On Models, Mentors and Asking for Help

On Models, Mentors and Asking for Help

Nearly five years ago, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated and appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States as an Associate Justice. As the first Hispanic justice and only the third female justice, she has an extraordinary story of succeeding because of, and in spite of, her humble beginnings. I recently read her memoir, My Beloved World, published in 2013, and was struck by her unflinching report of who she is, who she was and how she came to be.

Sonia SotomayorOne passage struck me in particular. While growing up in the Bronx and attending fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament Parish School, Ms. Sotomayor began to thrive at school when her teacher, Mrs. Reilly, began putting up gold stars each time a student did something well. This really brought out her competitive nature. “I was a sucker for those gold stars!” Ms. Sotomayor writes. She vowed to bring home report cards that would have at least one more “A” than the last one. But a vow, she said, wasn’t enough. She had to figure out how to achieve that goal.

Learning study skills was not something the nuns taught at Blessed Sacrament and Ms. Sotomayor knew instinctively that the kids who were getting the highest marks knew something she didn’t. “It was then, in Mrs. Reilly’s class, under the allure of those gold stars, that I did something very unusual for a child, though it seemed like common sense to me at the time. I decided to approach one of the smartest girls in the class and ask her how to study. Donna Renella looked surprised, maybe even flattered. In any case, she generously divulged her technique…” Ms. Sotomayor writes, skills that may seem obvious but “deriving them on my own would have been like trying to invent the wheel.” Armed with these new skills, she went on to become valedictorian of her high school class and graduated summa cum laude at Princeton, going on to law school at Yale.

But here’s the real nugget of wisdom this story revealed: “…the more critical lesson I learned that day is… don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in any friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”

We learn through modeling others. Watching those who succeed where we yearn to succeed, seeking guidance from those who have been there before us and asking for help are critical to the learning process. Sometimes we remain stuck out of hubris, too proud for ask for directions. We think we have to look like we know what we’re doing! But that stops us from receiving the very instruction we need to get to the next step on our journey. Models, mentors, coaches, the buddy system–all of these relationships are strategies to help us on our road to success. And if it works for someone like Sonia Sotomayor, who says she continues to use this strategy even as she sits on the highest court in our land, it can work for us.

[Masthead: David Dyment, “One Billion Years (Past and Future)” color print, 2010, used with permission from the artist]

Staying Relevant

Staying Relevant

 

Remember these?

Remember these?

 

 

 

Maybe it’s because I just had a birthday but lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of staying relevant. Watching someone riding a bike while talking on the phone; seeing Facebook photos of my three-year-old grandnephew Grady reading a book on an iPad; and hearing the news of Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post (and reading Arianna Huffington’s response, “The Future of Journalism,”) have made me dizzy from the speed of change.

Each generation has to embrace change. My dad, a professor and a prolific writer, resisted using a computer. As a fellow wordsmith, I thought he would love using a tool that made writing and editing so much easier. Instead, he stuck to writing hard copy (and lots of it) on his IBM Selectric III. He never really embraced the ease and expansiveness of computers but instead continued to bang away on his electric typewriter, cranking out books, articles and letters which I now treasure, typos and all.

My mom, however, was an early adopter. Back in the mid-1990s when e-mail became all the rage, I remember my mom asking me with a sigh, “When are you going to get e-mail?” She’d already opened her first AOL account and was impatiently waiting to send me notes from her computer to mine. Years later, when I was visiting her in Tempe, AZ, and she and I were finalizing our dinner plans, she said breezily, “Just send me a text.” Text? I hadn’t yet learned to text. My seventy-eight-year-old mother beat me to the punch, thanks to her grandchildren who had nudged her into the world of texting. (Yes, now I know how.)

So as someone who thought the Internet was a fad, I have to be wary of my resistance to change. How can we stay relevant in today’s world?

  • Stay alert. Keep your eyes and ears open and watch what’s going on around you. I’ll never forget seeing my first Walkman and later, seeing someone reading a book on a Kindle at an airport. I was taken aback, then intrigued and ultimately it caused me to…
  • Ask a lot of questions. I remember breaking down and asking someone, “So, how do you like that Kindle?” I got a full report. After interviewing several other people about that technology, I learned I needed to…
  • Be courageous. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it’s courageous to learn to read books a whole new way. I admit, I still favor “real” books, but I’m learning to enjoy reading on my Kindle. And I appreciate the advantages of being able to read multiple books on one device without schlepping multiple books with me on a plane.
  • Hang out with young people. They’re fearless. Young people have grown up with computers and other digital devices. Watch and learn and don’t be afraid to ask them questions about how things work. And when it doubt…
  • Try it, you’ll like it. Jump in, experiment, and be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the only way to grow.

Staying relevant means staying engaged, being curious and continuing to learn–at any age. We don’t have to adopt every new gadget or be on each social media site available, but to ignore new options for communicating would rob us of some exciting opportunities. I remind myself to be open to what the next generation will bring, not just to be “hip.” Staying relevant is good business.