Career Lessons from Elena Kagan vs. Richard Posner

Consider the career paths and attitudes of two of the most prominent legal scholars in America.

Kaganhead Elena Kagan, recently nominated to the Supreme Court, according to profiles has been carefully plotting a career since, well, forever. Her youthful dream was to be a Supreme Court justice. At 17 she posed for her high school yearbook in a judge’s robe with a gavel and a quotation from Felix Frankfurter. She relentlessly worked toward this goal in her adult life, knowing what she would have to do to get there. "She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life. She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen," said John Palfrey, a law professor at Harvard. She published rarely; she did not speak out on controversial issues; she has been "extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade." Thus: she stands a good chance at enduring Senate confirmation hearings because she has given her opposition little ammunition. David Brooks called this willingness to suppress her mind for her career "kind of disturbing." Andrew Sullivan called her pure careerism "depressing."

Posnerhead Richard Posner, an appellate judge and Univ of Chicago law professor, may have been similarly ambitious when young (I'm not sure), but based on how he's lived his adult life it's clear that he values the pursuit of truth over a carefully cultivated resume. Posner is someone people agree is bright enough to be a Supreme Court justice but too eccentric so as to never pass a confirmation hearing. With jaw-dropping productivity he's shared his thoughts on nearly every topic under the sun. He applies his considerable intellectual heft to timely public debates. He's come out in support of legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, and other rational (if unpopular) ideas. In addition to his court opinions, where are the most cited in the land, he churns out a book a year and a blog post a week. With all this output, he inevitably gets some stuff wrong (sometimes a lot of stuff wrong), offends everyone at least once, and makes himself impossible to pin down. But what an inspiring mind and life!

The career results for each: Kagan will likely assume the top judicial position in the land. Posner will stay put at a close-to-the-top judicial position. The pure careerist achieves her goal. But at what cost?

I'd rather be close to the top and be able to live honestly and with the freedom to take risks than live a neutered life for 35 years in order to rise to the very top. I'd rather be myself than be a shallow, approval-seeking imitation of what is supposedly required to advance to the next level.

Bottom Line: In many professions it seems the sacrifices to go from A- to A+, from 2nd place to 1st place, are just not worth it.

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