Monday, October 9, 2017

It's Not That Simple, So Find Your Own Wisdom*


"It's actually quite simple. Follow your dreams.” – Justice Ian Binnie
Today is Canadian Thanksgiving, so the weekend has me feeling a little introspective.  Unlike most of my posts about politics and law, this blog is more of an informal reflection - based on my personal experience in life.  If that’s in any way off-putting, you should probably stop reading now.

Fall brings many things, including what I think of as ‘student advice’ season.  Some of it is helpful, see here.  Some seems a little off kilter, see eg here.  Other advice, like the recent message to new law students from former Supreme Court judge Ian Binnie quoted above, may not be as simple as it sounds.

When people ask I sometimes say, “I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer”.  The truth is a little more complicated.

My two earliest dreams involved stars.  I first wanted to be an actor.  The shy, youngest member of a family of five, the stage let me put on a mask.  As ‘Linus’ in my middle school production of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”, I got to make jokes, sing and dance. No one ignored me or yelled to ‘be quiet’ or ‘settle down’. When people instead laughed and applauded, I thought I had found my niche.
My backup plan was to study space. 
A fan of the original Star Trek, back then it seemed like the show’s fictional premise of a bold intergalactic future was coming to life. In 1977 I joined millions amazed by pictures of the surface of an alien world, sent back by the Mars Voyager.  I got a telescope one Christmas and figured I was set.  If acting didn’t pan out, I’d be an astronomer.
On several occasions I shared these childish ambitions with my late father.  His practical response was cautionary, warning that neither acting nor science would make much money and might require a lot of education. A child of the Depression, I suspect he feared economic stress and knew personally the grief of an entire generation’s unrealized dreams.
Later I liked to joke his attitude could be summed up as: "less learnin, more earnin."
I also enjoyed reading and wanted to write.  I later contributed to some school publications, but didn’t think my skills were good enough.  In any event I had no idea how to make ends meet with only a pen.
So I took my father’s admonition to heart.  My ‘part-time’ high school jobs often saw me spending 25 to 35 hours a week as a busboy and a hardware sales clerk at Canadian Tire.  I once worked with a builder who had me digging out a basement by hand with a shovel for an entire summer.  These experiences showed the harsh reality of low skilled labour. 
By the early 1980’s, a severe recession made access to high paying, blue-collar work in short supply, see eg here.  If I was ever going to do more, I thought I had to go to University.
I got the idea to pursue law after an undergraduate experience volunteer tutoring inmates inside Kingston’s 'notorious' federal Penitentiary.  It took a few years to be in a position where I could let that desire take root.  I loved University, but didn’t want to go into more debt.
After my first degree, broke and engaged, I had to find employment.  So I tried my hand briefly in insurance, later as a Child and Youth worker with young offenders and as a teacher (though even there, in high school and college, I taught law - it was a bit of a 'siren song').  It wasn’t until my 30’s that I was in a position to go back to law school.
Sure, sometimes in those years I was following a dream, but more often I was just trying to make a better living. Along the way, some aspirations were achieved, a few abandoned, and new hopes formed.  If experience has taught me one thing, it's that dreams change.
So here's a different opinion.
In his remarks Binnie also said young law students should take care to independently chart their own way, and move on from less than ideal work situations.  He quotes hockey legend Wayne Gretzky with approval, who said that you should always skate to where the puck is going to be.
I agree that everyone should make strategic choices, but sometimes it's also important to stand your ground.
Whatever else the future may hold, make the most of today.  Do what works, but if it doesn't, or it isn't what you wished for, do the best you can.  If you conscientiously address the present with respect, it's a strong message about the integrity of who you will become tomorrow.  
Never forget too, that steady employment and a regular paycheck can buy a lot of freedom to make the life you want.
That doesn’t mean you have to forsake all your ambitions.
I still pursue my earliest hopes, though in ways I never imagined.  Being a lawyer has let me act in many different roles as an advocate, in public policy and (still) in teaching.  My childhood fascination with the planets and stars morphed into a lifelong love of science fiction and physics, which I’ve occasionally even integrated into my writing about the law, see eg here and here.  In spite of my father’s reservations about the practicality of school, a few years ago, I achieved another long-time goal of studying and working in higher education, see eg here.
They might have changed, but I didn't give up on my dreams, and others shouldn't either. But experience tells me people should also be mindful to make room, in law or life, to find their own wisdom.

Mark Twain once quipped that the problem with most free advice is it's usually worth what you paid for it. I’m well aware that sentiment probably applies equally to my own thoughts, as well as to the advice of others, including former Supreme Court judges.  

I also don’t have many followers and I suspect few will have gotten this far.  I’m grateful if you did though, and thankful for the chance to share my reflections.  Happy Holiday to everybody!

*Thomas S. Harrison, Ph.D. is a lawyer and Assistant Professor of law (Adjunct), who still loves the Star Trek and looks forward to one day writing the ‘Great Canadian Novel’.

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