My father succeeded by the process of elimination
As I was growing up, my parents were unusually supportive. They were especially supportive when things went wrong, recognizing that some failure is inevitable and even desirable when you are learning how much you can achieve. And they taught us kids to recognize unexpected opportunities.
My father, Arnold, was a wonderful example. He was an extremely successful man who claimed to have found his niche by the process of elimination: failing at a sufficient number of alternatives.
His own father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and through high school it was assumed that Arnold would follow in that career. But by college he had become an agnostic and a philosophy major. He graduated from Boston University in 1933, not a year with many jobs for budding philosophers. His teachers advised against graduate school, given the job market.
The following summer he worked at a soda fountain in Peabody, Mass., when a friend teased him: "I bet you couldn't get into Harvard Law School." My father said he bet he could. He had no interest in law school, but on a trip into Boston (to date my future mother), he visited Harvard. He asked, "Does it cost anything to apply to the law school?" In those days, it didn't. It was past the application deadline, but the lady had him fill out the form anyway, so they could consider him if there was a vacancy.
He was admitted. Winning his bet would have been the end of it except that his mother read all the mail, including his. "You don't have a real job," she said, "you don't know what you want. Well, you are going to Harvard Law School." So he went.
He graduated in 1936 and began a law practice in Salem, Mass. He was unsuccessful. As my mother explained, "He hated to take the case of someone who was in the wrong and hated to take money from someone who was in the right." He struggled along for five years.
My father had been a vocal pacifist in college. But once the United States entered the war, and aware of what the Jews were suffering in Europe, he was ready to go to Europe and fight. But having joined the Navy to fight the Germans, he was shipped to the Pacific. He spent most of the war as communications officer on the battleship New York.
On his return to the US, he knew one thing: He didn't want to be a lawyer. A friend told him that he might qualify for some nonlawyer jobs at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). He got a job at the Boston office.
He was trained to run the elections in which employees of a company vote on whether to have a union, or which union to have. After his training, he was sent to the General Electric plant in Lynn, Mass. Unfortunately, he met a reporter from the local newspaper.
Exactly how the interview went is unclear, but the headline in the local paper had Arnold Ordman threatening to close down GE, section by section, so that the workers could vote in "his" election.
The NLRB was not happy about this misreporting of election procedures. He was offered a choice of resigning or being transferred to Washington, D.C. - that being the only NLRB office big enough to have jobs where he'd never again have to talk with anyone outside the office. Reluctantly, Arnold accepted the job, arriving in 1948. He was put to work in the library, writing summaries for other lawyers on court decisions in labor cases. It was the supreme inside job.
And it was exactly the right job for my father. His training in the Talmud, philosophy, and law, together with his encyclopedic memory, were exactly what was needed. He could get quickly to the meat of a case and summarize it in the most useful manner. As he learned the contents of the law library, he saw connections between cases that others had not. Soon the "real" lawyers - the ones appearing in court or proposing decisions and policy - started coming to him to ask him which cases were most relevant to theirs.
In time, one of the supervisors asked Arnold if he'd like to try writing a brief for a case in a Federal Court of Appeals. Soon he was regularly writing appellate briefs. Later he was asked to argue a case in a court of appeals. He did, and was good at it.
Many colleagues left the government for much higher pay in private practice. My father had no intention of ever having to deal with a private client; he stayed with the government.
John F. Kennedy became president in early 1961. Wanting to make government service more attractive, he looked for career government employees he could put into top jobs. Arnold moved up, and in 1963 Kennedy appointed him general counsel of the NLRB. He held this highly controversial position longer than anyone else. He had a considerable influence on federal labor policy and argued a number of cases for the government in the US Supreme Court.
One senator commented at his confirmation hearing, "Harvard Law, officer in the Navy in the Pacific, longtime government employee: How could you miss?" But the family knew how he had really gotten there - he'd failed at enough things to succeed, at last, by the process of elimination.