A reader recently pointed me toward the 1999 obituary of the respected legal scholar David Mellinkoff. He flagged, in particular, this passage:
“After the war, David developed a successful law practice in Beverly Hills. He early discovered, however, that, in his words, “the law thrived on gobbledygook.” He wanted to learn how this had happened, but after searching for answers in standard sources, he concluded, ‘there wasn’t a single book that wove it all together.’ David decided to write that book. He closed his law office, sold his house, and moved to the woods of Marin County. Seven years later he published The Language of the Law (1963), the book by which he will be chiefly remembered.”
In 1956, at the moment when Mellinkoff decided to retreat into the woods, his decision to trade all the busyness, urgency, and, of course, remuneration of running a Beverly Hills law firm for the monasticism of Marin must have seemed shockingly unproductive. And yet, when considered through the distance of history, Mellinkoff’s nurturing of what became The Language of the Law becomes self-evidently the most productive use of his talents.
I don’t think everyone should retreat to a quiet cabin. Probably most people would find such a commitment to intellectual minimalism intolerable. But I’m convinced that this option should be more common, especially among those with Melinkoff’s cognitive gifts. When you expand the time horizon for what you mean by “productive,” the options for crafting a deep life similarly expand.