Reflection 71: Dad As An Exception

The author of this Reflection is my son, Jeremy Garson. Jeremy is associate the Washington, D.C. law firm, Woodley & McGillivary LLP, a union side labor law firm, currently on assignment with the International Association of Fire Fighters. He wrote this Reflection, in 2013, when he was still a law student at the University of Michigan.

Jeremy is an occasional contributor to the Reflection series. See, also, Reflection 83, Listening to the “Bad Guys,” and Reflection 86, Having Confidence You’re Average.

Feel free to send reactions and comments to this Reflection to Jeremy, as well, at


           I recently stumbled across one of my father’s Reflections, which he had casually thrown onto the coffee table for a later look. It spoke about how we are taught in school to compete for the highest grade and to come out ahead, rather than to learn. This is true to an extent: The incentives are as he claims though I’m not sure he gives enough credit to teachers.  But that isn’t what this reflection is about.

           Rather, as I walked out of the room, I found myself reflecting on my father’s journey to where he is now. The only reason he is writing Reflections for you – his audience – is because, thoroughly dissatisfied with Big Law, he decided to make a career switch.  However, the only reason he had the opportunity to be dissatisfied was because he had made it in Big Law for 25 years.

           For the lawyers (and lawyers-in-training) among us, it is common knowledge that breaking into Big Law is difficult, even if you go to a top-tier school. Even in my father’s day when Big Law was booming, you didn’t get paid six-figure incomes for being an OK student. My dad was more than just an OK student.  He was one of the top students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School (a highly prestigious institution) and was on Law Review (the top association for any law student). Therefore, Big Law was knocking on his door, inviting him in.

           So what? Why am I talking about my dad’s accomplishments? Because I think his ability to succeed in the “real world” explains a lot of why he has created Radical Decency and is slowly becoming a voice for change.

My Dad was such a successful student and lawyer because – I suspect – he was constantly analyzing the information given to him and exploring its depths.  It is easy enough to be good at “memorization and regurgitation,” as he put it in the “coffee table” Reflection, but it is far, far more difficult to really test what you are taught.

           I remember talking with a Professor at my law school last year. I asked him how I could become a better student. He commented that I was too ready to accept the logic handed to me and not critical enough of it. I couldn’t disagree. However, at the same time, the student he cited as the model of what he was looking for was known by my peers as a genius beyond geniuses; the kind of student you didn’t hope to compete with but, rather, just were thankful his A+ didn’t throw the curve too much.

            I suspect my Dad was the same way in law school.  You didn’t compete with him.  Instead, you picked his brain and asked to borrow his outlines. I also suspect that most of his readership is more like me; highly intelligent people who are very open to learning but don’t find themselves naturally inclined to dig beyond what would appear to be the hard soil.

            Where am I going with this rant? I guess to ask his readership to challenge itself. My Dad is very smart, but as his son, with some intellectual muscle of my own, I occasionally see flaws in his logic. Don’t just embrace his ideas…attack them. See if they make sense to you. It isn’t an insult to a man like my father to question his ideas. It’s a compliment. It’s the reason he created Radical Decency in the first place.

My father will be the first to tell you that, as a lawyer, he was surrounded by brilliant minds. He still keeps in touch with many of his lawyer friends, and many of them are still active practitioners.  As a result, he had to challenge those he looked up to and those he learned from in order to be where he is today. To do that required enormous effort and a constant urge to learn and pay attention to the signals his brilliant mind was giving him that “something wasn’t right here.”

Only a few exceptional people have the wherewithal to pay attention to those signals and develop them into a new concept with minimal encouragement from the world around them. And most them are too busy becoming the best in their chosen careers to tend to this task in a sustained way.

Fortunately, my father escaped this treadmill of conventional success. Even more fortunately, he now provides the encouragement and support to others to break out of society’s conventional paradigm; offering to others the support that he lacked in his journey.  Unfortunately, there is nobody that I know of providing the encouragement he needs to expand and push beyond his new paradigm.

           I guess that’s where I’m going with this line of thinking.  What my Dad has provided to the world in the form of Radical Decency and all that he has done over the last 12 years is a paradigm unto itself. It is a preferable paradigm, but like anything “radical,” it is largely unchallenged.

Yes, there are people who push back and force my Dad to refine and further define his thoughts, but those people are like-minded. This doesn’t mean they engage in groupthink, but it does mean that they are less likely to see all the weaknesses in my father’s arguments.

Therefore, I ask you, his readership, to push back. Don’t just accept his ideas and try to incorporate them “as is,” but think about them critically. I’m sure that many of you do this already.  After all, his ideas go against the conventional paradigm that most of us live in.  But not, perhaps you are not doing this in the way I’m suggesting.

I am not saying you should try to find reasons to reject his ideas. Rather, as you immerse yourself in his thinking, I’m asking you to (1) find the weaknesses and push back, and (2) find the strengths and stretch them toward new conclusions and applications yet to be explored in his tiny, three-page reflections. This will help him – because any good philosopher needs people to force him to continue to think critically of himself.  And, it will help you as well.

For every good idea he has, there are many others he has not thought of. There have to be. Only by taking hold of his thoughts and turning them over and finding every flaw in them and stretching them and viewing them with an experimental and critical eye will you discover what he has not and figure out how to apply his ideas in your own life.

Going off of this second idea, his ideas make sense in his world. But his world isn’t your world and his ideas won’t apply mechanically to yours.

I hear my dad sometimes speak of how people like his ideas but have trouble applying them in practice. Part of the problem is that, as with any new theory, it sounds good when said, but who is willing to make the jump?

Another difficulty in creating a “model,” as my Dad has tried to do, is that he only has one perspective – his own.  He is Jeff Garson and not you. Thus, the only way to bridge the gap from Jeff Garson to you is: (1) to challenge the assumptions that govern your life, and (2) to think critically about how my Dad’s ideas apply to you (e.g., “this doesn’t work for me but maybe, if I think about it in this way, it will make more sense”).  

I’m terrible at the former but am getting better. As for the latter, I implore you, the reader, to tell my Dad when you are re-crafting his ideas. He will be thrilled and you and he can have an intellectual party with cheese and crackers and all kinds of fancy snacks.  At the very least, he will tell you one of his awful jokes.