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Friday, July 31, 2015

The End of Ambition?

60-days-green-white-mdI hear that sixty is the new forty.  I hope so.  It's the end of the month, and I'm thinking about ends.  And if the bromide is true, I'm premature.  But here's a trigger warning anyway: what follows is about "ought" fading into "is" or "becoming" fading into "being." It's also hopelessly self-indulgent, but my excuse is that I just got the schedule of faculty meetings for the next year.

By a quirk of career fate, I'm a bit older than most of my professional cohort (in this incarnation).  Next year  will be the fortieth anniversary of my first day of law school, something that flips me out, but also means that I was puzzling through Groves v. John Wunder before the majority (I suspect) of the readers of this blog were born. And it means that most of you will have no conception at all of the inner sense of being closer to the end than to the beginning. There's a hint of it in somebody like that young whippersnapper, President Obama, realizing that he has run his last campaign, but he really does have a whole career ahead of him still.  (On January 20, 2017, he'll be 55, which is only a year older than I was when I got a full time permanent faculty position.)

Running the last campaign is a nice metaphor, because campaigns are about becoming. Careers are a continuing series of campaigns - getting a job, making partner, getting tenure, getting promoted. NPR just ran an interview with Woody Allen, who turns 80 (!!!!) on his next birthday. To the extent that professors create through their writing, those pieces, like the movies that Woody keeps making, are becomings. But those are slightly different becomings, more like unfoldings, and not like steps up a ladder.

UnknownMy friend, the philosopher Susan Neiman, has a new and neat little book about becoming and being, entitled Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age (New York Times Book Review by A.O. Scott here).  Susan is a fabulous translator of Enlightenment philosophy (particularly Kant) into practical wisdom. I don't necessarily share her outcomes (she's a lot farther to the left than I, a passionate moderate) but given her fundamental message, there's a lot of room for reasonable differences.  That's because adulthood is (to quote Scott's pithy summary) "the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be." Or as Susan says, it "requires facing squarely the fact that you will never get the world you want, while refusing to talk yourself out of wanting it."

So adulthood is also a mediation between simply being, on one hand, and continuing to become, on the other. Maybe being closer to the end than the beginning means that you have to be more selective about your becomings. The practical translation of that thought is the expression "life is too short," something that takes on more quantitative meaning the older you get, and particularly during faculty and committee meetings.

Even this blog post is a little becoming, because when I'm done with it, I've made the world a little more like it ought to be than it was (at least for me).  Each paragraph, each article, each book, each lecture, each student one influences is a little becoming.  But is accepting that as the rest of one's career also the end of ambition?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 31, 2015 at 08:46 AM in Blogging, Deliberation and voices, Lipshaw | Permalink

Comments

I don't think that's the end of ambition; I think that *is* ambition.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 31, 2015 12:07:27 PM

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