the family she might have had.

  • I would disagree that that style of life hasn’t been captured: just look at The West Wing. I am amazed at the level of committment and sacrifice the staffers and others on the show make which I’m sure is reflected in its real life counterparts. It’s hard to imagine the long hours and the pursuit of work above all else. While I admire it, I also am glad that I prefer a more balanced life.

  • I recently spent two years as a chemist at one of the world’s top research universities. I had expected to engage myself with the world’s best minds on all kinds of diverse topics: the reality was far more constrained. A shame. If the price of greatness doing one narrow thing 80 hours a week, year after year, there is going to be strong selection pressure against people with the trait of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. Reading accounts of professors’ lives in the 40’s and 50’s, I sense that academic chemistry used to be a fun gig. Now – not so much.

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