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]