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What this US Supreme Court justice can teach us about failure…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #44 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Rejection is part of life!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? After interning with a prominent corporate law firm, US Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not receive a full-time job offer.

It’s 1978 and second-year Yale Law School student Sonia Sotomayor learned she’d been passed over for a return job offer at corporate law firm Paul Weiss after her summer internship.

For Sotomayor, it was a “kick in the teeth.” After all, becoming an attorney was her lifelong dream: “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten.”

Despite leaving her 2L corporate law internship empty-handed, Sotomayor pressed on. “The way forward was daunting if obvious. I needed to figure out what I was doing wrong and fix it.”1

So she did. First, Sotomayor took classes to improve her legal brief writing—that helped her “break the challenge down into smaller challenges.” Then, she decided to “prove [herself] at another kind of work in the legal profession before [she] could even consider joining a large commercial firm [again].”

Fast forward one year and Sotomayor, now a graduate of Yale Law School, joined the New York County District Attorney’s Office. She learned to handle cases from shoplifting to murders.

Fast forward five years and Sotomayor did exactly as she said she would: She stepped back into the commercial law world, joining as an associate until she became a partner 3 years later.

Sotomayor’s ambition didn’t stop there. 14 years after her 2L internship rejection experience, she was nominated for and became the youngest US District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York City.

5 years after that, Sotomayor became the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. “She wants to reach the highest level of the legal profession,” a former colleague recalled about Sotomayor in 1999. “A Supreme Court justice is not far-fetched.”

Her former colleague was right. 10 years after her nomination to the Circuit Court of Appeals, Sotomayor became the third woman and first Latina Supreme Court Justice in US history. 15 years later, Sonia Sotomayor continues to serve on the Supreme Court today.

So, the next time that you think your career path is over because you didn’t receive a return offer, got laid off, or nosedived a project, remember Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor— who didn’t adjust her destination, but simply found a different route.

L to R: Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a middle schooler in the 1960s (via Achievement) and as newly appointed Supreme Justice in 2009 (via Oyez).

1 Sotomayor, Sonia. My Beloved World. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013. 

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? There are multiple paths to your destination.

Just because you were rejected or laid off doesn’t mean you’re doomed forever. It might simply be a sign from the universe that there’s a better path waiting for you… or that you’ll come back stronger if only you patched up this one weakness. That’s exactly what happened to Sotomayor. A rejection wasn’t a dead end as much as it was a signal.

Did someone else get picked over you?

(1) Ask yourself, “What does this rejection say about this path?” By completing this sentence: “I’ve learned that the path of _______ is not just about _______ but also about _______.”

  • E.g., “I’ve learned that the path of corporate law is not just about being sharp but also about building strong relationships with partners and clients.”

(2) Ask yourself, “What does this rejection say about my weaknesses?” By completing this sentence: “I’ve learned that I could be faster / sharper at _______.”

  • E.g., “I’ve learned that I could be better at introducing myself and small talk.”

The better you know the “unspoken rules” of a given profession, the sooner you can play the game and play it well. And the better you understand your weaknesses, the sooner you can work on them—or change course and work on your strengths (as I talked about in this story on Star Wars).

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was at Harvard, I ran for president of a certain club I had devoted all of my time to—and lost. When I discovered why I wasn’t picked, I was devastated: because I wasn’t considered “fun” enough and therefore not a “culture fit,” even though I showed results. That was when I realized something about making it to the top in our careers more broadly—and also a blind spot of mine: the “C” of Compatibility. I’ve been working on it ever since.

Reroute yourself!


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