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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Further Reflections on the End of Ambition

6a00d8341c6a7953ef022ad3a3f7af200bAlmost exactly three years ago, on the last day of my guest-blogging month, I posted a piece entitled The End of Ambition.  Sometimes I go back to what I wrote long ago and cringe (I was tempted to link the piece that most makes me cringe, but nah) but this one I like.  It started as a contemplation of what it's like to face the end of your career and turned into a broader assessment of what it means to grow up, to be an adult (something we've recently explored in connection with law students).

Well, here we go again, except now I'm 1000000 (Aside #1: as my friend Raffael Cavallaro said, "there are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don't") and looking pretty good for 1000000. (Aside #2: if horses ruled the world, "digital" really would mean "binary".)  But when you hit 1000001, you hit the normal age for filing for Social Security, and at 10000110 you have maxed out on the value of deferring your benefits.  (For those of you who have many years yet before this becomes an issue, it involves the uncomfortable evaluation of how long past 10000110 you and/or your surviving partner think you will make it.  The longer the period, the more sense it makes to defer.)

What prompted the re-reflection is being on this blog extensively at the same time the "submission angsting" and "hiring committee" posts have gone up, and my recent pontifications (sparked by Kaci Bishop's article) on fear and failure.  What I want to do here, from the perspective of one who has achieve the ripe old age of 10 to the 110th power, is link fear and failure to ambition.  My thesis here is that there is a continuum of ambition from the macro to the micro, and our brains don't do a great job of making that clear, hence causing our nervous system to spit out fear of failure juice in many of the wrong places. 

Here are prototypes of macro ambition:  getting hired as a tenure-track law professor or being awarded tenure.  Placing law review articles have a lot to do with both (so it seems).  I do very much understand macro-ambition.  My school and professional lives were a continuous series of them - grades, class standing, university admissions, law school admissions, getting a law firm job, making partner, getting the in-house job, becoming the GC.  I've said this before - when you attempt to break into academia and then climb the tenure ladder as a superannuated newbie, the actual consequence of failure is, I think, less significant in one's life than if you start out young.  I think there is also a lower fear factor - and thus more willingness to swing for the fences. (By the way, it's been around for well over a decade now, but you can find that particular story in Memo to Lawyers: How Not to "Retire and Teach".)

Here is my prototype of the micro-est of micro ambitions. When you get to be 1000000 and you worry about the increasing number of senior moments, you do things to assure yourself that you aren't losing it.  One of mine is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.  Monday and Tuesday are too easy, so I do them online and see how fast I can complete them.  Wednesday through Sunday merit printing them.  I do them in ink and my goal is not to make a mistake.  I can annoy my wife no end by finishing the Saturday or Sunday puzzle perfectly and then proudly displaying it as though it is actually some kind of meaningful accomplishment. 

Now some people never stop having and acting upon macro-ambitions. Joe Biden is thinking about running for President, I'm pretty sure.  I am in the process of coming to terms with the end of mine. (Trust me, I had them and could tell you stories.) What I'm thinking now is that there isn't really an end of ambition.  It's just that most of the macros get taken over by the micros. Not going to be a CEO. Not going to be a university president. Not even going to be a lateral hire. It's now a bucket list.  Yeah, it would be cool to place an article in the Yale Law Journal.  It won't make a helluva big difference to anything, but it would be another thing to check off, somewhere between doing the Saturday puzzle completely correct in ink and being President.

The thing is the fear. I've already admitted publicly that I have the typical type-A failure dreams.  I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg - ambitious goals or fear of failure - or if maybe they are the same thing.  But it has made me think about Woody Allen's observation on this in Annie Hall:  "You know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken.  Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in?  Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs."

Woody was talking about relationships, but I'm talking about fear of failure. I still get slightly (not pathologically) annoyed at myself for screwing up the crossword. If you lose the fear, do you also lose the ability to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve?

UPDATE:  I corrected my age from the original posting (h/t Dean Andy Perlman).  I am 1000000, not 100000.   When you get to 1000000, it's hard to see all those zeroes.  Another damn failure!  There goes the brain again, releasing those fear of failure juices.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on August 12, 2018 at 10:56 AM in Blogging, Deliberation and voices, Lipshaw | Permalink


Unfair to switch to non-decimal base with out informing the reader. Even a binary computer C-compiler will interpret a number in decimal base unless it is given explicit notice. [decimal 8 is 0b1000].

See https://www.binaryhexconverter.com/decimal-to-binary-converter

The binary numbers in the post are in error! Actually, at 0b100001, you are just half the Full Retirement Age (FRA) of decimal 66 you need to reach to qualify for full SS benefits nowadays, which is 0b1000010.

And don't forget, the old option to file and suspend for a MARRIED spouse has been eliminated.

A person born before January 0b10, 0b11110100001, can still choose to receive a DIVORCED spouse's benefit at FRA, and delay receiving their own retirement benefit up to age 0b1000110. That could mean a significant (0b1000 percent per year!) increase. This is one of the few cases where federal taxes and benefits favor the single over the married person. Unfortunately, for those whose birthday is January 0b10, 0b11110100001 or later, that option also no longer exists.

Posted by: Jimbino | Aug 12, 2018 1:06:52 PM

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