Mentorship Q&A Recap: A Conversation with Adam Mossoff


STRIVE’s Online Mentor Q&A Program aims to provide students and career-oriented young people with opportunities to learn from real-world, active professionals about everything from crafting a purpose, to setting and pursuing goals, to the myriad life lessons they’ve picked up in pursuit of their dreams. The following report provides a look into the latest of these sessions.

When given the opportunity to engage in a Q&A with law professor Adam Mossoff (of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason), attendees expressed early curiosity in just how he worked his way from majoring in philosophy as an undergraduate to a career in academia specializing in patent law.

To start, Mossoff emphasized the importance of being willing to put yourself out there, to take risks, to make mistakes, and to change course—if you need to—in order to find the work you love.

“I never did think I was going to go into academia originally,” explained Mossoff. “I thought, ‘philosophy’s interesting, and it’s something I do for fun, but at the end of the day it’s abstract, I want to be in the real world, on the ground, with business and capitalism, making a million dollars!’ But then I took a legal philosophy seminar as an undergraduate, and I was just blown away by it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where the theoretical rubber hits the practical road! This is where people are asking deep questions about the application of those abstract ideas and principles.”

Excited about philosophy and beginning to foster an interest in intellectual property, Mossoff would go on to spend five years in graduate school pursuing his PhD before coming to a tough realization: he just wasn’t happy.

“Even in legal philosophy, the operating norms of professional academic philosophy were not something that I was enjoying,” he said.

To Mossoff, this wasn’t okay. We spend too much of our lives at work to be miserable there! So he reflected.

“I came to realize over that span of time that the legal philosophers, the people I enjoyed reading, and even the ones I disagreed with, they were all law professors. I realized that if I really wanted to continue to do what I wanted to do—to teach, and research and write, to think about making a case for intellectual property as a valid property right—I would need to do it in the field of law as opposed to philosophy. So I jumped ship, I went to law school, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Given that “jumping ship” can be a difficult and costly choice to make, attendees wanted to know just how we can identify circumstances that might justify a course correction. In response, Mossoff recommended maintaining awareness of the emotions associated with one’s day-to-day experience of living.

“What you have to pay attention to . . . at least to a certain extent, is your feelings. Emotions are a part of your life . . . they reflect your premises. And to the extent your premises are reasonable, you should trust your emotions. Emotions are key survival traits.”

Mossoff contrasted this approach from what Ayn Rand referred to as “whim-worship.” A “whim,” according to Rand, “is a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause.” Mossoff pointed out that taking account of one’s emotions is not whim-worship.

“Emotions are valid expressions of legitimate ideas that you hold. . . . As you’re thinking about what is rational, what you’re trying to achieve and how to achieve it, you should trust your feelings as guides in that respect. . . . [I]f you’re unhappy, you shouldn’t doubt yourself, but realize: ‘Well, I’m unhappy because I’m not achieving the values that I thought I would achieve.’”

Mossoff unpacked this last dilemma further.

“Now, there could be two reasons for that, right? One could be that you’re mistaken about your values. The other might be that you accidentally chose the wrong process to achieve them. That can be difficult to disentangle sometimes.”

Difficult, but not impossible. Mossoff urged that we can take heart in the fact that he and many others who were once in our shoes have been able to achieve career paths that fulfill their interests and ambitions. He closed the session with the following thoughts on the relationship between youth and certainty in your ultimate course.

“You can’t deduce from abstract principles what you will enjoy doing in your life. You have to say, ‘Well, I might be mistaken. But the only way that I can figure that out is by doing it.’ . . . I think the most important thing is to be willing to experiment. Don’t be harsh on yourself. You can’t know everything beforehand. . . . Take the lumps—they’re proper learning experiences—and move on.”

“You will eventually figure it out and you will eventually be happy,” he continued.  If someone said to me thirty years ago, ‘You’re going to have three children, and you’re going to be riding a motorcycle, and you’re going to be living in DC,’ I would have said, ‘You’re insane! I don’t want any of those things!’ And yet I am, I love them, and I’m totally happy. You just can’t know it until you experience those things—until you realize that those are the things you value in life.”

The Undercurrent is happy to offer interviewees a platform for their ideas. Their responses do not necessarily represent the views of the publication at large.

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