COLUMNIST DAVID BROOKS: Achievers pay dearly to reach the top

WASHINGTON -- The senators at the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings on Monday told the story that public officials are expected to tell on these occasions. It is the civil rights story -- about a young minority woman from humble circumstances...

WASHINGTON -- The senators at the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings on Monday told the story that public officials are expected to tell on these occasions. It is the civil rights story -- about a young minority woman from humble circumstances who overcomes obstacles, fights discrimination and achieves the American dream. It's a true and inspiring story that people like telling and hearing.

And yet the profiles of Sotomayor's life tell a different and more complicated story. It's the upward mobility story -- about a person who worked hard and contributes profoundly to society, but who also sacrificed things along the way.

As you read the profiles, you can almost draw a map of her relationships during each stage in her life. In some areas, her relationships are thick and fulfilling, but in others, there are blank spaces.

Her father died when she was 9, leaving one such gap. (It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.)

But as a child, Sotomayor clearly benefited from an extended family that drove her to succeed. After her father's death, her paternal aunts and grandmother convened an emergency meeting with her mother. They had noticed that Sotomayor was devoted to Archie, Casper and Richie Rich comic books, and they were afraid these comics were distracting her from her studies.


When she arrived at Princeton, Sotomayor once said, she felt like a "visitor landing in an alien country." As a young woman, she earned a reputation as a fanatically driven worker who lived on caffeine and cigarettes.

Yet she also had an amazing ability to attract and impress mentors. Her ascent wasn't a maverick charge against the establishment. Instead, at each phase her talents were noticed by a well-placed member of that establishment -- a famous law professor, a revered D.A., a partner at an elite firm. She was elevated and guided. "She seemed to fit in with everybody," a law school classmate remembered to the Yale Daily News.

As an adult, the profiles describe her as upbeat and social, leading walks to Brooklyn, hosting poker parties, serving as godmother to many children. Yet over the years, she has been remarkably honest about the costs of her workaholism.

Her marriage broke up after two years. She was quoted as saying, "I cannot attribute that divorce to work, but certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o'clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage."

Later, during a swearing-in ceremony in 1998, she referred to her then-fiancé, "The professional success I had achieved before Peter did nothing to bring me genuine personal happiness." She addressed him, saying that he had filled "voids of emptiness that existed before you. ... You have altered my life so profoundly that many of my closest friends forget just how emotionally withdrawn I was before I met you."

That relationship ended after eight years, and her biographers paint a picture of a life now that is frantically busy, fulfilling and often aloof. "You make play dates with her months and months in advance because of her schedule," a friend of hers told The Times.

This isn't the old story of a career woman trying to balance work and family. This is the story of pressures that affect men as well as women (men are just more likely to make fools of themselves in response, as the news of the last few years indicates).

It's the story of people in a meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.


These profiles give an authentic glimpse of a style of life that hasn't yet been captured by a novel or a movie -- the subtle blend of high-achiever successes, trade-offs and deep commitments to others. In the profiles, you see the intoxicating lure of work, which provides an organizing purpose and identity. You see the web of mentor-mentee relationships -- the courtship between the young and the middle-aged, and then the tensions as the mentees break off on their own. You see the strains of a multicultural establishment, in which people try to preserve their ethnic heritage as they ascend into the ranks of the elite. You see the way people not only choose a profession, it chooses them. It changes them in a way they probably didn't anticipate at first.

My impression is that judges feel the strain between their social roles and their social lives more acutely than anybody. They are often outgoing people who, because of their jobs, cannot freely socialize with lawyers and others who share their deepest interests. But Sotomayor's life also overlaps with a broader class of high achievers. You don't succeed at that level without developing a single-minded focus -- and struggling against its consequences.

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