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November 06, 2020 Feature

The Next Big Thing

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma

For as long as I can remember, thinking about and pursuing the next big thing has been exciting, rewarding, sometimes disappointing, and always motivating. And in hindsight, it seems that is how it should have been. But now, as a judge of a certain age, I have come to think that the next big thing may not be a big thing at all. Or, stated more accurately, that the next big thing is not an abrupt change in job or a promotion to a different court or some other enormous milestone.

I have, I hope and believe, some productive years ahead of me as a judge. There also will be next new things that I will aspire to, and, at times, achieve professionally. But, as I begin to contemplate retirement within the next decade or so, to look over the horizon to see what that might be like, I realize that I need to plan for that next big thing, however it is defined.

What follows starts with some next big things that have had meaning to me in my life. The reflection required to identify those events has helped me realize that my next big things were, at times, objectively significant in ways that would have meaning for anyone. But it also has helped me realize that some of my next big things were only meaningful to me. That realization (which should be common sense, I suppose) has helped me further focus on my planning for what future next big things may be for me. This reflection also confirms that next big things in my personal life are what really have meaning and will do so long after any educational or professional success has faded. That confirmation gives me great comfort as I begin to consider the end of my time as a judge and contemplate the next big things that will follow.

This whole process has helped me continue to focus on the thought that, going forward, my next big things may not be big things at all. This, in turn, has helped me realize that the next big thing is what we each identify and pursue, regardless of how it may be valued by others. That is something I hope to keep in the front of my mind as I move toward the end of my judicial career and beyond. But let me walk back from existential platitudes and turn to concrete examples of next big things in my life, starting when I was a young boy.

Educational and Professional Next Big Things

I grew up on a corn, soybean, and beef cattle farm near Laurens, Iowa, a small town in the northwest part of the state. I loved it, or at least I recall loving it. That experience influenced me in many ways I can easily identify and in countless others I cannot. I had plenty of time to think, sitting on a tractor going up and down fields, a few miles an hour, cultivating crops or plowing or disking or doing any number of other things that needed to be done on a farm. Growing up on a farm gave me plenty of time to dream and think big, wild thoughts, including next big things.

The next big things to me then often seem trivial now. The next big things also changed as I moved through school and then in my professional endeavors, ranging from things that were trivial but memorable to things that had extraordinary influence in my life and growth. Let me start with some of the former.

In second grade, for example, I was the lead in a school performance of "Danny the Dark Green Dinosaur." Fast forward to sixth grade (or so), when I recall the President's Physical Fitness Test being very important (I have never been athletic) and that I successfully passed it and got a certificate for having done so. There were other next big things in grade and high school that seemed important then and now. I received an athletic letter in basketball my senior year (a true gift by a kind head coach), where I dressed part time, scoring one point, for a team that went 1-17. I served on student council and as student body president. I was in Cub Scouts for a time and had successes in 4-H, the Future Farmers of America (now FFA), band and choir, and some other school-related activities. Academically, I went to school with some really smart people. I graduated in a class of 64 and, I think, academically, I was seventh in the class. So, I graduated in the top 10, but not in the top 10 percent.

College then became my next big thing. From a pretty early age, I was dead set on becoming a veterinarian. I learned in college, if I did not know it already, that sometimes the next big thing is failure and what comes from it. My dream of becoming a veterinarian ended abruptly when I ran head on into organic chemistry and zoology. I struggled as a result. In the end, I changed my major and received a B.S. in agricultural journalism (and, yes, that was a thing at Iowa State University). Along the way, I learned about the Harry S. Truman Memorial Scholarship, described as the "premier graduate fellowship in the United States for those pursuing careers as public service leaders." I applied, was nominated, was interviewed, and was selected as the 1982 Truman Scholar from Iowa. That next big thing funded my last two years of undergraduate and then two years of graduate school (back in the day when $5,000 a year covered those costs, at least for in-state tuition at public schools). Both directly and indirectly, the Truman Scholarship led to a bunch of next big things that would follow.

The University of Iowa College of Law then became the next big thing. As I started law school, my next big thing was working hard to not flunk out. And then, when things went all right, the next big thing was to get a research assistant position and then to get on law review and then to get a law review board position and then to graduate in the top 10 percent and other things. The next big things in law school also included getting, and then trying to do well at, summer associate positions and then a judicial clerkship.

Serving as a judicial clerk, then, became the next big thing. I had the great fortune to clerk for David R. Hansen, then on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa (and later on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit), and Chief Justice Stanley G. Feldman on the Arizona Supreme Court. In between those clerkships, the next big thing was working hard to do well as an associate at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. After moving to Arizona, the next big thing was working hard to do well as an associate at Brown & Bain. Then, the next big thing was being elected to the partnership. And then the next big thing was serving in firm leadership, first as hiring partner and then on the office's management committee after the firm became part of Perkins Coie.

After a milestone birthday and 15-plus years in private practice (which I thoroughly enjoyed), the next big thing was trying to become a judge. I applied, was nominated, was selected, and served as a trial judge for five years, where I got to see how the law really applies to people. And then the next big thing was trying to become an appellate judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, where I have now served for more than seven years. During this time, next big things have also included serving as chief judge, involvement in the Judicial Division (and before that the Section of Litigation) of the American Bar Association, membership and involvement in the American Law Institute, and, more recently, as a commissioner on the Uniform Law Commission and other activities that I have enjoyed in the law and the community more broadly.

It is easy to recall the successful next big things. But there have been plenty of failures along the way. Most recently, for a time, I thought the next big thing was serving on the Arizona Supreme Court. I applied, twice; was nominated, twice; and was not selected, twice. Although that stung, I have come to terms that I will end my professional career on the Arizona Court of Appeals. And I am delighted to serve on the Arizona Court of Appeals. Failures and successes, and where I find myself in my career, have caused me to rethink this next big thing concept. That is as it should be. That also has helped remind me that the next big things in my personal life are far more important than any success or failure in my career.

Personal Next Big Things

In college, I became friends with Barb Dawson. We then became law school classmates and then, during our third year of law school, after we had accepted jobs in different time zones, we started dating. We then dated long distance for about four years and we married when I moved to Arizona. She is fabulous, a true life partner, and an incredible lawyer and person. We just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.

Our daughter, Nicole, was born in 1998. This spring she graduated in computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now starting a master's program there, also in computer science. Being married to Barb and having Nicole as our daughter have had such a significantly incredible impact on my life, far beyond what I could have imagined. They are the best, and I am delighted to be a part of their lives. They have impacted my life in both ways I can understand and many others that are beyond my comprehension.

Personal next big things can, at times, be sad things as well. In the dozen years of going to school in Laurens, three of my classmates died in car accidents. When I was a senior in high school, one of my best friends, Matt Steinkamp, was one of them. I think of Matt from time to time and what he would have become and what we would talk about if he were still alive. My father died in late 2009. He was smart, thoughtful, and kind and a great man and great parent. He gave me the interests I have in so many things, including in learning and in music. We held Dad's hand as he took his last breath, and I hated it. I miss him. But I also know that the successes I have had, the opportunities for next big things, trace to what Dad and Mom did for us and the support and confidence they have had (and for Mom, still has) in us.

The Next Next Big Thing

I am married to an incredible woman, we have a fabulous daughter, and I am serving as a judge on a court where I hope to retire. The past has involved many incredible next big things. But how about the future? What is the next next big thing? And what if the next next big thing is a small thing?

I have spent much of my life thinking that there really, always, would be a next big thing. And for much of my life, that was true. Sometimes I achieved that next big thing, and sometimes I failed. But there was always that something that was big, or seemed big, just over the horizon, seemingly within reach (or almost within reach). But I am in a different stage of my life now. Those next big things, those truly career-altering big changes, are behind me. And although it has taken some time, I am pretty good with that. That clarity has allowed me to conclude that, sometimes, maybe the next next big thing is not a big thing at all. Instead, it is the joy of small things.

Let me offer some examples of next big things that I have come to appreciate that, in fact, are not big things at all.

The Joy of Singing in a Church Choir

I grew up singing. My parents sang, and Dad had a beautiful solo voice and sang at events, including with some regularity at funerals. So, I sang in school, in church, in the FFA State and National Chorus, and in serenading sororities with my fraternity brothers in college. But then, it seems, pursuit of other next big things got in the way. I stopped singing in any real way for three decades or so. When our daughter went to college a few years ago and we were empty nesters, I realized the need for some next big things. I investigated singing in our church choir and, with my wife's support, I joined the choir.

The choir is fabulous, and the choir director, who is also fabulous, gets a ton out of the choir. He pushes the group, including having the choir sing Mozart's Requiem, the most challenging music I have ever sung. He also makes it fun and composes incredible music himself. He was even kind enough to compose music for lyrics I wrote and had the Women's Choir perform the song in conjunction with our 25th wedding anniversary.

For most, I suppose, singing in a church choir is not a next big thing. But for me, it sure was, and I'm glad for it.

The Joy of Singing in a Barbershop Quartet

A subgroup of men in the church choir sing in a barbershop quartet called Nostalgia. The group, with various members, has been around for decades and has an award-winning history. After I sang with the church choir for a time, they asked if I would like to sing barbershop with them. I tried it, and it is just delightful, challenging, and fun.

The lead singer, who has been with Nostalgia the longest, has taught English at a community college for 50 years; the high tenor is a retired computer engineer who sang in Europe while in the military; the bass is a local attorney who looks like Santa Claus (and plays him frequently during the season), and the baritone is the bass's son, who is becoming a journeyman electrician and is the only member without gray hair. Then there is me (and I know that's five, but there used to be six, and believe me, it is good to have some redundancy given scheduling).

Almost every pre-COVID-19 Friday night in recent years, we would go to the lead's home and sit around his kitchen counter and sing for an hour. A pitch pipe, some music, and singers. It is a blast. When things really click, there is something magic about barbershop music. But, for me, it is also really challenging. The variances between the notes are small and tight and, although we have music for most of the songs, it is an oral tradition and craft. The other thing I keep having to tell myself is that if I am singing the same note as someone else, that is almost always wrong. I started signing bass, but more recently have moved to baritone, which is really, really hard for me. Bass is the foundation, high tenor is the roof, lead carries the song, and baritone can be all over the place, sometimes as low as the bass and sometimes higher than the lead but usually in between. Frequently, I am all over the place, but in a bad way. The men, however, are patient with me and know that some songs are better than others. And when it hits, it is magic.

We sing at church services, typically in the summer when choirs are on vacation. We also have sung for nursing homes, at the Veterans' Administration Home, at receptions, at a musical review, and even around a swimming pool one hot summer day to celebrate a birthday. I really like the group and the experience, and it is a truly unexpected next big thing for me.

The Joy of Gardening

Growing up on a farm, we always had a big garden. In many ways, the fruits and vegetables we harvested spoiled me for my adult life, particularly for tomatoes, sweet corn, and strawberries. I was not the most eager gardener growing up, but some of it stuck.

At our home, I have now identified a good small patch in our back yard where I have tried, with limited success, to nurture spring and fall vegetable gardens. So far, radishes and peppers have been most successful. Carrots, not so much. Tomatoes and onions have been a complete failure. The "best doer" over time, ironically, is an ornamental sweet potato plant (or perhaps it is several plants; I'm not quite sure) that is pretty and provides much ground cover. That ground cover, of course, may explain my lack of success with most of the other vegetables.

There is something optimistic about a garden. It requires planning for the future and believing in the miracle of growth. It also takes commitment for weeding and watering, and I have quite a way to go before it is productive. But it gives me joy to eat something I have grown. And most days, it gives me peace to tend to the garden. So, that is a budding next big thing.

The Joy of a Walk

I have always been about a decade behind where I should be in my eating and exercise habits (largely eating too much and exercising too little). Growing up on the farm, I could eat about anything I wanted given the physical activity involved. That ended quickly when I started sitting, a lot, for a living in private practice and on the bench. But my habits took longer to change.

I have never been a gym rat. Lately, however, I have taken to walking and really enjoy it. The winters in Phoenix make walking easy, and the summers just require getting up early or walking late in the day. In recent years, I have gotten into the habit of going on a two-plus-mile walk most mornings and, in recent months, then going for another similar walk most evenings. I listen to podcasts of varying kinds, typically history, sports, or economics. And sometimes, but not often, I just walk and listen to the birds, cicadas, dogs barking, and voices. I like it and it is decent exercise (at least I think it is for an old man like me). Regardless, the joy of walking has become a next big thing for me.

The Joy of a Nap

When I was growing up, my Dad would sometimes nap on a Sunday afternoon. Typically, there was some family activity that would prevent it. But, sometimes, he made it work and drifted off while reading a part of the Sunday paper or something. I did not appreciate napping then, and it has taken me a long time to do so. Recently, however, I have come to appreciate the joy of a nap.

On a room looking south to our backyard, the sun tracks a blue couch where I can lay down on a Sunday afternoon in front of a television. Whatever is on is typically calm and quiet, and I put the sound down. The sun creeps across the room in the afternoon. It makes me feel like a lazy dog or cat laying in the sun napping. I have learned to like napping quite a lot. Although not a big thing in any way, appreciating the joy of a nap has become one of my next big things.

The Big Next Big Thing

The next big things I just highlighted are things I can do on weekends or early in the morning or in the evening. For now, that is as it should be, given my day job. But I know the importance of planning for the next big thing in retirement. I have seen judges who retired and seemed lost for a time, given how different serving as a judge is from retirement. I want to avoid being lost, and that takes some planning for that big next big thing . . . what to do after I leave the bench.

I do not know what the big next big thing (retirement) will look like for me and what next big things will be involved. I do, however, know a bunch of retired judges who have crossed the bridge into life after the bench in incredible ways. The other articles in this issue provide great examples. I also know judges who, after retiring, write books, travel, spend time with family (including, in particular it seems, grandchildren) and friends, spend more time on a river fishing for trout, live on an acreage in maritime Canada, golf, go back to school, play in a community band, serve as a volunteer in any number of ways, tutor, mentor, and, I think and hope, learn the joy of walking, taking a nap, gardening, singing, reading, thinking, or any combination of millions of other things. I also know judges who, after "retiring," work with a foundation to help children, run a bed and breakfast, serve as a mediator or arbitrator or both, serve as a consultant, teach, address judicial ethics, work as a staff attorney, or practice law.

I do not yet know what my big next big thing will be or involve. But I have started to think and plan about what my days in retirement will include. That planning has just begun, and the future is hard to predict, as current times confirm. But I think that pondering about the big next big thing is both scary and exciting now and will become increasingly so in the future. Whatever that big next big thing will include, I am pretty sure it will include many things that are not big things at all. And that, I believe, is as it should be.

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    By Judge Samuel A. Thumma


    Judge Samuel A. Thumma has served on the Arizona Court of Appeals since 2012 and previously served as a judge on the Arizona Superior Court in Maricopa County for nearly five years. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not represent those of the Arizona Court of Appeals.