SCENE: After dark in a typical American living room. Brown furniture — clean but worn — and a family of four lit only by the glow of the television screen. In this dim but cozy tableau, we cannot tell easily if we’re looking at a family of the 1970s, the 1990s, or now. The image on the TV does not help. We see the tan glare of the African savanna and a small herd of gazelles grazing warily within. A quick cut to a lioness stalking in the grass, all intensity and sinew. It could be Wild Kingdom. Nature. The Crocodile Hunter. The timeless family gazes, helpless, as an oblivious gazelle fawn playfully skitters through the field. The lioness. The fawn. The lioness. Suddenly, there’s a tawny blur and a pounce. The herd scatters. All but the fawn, who is knocked to the ground by the swipe of a callous paw and then killed with a deft bite through the neck. As the lioness trots away with the limp body of the fawn in its maw, the youngest member of our living room family raises her voice indignantly. Meanie! That lion is bad! Someone should kill it! Mother and father exchanges looks, and then explain. The lion is not evil. It was doing what it was made to do. It only kills to succeed as a lion — not for fun, not to be cruel. Birds sing, fireflies glow, lions kill. It is what they do.
When I first entered law school, I needed a job, so I responded to an ad from a litigator looking for a law clerk. He hired me. It was an interesting year. It turned out that he specialized in medical malpractice. His goal was to right the injustices suffered by malpractice victims, by obtaining for them the multi-million dollar victories they deserved. Of which, of course, he would get twenty-five percent, plus expenses. One group of victims received particularly egregious injustice: infants who had developed cerebral palsy and other brain injuries due to mishandling of the birthing process. These precious little casualties, and their anguished parents, were sure to elicit pity from juries, and the value of the damage done to their well being had to be calculated over seven or eight decades of life expectancy, practically guaranteeing judgments in their favor of seven or eight digits. So my boss was always moved by the prospect of righting lucrative injustices in a new “brain-damaged baby case”. You can imagine the depth of feeling he displayed the day he discovered that one prospective client actually belonged to a support group for parents of “brain-damaged babies”. How rewarding it would be if he could persuade this woman to bring him to the next meeting! It was around this time that I decided it was time to look for a new job.
Of course as a lawyer I understand and even support the role of medical malpractice attorneys, who often do obtain valuable, justly-deserved relief for people who have been terribly, wrongly hurt. And I approve of contingency fees, which shift risk in ways that supply legal representation to those who could not otherwise afford it. I could not imagine myself as the person to get excited about a roomful of grieving parents and injured children, but I recognize that that’s what some people do to succeed. Birds sing, fireflies glow, medical malpractice attorneys hand out business cards at support groups. It is what they do.
The difference, of course, is that the lioness did not choose to be a lioness. All the evolution that went into making her her happened before she was born. We aren’t like that in our careers. Sure, we may go into them with certain innate talents and previously learned habits, but we also evolve into our work as we do it. We develop skills and behaviors we did not have before. If we’re lucky or smart or diligent, these new skills and behaviors increase our survival rate in our jobs, and they get reinforced. Now, we can choose to “evolve” as individuals by intentionally altering our behavior of our own free will — taking a leadership course, say, or committing ourselves to being more organized or more thoughtful. But don’t forget that there is always, in the background, a kind of natural selection taking place, in which certain behaviors — even those you do not plan or cannot explain yourself — determine your level of success, and are reinforced or discouraged in accordance with that success. Don’t put yourself in the position of either failing or embracing a behavior you cannot abide. Look at the other creatures who have taken the path you are considering. Are they lions or jackals? Gazelles or slugs? No creature but a human gets to choose any part of how it is going to evolve. Don’t waste that power.