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Meet Dean and Cole. They’re respectable fellows from prominent families, and they go to a decent but unexciting college — say, Yale. There, these two meet, become friends, and enjoy the usual undergraduate frolicking. When they graduate, though, they each figure they want to really make something of themselves. So both apply for, and get into, a really prominent, top-notch law school: Harvard. First year, they room together, and in unison take those first steps down the road to jurisprudential fame and fortune. These guys are destined for greatness.

Maybe so. But the first rule of career fulfillment (paraphrasing Kenneth Branaugh’s nifty thriller Dead Again) is: Find out what you are, and be that. And the first corollary of that rule is: Don’t confuse what you are with what path you are on. So, while Dean was in fact destined for greatness as a lawyer, diplomat, and statesman — we know him as Dean Acheson, esteemed Secretary of State and advisor to presidents from FDR to Nixon — his roommate Cole was not. He had no feel for the law, basically getting Ds in all his first-year classes. He was brilliant, entertaining, and well liked, but so clearly not meant to be a lawyer that eventually the Dean of the Law School took him aside and suggested that he was wasting his time in law school and that he really should study . . . music. And so, with Dean Thayer’s help, Cole Porter transferred from Harvard Law School into Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and started along a different path, one that would lead to success as one of the greatest American songwriters in history.

Wait . . . Harvard roommates . . . one a political success, the other a show business success . . . where have we heard that story before? Oh, of course — Al Gore, Jr., and Tommy Lee Jones. They were roomies as undergraduates. Neither one had plans to go to law school. Gore, though, inspired by his U.S.-Senator father and law-firm-partner mother, had always had some kind of public service in mind, and after enlisting in the Army and working as an investigative reporter, he eventually did decide to attend Vanderbilt Law School, hoping that as a lawyer he would have the tools and power he would need to effect really meaningful change.

Then, like Cole Porter before him, Gore dropped out of law school. He hadn’t concluded that the law wasn’t meant for him; he just believed he’d found a faster way to do more with it. The seat that his father had used to hold in the U.S. House of Representatives had just opened up, and Gore figured that he could do even more good, more quickly, as a Representative than as a first-year associate. He didn’t end up taking a different path so much as wandering off on another branch.

Gore and Jones, by the way, both studied literature at Harvard, taking a class together with a young professor named Erich Segal. Shortly thereafter, Segal began writing a story about a well-connected, ambitious Harvard jock who falls in love with a Radcliffe student from a working-class family, and he decided to model his main character on the two Harvard undergraduates he had gotten to know best while teaching there: Gore and Jones. Thus were they amalgamated into Oliver Barrett IV, who in Love Story — the bestselling novel and highest-grossing movie of 1970 — is disowned by his wealthy father for marrying poor Jennifer Cavalleri, and so has to struggle to pay his own way through . . . Harvard Law School. (Like Dean Acheson, Oliver Barrett IV graduates and succeeds as a lawyer.)

Oddly, the fame bestowed upon Erich Segal for penning Love Story, coupled with his consistent participation in the Boston Marathon (his best time: 2:56:30), led to his being invited to join legendary sportscaster Jim McKay in the broadcast booth as color commentator for the 1972 Olympic marathon race. Near the end of that race, Segal let loose a surprising outburst of disgust when a West German student, posing as a participant, snuck into the race and entered the stadium triumphantly, as if about to win the gold. Segal’s unprofessional display was understandable; the actual winner of that race, American Frank Shorter, was another former student, whom Segal had taught at Yale, and Segal was upset because he thought his protege Shorter did not realize it was a trick.

Not to worry; Shorter was a smart guy, and he knew no one had passed him during the race. In fact, Shorter was generally pretty canny. After he had graduated from Yale in 1969, with the NCAA 10,000-meter title under his belt, he knew he had to find a way to train with Jack Bacheler, at the time the top U.S. distance runner. Bacheler was training at the Florida Track Club in Gainesville, loosely affiliated with the University of Florida, so . . . Shorter enrolled in the University of Florida Law School. He graduated with a J.D. in 1974. Shorter never practiced law, but in his case, traveling on the law school path nevertheless coincided quite nicely with who he needed to be at the time.

Acheson stayed on the path; Porter left as soon as he realized he wasn’t interested in the destination; Gore took a branch off the main route; and Shorter followed the path for precisely as long as it took him in the general direction he wanted to go. They all succeeded because they discovered what they really were, and then could choose the paths that would take them closer to being that.