"Don't give up. The greatest obstacle to your own success is your own fear. Failure is never fun. But each time you fail, you learn something. It's often said that one should fight to the last person standing. Hey, they're still standing. And as a woman, I hope it's us."
Just last month, Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to a group of 200 women (and a handful of men) at an event organized by Watermark in San Francisco. So I jumped at the opportunity to hear how this extraordinary woman navigated her improbable career from a difficult and poverty-tinged childhood in the Bronx, to a Justice on the highest court in the United States. During the event, Sotomayor was remarkably forthcoming and open with this group of executive women.
Sotomayor said her goal in writing her recently published book, My Beloved World, was twofold. First, she wants readers to come away from it saying, "She's just like me. And if she can do it, so can I." The second reason was to create a self-regulating mechanism. "At the end of my first term on the Supreme Court, I realized that my life had changed. I feared that I could lose a piece of who Sonia is. It's also why I made [the book] so big. I figured if I get too heavy, my family and friends could use it to hit me over the head."
Sotomayor's story jumps forth with humor, emotion, raw honesty and encouragement. It's also very well written and surprisingly accessible for a woman who likely writes more legal opinions than personal reflections. For me, I felt a voyeuristic disconnect reading the intensely personal memories of an esteemed Supreme Court Justice -- a somber, black-clad figure who pronounces final decisions that will forever change peoples' lives. Perhaps that's why it took a fiery, non-traditional, woman and Latina to break out of the judicial mold and write such a powerful memoir.
During her talk, Sotomayor described how she'd experienced subtle (and not-so-subtle) discrimination throughout her life. During a mock trial that was conducted early in her career, one of the jurors scowled the entire time. Sotomayor wanted to know what she was doing wrong so she could learn from her mistakes. After badgering him incessantly, he finally confessed, "It's not you. It's me. I just don't like brassy Jewish women!" (She was raised as a Catholic.)
Sotomayor had two kernels of advice for us. "You have to be courageous in all that you do. You have to know when there's a time to fight." In other words, ladies, pick your moments and do it well. The second piece was more personal. "I encourage everyone who has a grandparent, parent or relative who is still living, to sit down and ask them questions before you lose the chance." During the course of her research for the book, she learned much more about her parents and her own heritage than she otherwise would have.
After her remarks, we were fortunate to ask Sotomayor questions directly. Here's what she said:
Are there any special alliances among the women of the Court?
Sotomayor said that during her nomination hearings, Justice Ginsburg sent her one of her collars. Along with it was a note that said, "I hope you have occasion to wear this soon." And when Justice Elena Kagan was sworn in 11 months after Sotomayor, President Obama went up to Justice Ginsburg and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He asked Ginsburg, "Are you happy that I brought you two women?" To which she replied, "Yes, but I'll be happier when you bring me five more."
What role did women's groups play in your life?
"Without women's groups knocking on doors, I wouldn't have gotten where I am. We need women to support each other. We still don't have equal pay."
The legal profession's reputation seems to have suffered in recent years. How would you suggest we fix this problem?
"First of all, practice law in an honorable way. Don't retaliate. Rise above it. Don't serve papers at 5 p.m. on a Friday night. Don't file documents such that your opponents drown in them."
What do you do for fun?
I love dance of all kinds. But I don't do it -- I watch it. I love classical ballet. Swan Lake is my favorite. I like playing poker. Once every four or six weeks I have a girls' game, and occasionally, some of my male friends crash the party."
Do you count cards?
"That's why I love home games. Yes. And I know how to calculate the odds."
After leaving this event, I can truly say that Sotomayor is an inspiration. Through her example, she has shown that it's possible to succeed to the highest pinnacle of success. She relied on her self-knowledge, integrity and perseverance -- and a little humor to help grease the wheels.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.