Wednesday, September 3, 2008


This is from about a week ago, but Andrew Sullivan linked to a Clive Crook post about Michelle Obama's convention speech, noting in particular the part where Crook writes:
It's starting to annoy me that Barack keeps telling us how he turned down Wall Street for a career in "public service". By this he means politics. Just how great a sacrifice is that? The kind of ambition that gets you into the Senate and maybe the White House is not exactly renouncing the world and all its temptations, is it? And now here we have Michelle doing the same thing. She gave up lawyering, she says, and chose "public service"--the kind that leads in due course to a 300k-plus salary. I've no problem with it. I just don't want to keep being asked to admire the sacrifice.
I have to say I share this sentiment somewhat. The nobility of people's personal choices, choices that we really have no way to evaluate, strikes me as overblown. We regard a person's subsequent success in the path they chose as a validation of all the alternatives they supposedly had. In other words, we think the way one commenter on Crook's post does:
Barack Obama would be making a lot more money as a Wall Street lawyer today if he had stayed there. Michelle Robinson would be making a lot more money today as a partner in a big Chicago law firm today if she had stayed there.
Who says? We have no way to know if Barack Obama's skills would have translated into infinite success in the Wall Street environment, or if Michelle would have made partner. For all we can say, Michelle jumped to a not-for-profit just before she was pushed out the door (which happens to many associates in law firms).

Anyone who has worked for any length of time has seen people who are ill-suited to a particular environment despite their demonstrated skills. There are those who flourish in a bureaucratic situation who flounder when put into an entrepreneurial-style company, and vice versa. We constantly see corporate vice presidents who are considered top-notch, and they abjectly fail when put into the top spot. Michael Jordan, despite his obvious athletic talents, couldn't hit a pitched ball and never was seen as a true baseball prospect.

Imagine a mover and shaker like Barack Obama logging serious time as an 80 hour-a-week associate in a big law firm, spending most of his time doing research and writing briefs. That might have been the path to great riches, but we don't know that; what we do know is that the path would have been a waste of his talent to connect with people, to inspire them with a vision (strangely enough, most law partners resist the "vision" of their new associates).

Just as Obama at some point had to realize that he was not going to be an NBA star, it may well be the case that he had a similar realization concerning his ability to thrive within a standard legal environment. His success, while admirable, may not be transferrable to any other arena - his path may well have been optimal for him, and, therefore, his choice may not have represented a sacrifice at all.

Lest this be seen as criticism of the Obamas, it is not. The point can be made about a host of other decisions that we are routinely expected to admire. The marginal high school grad who goes into the military based on the lack of unskilled jobs in his or her town and the educational benefits being offered is not necessarily sacrificing a future, but trying to build one. The law school graduate who goes into public aid law, then has to take a bartender job on weekends to pay back student loans, is in that situation as a consequence of choices, and I'm just not going to spend a lot of time crying about that.

As one travels along the road of life, decisions are constantly being made. Some of them work out, some don't, but trying to parse out which are noble and which are not is a pointless exercise after the fact. Had Barack Obama seen community organizing as an untenable choice for a career, he wouldn't have chosen it, but he did - that is neither admirable nor not.

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