Law in Contemporary Society
The Retrospective Component of Risk-Aversion

By Jason Lissy

Risk-aversion is a primary source of occupational inertia which manifests itself in the tendency to gravitate to pre-selected career molds. Most people are familiar with the prospective operation of this fear – the wariness of an unfulfilled future. But risk-aversion also has a crucial retrospective component – the fear of losing the meaning attributed to one’s prior actions. Specifically, this essay argues that: 1) reassessment of future career plans jeopardizes the romantic narratives we construct for ourselves and renders the thought of change troubling; and 2) this fear may be alleviated by reconsideration of the relationship within each narrative between one’s past and future. In explicating this argument, this essay follows the author’s relationship, call it that of the upwardly mobile individual, to his own personal narrative.

Personal Narratives as Stimulants and Impediments:

Humans construct dramatized personal narratives which have psychological purposes unique to the individual – they might reconcile cross-cutting group allegiances, preserve individual identity or make the present endurable. For the upwardly mobile individual unsatisfied with the circumstances of his present life, this defined future goal serves as a stimulant to action by providing a fixed time limit on present suffering and by allowing the actor to focus not on what is, but what will be. The selection of a future objective (especially a precisely-defined career goal) operates as the cornerstone of this narrative. The detail and investment in this future goal are directly proportional to the actor’s present dissatisfaction. Each potential act is evaluated in light of its service to the realization of this predetermined end.

Each completed act also derives its meaning as part this narrative by a process of post hoc rationalization. Like any creed or other ordering principle, the narrative absorbs and manipulates criticism in an effort to protect it from falsification (this happens on a daily basis – we are all familiar with the saying “people hear what they want to hear”). So, the upwardly mobile student who studies Marcuse and Bourdieu, leaves not with the lesson that his “success” in a capitalist society will require the perpetuation of the forces initially arrayed against him, but with increased resolve to prevail within that very system of oppression.

Moreover, because this narrative functions as a unified whole, the individual is highly resistant to the dissociation of its parts. Thus, the prospect of abandoning his previously selected career goals threatens the carefully constructed meaning of his past (if I am not going to be a transactions lawyer in a New York firm, why am I taking on six-figure debt? Why am I at Columbia in the first place?). The fear of having to rewrite a narrative that has supplied the moxie to endure militates against reconsidering the career trajectory already created. It is this possibility of regretting previous life choices, rather than the fear of the future uncertainty attending off-the-beaten path career moves, that principally motivates risk-aversion calculations.

To the contrary, to a certain extent the uncertainty and novelty of the latter excites the upwardly mobile individual. It is the cost of coming to terms with the undesirability of the actor’s preselected career goal and the fear that its rejection will rendering choices in the service of that goal meaningless which renders deviation unpalatable. Rather than entertain alternative, fulfilling careers, the individual seeks to preserve the meaning of his prior actions by imbuing his preselected career end with new significance. Once he has recognized, for example, that “biglaw” entails a life of toil and is not the paradise that it once seemed, the individual rationalizes and reappraises the value of this career choice on the basis of the continuity for which it stands. If not fulfilling as an occupation, it becomes fulfilling as a symbol of dedication and perseverance. Reevaluation of past actions in such a fashion is far more difficult.


If the reluctance to engage in career risk stems more from difficulties in reconciling the narrative with past actions than future ones, then liberation may lie in how the individual constructs the relationship between past and future. Only when this past is understood to have significance apart from this preselected future can reconsideration of alternative career paths take place. The individual must divorce past and future, a feat which might be accomplished by building two separate narratives. In doing so, he must recognize that the process of revising one’s narrative does not require abandonment of the old, nor does it risk cheapening the value of one’s prior acts. If anything, this process of reinvention can eventually be viewed in hindsight as a courageous attempt at self-understanding.


At bottom, this paper attempted to extract from personal experience a theory of risk-aversion that would apply generally to a particular personality type. I feel that I benefited from taking the risk and by abandoning my zone of comfort, which is what I set out to accomplish by enrolling in LCS.

  • The editorial intention here was evidently to improve the flow and clarity of the draft you started from while leaving intact its stated purpose and psychology. This is evidently the proper position regarding this work: only with a much higher degree of coordination with the author could you step "inside" the psychology of the essay to consider a modification of its categories. I think you performed fairly well the limited edit your choice of material allowed you, but I think you would have had occasion for more significant development of your skills if you had picked something that not only required but also permitted the kind of engagement with its premises that makes editing more difficult in the contexts in which we as lawyers usually do it.

  • These comments are an accurate statement of my experience with this paper. I began the project with the intention of demonstrating to the author that the essay's language and structure could be simplified while maintaining its message. You are right that I reached the barrier of not being able to step into the author's "shoes." In another setting, the streamlined second draft would have gone back to the author for a third draft in which he would shape the personal message. Actually, I think the author's own edits of his first paper accomplish this goal quite well.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:32:17 - IanSullivan
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