Research and Insights
What Ruth Bader Ginsburg Can Teach Us About the Attitudes That Matter
We all want to function at our most exceptional. That’s where our Genius comes in. When we can hear the brilliance in others, it opens the possibility of hearing our own. When we hear a phrase or a piece of wisdom in just the right way, it invigorates how we think about our own challenges and opportunities. This profile is a great example of someone who has accomplished the extraordinary over a lifetime—what can we learn from her outlook on life?
Occasionally, a person comes along whose words are worth studying because they’ve accomplished great things. And by listening for the thinking that underpins their most extraordinary moments, we are more likely to connect to our own brilliance. There is Genius in all of us.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is someone worth studying. She comes from humble roots, and has displayed an indomitable spirit over a lifetime of accomplishments.
Best known as a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, Ginsburg also has many passions—for both academics and music, both the law and her family, both bettering society and maintaining an ability to laugh. Although her interests and talents are varied, she is not a dabbler. From becoming editor of her school newspaper in eighth grade to graduating from Columbia Law School tied for first in her class, Ginsburg seems to approach everything with the same depth and zeal.
As a child, she enjoyed the Nancy Drew detective series because “Nancy was a girl who did things.”1 And to be sure, Ginsburg herself has always been a doer. Throughout her life, she has embodied the figure of a “way-paver” 2 by making more choices available to future generations just as others did before her. One of only nine women in her class at Harvard Law School, then one of twelve at Columbia, Ginsburg went on to become the first woman professor in a tenured position at Columbia Law School and the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court.
While Ginsburg has achieved remarkable success, it would be a mistake to assume she has not faced challenges. More accurately, she has come this far because of how she works through challenges.
“Neither of my parents had the means to attend college,” she related in her 2016 autobiography, “but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in.”3
Work hard she did, and those principles would eventually lead to her 1993 confirmation to the Court. Along the way, her ability to thrive came from bringing her full drive and spirit to each of her many various pursuits.
That commitment has let her deal adeptly with various situations. For example, when stretched thin, she cultivates routines that bolster each aspect of life. This habit proved vital when her first child came along: “My success in law school, I have no doubt, was due in large measure to baby Jane. […] Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”4
Studying multiple perspectives has also made her a more effective communicator. As early as a 1953 letter to her college newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, “her care in choosing words”5 has been a trademark. Her belief in the power of language is core to how she operates: "Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."6
Ginsburg has described serving on the Supreme Court as an “extraordinary chance and challenge.”7 To make the most of it, her “temperate brand of decision-making”8 aims to counter “opinions that generate more heat than light.”9 Consequently, she has become “respected by colleagues on both sides.”10
Through it all, she balances out the seriousness of her work with a lightness of spirit. In her words: “A sense of humor is helpful for those who would advance social change.”11
Ultimately, Ginsburg teaches us that a worthy purpose is still worthy in the face of difficulty. Like her, whatever we come up against, we can all choose to devote ourselves to the attitudes that propel us onward in the direction of our purpose.
1. Ginsburg, Ruth Bader, et al. My Own Words. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016, p. 5
2. Ibid., p. 63.
3. Ibid., p. 182.
4. Ibid., p. xvi.
5. Ibid., p. 21.
6. Vagianos, Alanna. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Tells Young Women: ‘Fight For The Things You Care About.’” HuffPost. 2 June 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ruth-bader-ginsburg-fight-for-the-things-you-care-about_n_7492630.
7. Ginsburg, p. 176.
8. Ibid., p. 196.
9. Ibid., p. 236.
10. Ibid., p. 190.
11. Ibid., p. 71.