A few years ago, I staked out my spot as the first person in line in front of a university chapel. After a long time standing there in the dark, the doors opened and everyone rushed inside the cavernous stone building. I found myself in one of the front pews. Still, when the speaker appeared on the stage, it wasn’t easy to see that tiny figure. But as she began, her words were even more powerful than I expected—and despite her stature, she spoke with the dignity and intelligence of the giant that she was. It was worth the wait to hear Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about her work and the principles that guided her life.
The news this past week of Ginsburg’s death at age 87 launched a collective mourning among those who saw this Supreme Court Justice as not just one of the foremost jurists of our age, but also as a role model. She fought massive battles to equalize the sexes before the law in her early career. And despite illness, in her later years she worked tirelessly to interpret American law, moving it towards recognizing more civil rights and equality while on the Court.
In fact, I believe that Ginsburg should be viewed a Stoic role model, someone to pattern ourselves after while following a modern Stoic life philosophy.
I’ve thought about this idea for years. For me, Ginsburg not only served as a model of perseverance and grit in the face of bias, but also of an ethical and brave life. That rang true when I saw her speak that day at the chapel. Already in her 80s, she’d faced many scary things (on a personal level with her and her family’s illnesses, and on a professional level with exclusion and marginalization and judicial defeats). And yet she was brave, carrying on to achieve remarkable firsts.
Ginsburg’s approach was in sync with my own Stoic life philosophy, where the central pillars are to examine all our impressions and judge them by their wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline (the four Stoic virtues). To me, "the notorious RBG" was a powerful example of a life lived with meaning and purpose—accomplished with a Stoic-like sense of working towards these virtues in any way we can.
Ginsburg sought to enshrine equal justice into the interpretation of the law, stemming from her own experiences of inequality. She grew up keenly aware of the differences in opportunities and treatment in society of men and women. Later, she had the tremendous good fortune of a marriage that was an equal partnership in the 1950s. Her husband Martin encouraged her to pursue a law degree, an extreme rarity at the time—Ginsburg was initially one of just nine women in her law school class. She did earn her degree, while giving birth to and raising children (again, with support and help of her family), and caring for her husband when he became ill. And though she was a mother of two in an era where most mothers did not work outside the home, she and her husband shared responsibility for their children, allowing her to continue her own career.
When Ginsburg struggled to find traditional legal jobs at New York law firms who turned her down because she was a woman and a mother, she changed direction. Ginsburg persevered to become a law professor and legal advocate who argued before the Supreme Court in favor of eliminating sex-based discrimination.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Ginsburg was how she created change in a hidebound system. She found pathways into a legal world that was set against her as a woman working in the field, and set against other women (and some men) in laws and regulations upheld by long tradition and precedent.
Ginsburg was deft at appealing to others to see a lack of fairness. One of the remarkable things about legal cases is how they represent in concrete and human form our lofty abstractions about what’s right and wrong. But judges—even Supreme Court Justices—are humans, prone to biases and misleading “impressions,” in the Stoic sense. Those can cloud their reason and judgment. To shine a spotlight on the Golden Rule to these jurists, Ginsburg chose to argue cases before the Supreme Court representing male defendants who resembled, in a way, the justices themselves. This brought home the idea of “how would you feel if this happened to you?” and, from there, the essential “do unto others as you would have done to you.”
Here’s how a Ginsburg obituary described her approach in a key case:
“Knowing that she had to persuade male, establishment-oriented judges, she often picked male plaintiffs, and she liked Social Security cases because they illustrated how discrimination against women can harm men. For example, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner, died in childbirth. The husband sought survivor's benefits to care for his child, but under the then-existing Social Security law, only widows, not widowers, were entitled to such benefits. ‘This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children,’ Ginsburg told the justices at oral argument. The Supreme Court would ultimately agree, as it did in five of the six cases she argued.”
About that case, she later said in an interview: “The aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles.” Ginsburg believed that both men and women should have equal opportunities to become full citizens and participants in society. This is an idea that I strongly support in my own life, and especially for my two daughters: I would like them to have every chance to become productive, brave adults working to make our world better.
Ginsburg worked towards equality of women and men before the law little by little. It’s hard to believe that there was, very recently, a time when women couldn’t sign up for a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage on their own; when women couldn’t serve on juries, deciding cases of their peers; and when laws barred women from holding certain jobs. As Ginsburg and others argued cases to equalize the rights of both genders, the Supreme Court’s rulings began to shift the tide, knocking down these barriers.
And then when she was named a justice on the Supreme Court herself, in 1993, she worked to advocate for equality before the law from the bench. Exercising well-reasoned judgment, and insisting on correct procedure, were hallmarks of her work on the Court.
And even when the Court’s majority went in another direction and she found herself outnumbered on a decision, she still made a difference. This is a very Stoic attitude: even if we can’t change something directly, we can still seek the virtuous path and act in ways that influence others. So RBG couldn’t always win outright, but she could share strongly-worded dissenting opinions based on her vision of justice and wisdom, an act of courage—three Stoic virtues all in one action.
In fact, Ginsburg wrote lengthy dissents that made a major impact on the law—not through the court’s decision of course, but by prompting Congress to create new legislation. The most well-known example was her dissent on employment discrimination, which led to Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Her dedication to long hours and hard work were well known. RBG’s ability to get by on just 2 or 4 hours of sleep (by her own telling) helped. Ginsburg’s perseverance in the face of illness stands out, too. She was still determined to do her job despite being sick, scheduling treatments so she could keep working.
Both the way she lived and her approach to influencing the legal world seem quite Stoic to me. She worked to change the things she could change. And by pushing on the definition of what she could influence, Ginsburg managed to make a difference for others despite the huge barriers raised before her. For all this, she is a remarkable Stoic role model.
RBG’s life shows how change happens in unexpected ways—which is why Stoics and those inspired by Stoic ideas should always seek out opportunities to provide virtue-oriented leadership, when possible.
In a recent interview, Ginsburg recalled a conversation she had with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired. As the first two women on the Supreme Court, both acknowledged that they had been denied a traditional corporate legal career due to their gender. Yet it was because of that fact that both ended up as Supreme Court justices rather than as retired law firm partners. Ultimately, from their seats on the court they were able to make a much larger impact on our country than they would from the offices of a “white shoe” law firm.
It’s our good fortune now that Ginsburg kept on pursuing her work for equality before the law, and I hope that my daughters will benefit from this even more than I have. As Stoics, we have gained a role model in RBG that we can continue to turn to when we need to remember to persevere, to keep chipping away at what we can change, and to stay true to the virtues and values we believe in, even when it’s hard… and even when we find ourselves as lonely voices, a minority opinion. We can exercise well-reasoned judgment and, whenever possible and in often unanticipated ways, make a difference in our world.
Have you spent the holidays scrolling through Facebook, looking at pictures of relatives' celebrations? Or checking out friends’ vacations on Instagram? Or trolling LinkedIn for professional postings?
If you did any of these, I’m sure you’ve noticed that in today’s world of social media, everything looks a lot better online than it is in real life. Most people work hard to build themselves up, to market and brand their work, their leisure activities, even their own family.
To potential employers, we want to be seen as abundantly competent and brilliantly talented; to potential romantic partners, we want to project an attractive, polished, and confident persona; and when it comes to our friends, we try to showcase a vision of our fun and full lives.
In fact, this is a key reason why social media is so destructive psychologically, causing anxiety and depression: When we go online, we compare ourselves with others. We feel we need to be just as perfect as the millions of other possible candidates, dates, and friends, or we just won’t measure up.
All that to say that the amount of pressure that modern people feel about looking successful and appealing is immense. Nobody wants to be a failure, right?
Recently, Nina Jacobson—the powerful Hollywood executive behind Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games, Crazy Rich Asians, and other massive hits—spoke about her “failure resume.”
What’s a failure resume? In an interview for a Gimlet Media podcast, Jacobson explains: “There is a professor at Stanford who has written a paper about how it is valuable for people to do their failure resume, because your failures sort of define who you are and what you've learned and how you've really sort of been impacted in many respects more than your successes do. And that owning those failures and embracing them is sort of a critical component to successful people.”
Jacobson had a string of professional setbacks that could have destroyed her career, and her psyche, completely. She lost jobs and made movies that flopped. Yet she forged ahead and became one of the most successful film execs in Hollywood.
That Stanford professor who recommends creating a failure resume is Tina Seelig. She describes it this way:
"I require my students to write a failure resumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.
However, after they finish their resumé, they realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forced them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them…
Failures increase the chance that you won’t make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough risks. Additionally, it is pretty clear that the ratio of our successes and failure is pretty constant. So, if you want more successes, you are going to have to tolerate more failure along the way."
I think that Jacobson and Seelig's approach is closely aligned with ancient Greek and Stoic principles.
The failure resume can help us learn about and probe our own judgments and decisions. Once we have built that awareness, we can acknowledge our own value and consider how to improve ourselves and our decisions. Rather than looking at our failures and then basing our (low) opinion of ourselves on those, we can tap into our reason and wisdom. And instead of guilt or shame, we realize we were imperfect humans, and learn to do better next time.
The Stoics, borrowing from the Pythagoreans, advocated keeping a philosophical journal, one that would help us review what we did wrong and right in the course of the day, and what we could work on. The failure resume is that journal writ large.
My daughters have been taught this approach in school. Their teachers inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
This way of thinking is the essence of resilience. Donald Robertson has written about the mental resilience that a Stoic approach can provide, and the modern cognitive-behavioral therapy that is based on it. He teaches a course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, which attracted over 3,000 participants in 2018.
As Robertson points out in a video, “the essence of wisdom is a kind of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, it isn’t dependent on other people…”
It is the practice of supporting and listening to one’s “ruling center,” as the Stoics put it, through adversity, knowing that in our core we all have something to offer, and that the world can be a tough place. But when we get knocked down, we get back up and go at it again.
I’ve been working on my failure resume. It contains a series of fails, and also sins of omissions (for instance, why did I narrow my academic focus too soon? Why didn’t I study more biology, psychology, and philosophy in college?). It also lists what I learned from experiences very much outside my control, like when I worked for a business that went bankrupt, or when I was unable to turn a temporary job into a permanent one. Or when the “great recession” hit and all the freelance gigs dried up. I witnessed and was part of the end of an era in print publishing and journalism, and many such failures were structural. But it's still good to review. My experiences taught me what to avoid and also planted the seeds for finding more courage in my professional life.
This resume doesn't need to be confined to professional failures. As Seelig says, personal mis-steps are also important learning experiences. Certainly we all have negative or sad things to regret and I don't propose dwelling on those. I am thinking more about opportunities, moments in time when we have options. For example, I'm probing into decisions that I have made about how I raise my daughters. It's not that I want to go back in time to change specific things; after all, often we'll never know what the "best" decision will be. It's more about acknowledging that I (and my family) can learn from our choices about what to do differently next time.
So this New Year, instead of resolutions, consider writing a failure resume to guide your next endeavors. What worked? What didn’t? What could you do differently? What did you learn along the way?
In this way, we can all work on setting a path forward infused with courage and wisdom, in big ways and small.
When my future boss was interviewing me, she asked me how I liked to be managed. How could I best work with a supervisor to be successful in this role? My answer: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
I had given this a lot of thought, though I didn’t dream I’d be asked about it in such an open way (and I viewed the question itself as a very good sign). I had worked before as a writer and editor, both on staff at publications and freelance. I felt that I knew what it took to get the job done independently.
In fact, that’s what first drew me to working as a journalist.
You might start with an editor’s tip or an idea, but then it was all on you: the reporter goes out, finds sources, gets the story, and writes it as she thinks it should be written. Then after I produced a first draft, an editor might come along and change some things, but usually the story turned out better with a wise hand gently guiding it at the end. That was the check-in. Someone was there to question your assumptions, to make sure you’d thought through your sources’ potential agendas, to ensure you weren’t leaving out a crucial piece of information.
(Very often, stories I read in publications today are missing something: a date, a figure that would flesh out the story, even a quoted source’s first name or title or relationship to the information. News orgs have ceased employing both writers and especially editors at alarming rates.)
So when I was asked by my potential employer about my ideal management style, I was quite clear. “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
This approach resonates with my practice of Stoicism. Stoic thinkers emphasized that we are only truly responsible for—and in control of—our own choices, which emanate from our sense of reason. Using our autonomy to its fullest is an opportunity to embrace the things we can pursue on our own and feel pride in achieving, without waiting for others to recognize our good works.
Autonomy is a key concept in ancient Stoic texts. Princeton professor John M. Cooper has written about the Stoic view of autonomy and compared it ideas advanced by later philosophers such as Kant. He points out that “autonomy” is a classical Greek term. Ancient Stoics, he says, believed autonomy meant adhering to laws of one’s own making, “not mere self-direction or self-governance, which might, of course, be quite arbitrary, unprincipled, and inconsistent.” Rather, autonomy has as its heart “reason itself.”
Cooper explains that ancient Stoic autonomy is somewhat neglected by scholars and deserves more study. After all, it is “a deeply interesting conception of human nature, human rationality, and the basis of morality.” (For more on this, see Cooper's book Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy.)
Of course, practicing Stoics (ancient and modern) such as Marcus Aurelius knew full well that as soon as we go out into the wider world with our ideas and choices, we will inevitably encounter resistance from others. People who think they know better will try to block you. As the famous quote from Marcus’ Meditations, Book 2, Section 1, goes:
"Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad." (Robin Hard translation)
But if you have a solid life philosophy on the one hand, and a mentor or role model, a strong friend, a caring spouse, or close-knit community on the other, you have the means to check in. These are the critical ingredients we need to fall back, no matter what befalls us.
“Autonomy, with check-ins” is also how I try to parent my children, especially now that they are 10 and 12.
When they were very small, it was mostly all check-ins from me and their dad, with a lot less autonomy for them. But even then, we tried to give them limited choices. Peas or carrots? Sandbox or swing? It gave us a chance to figure out their likes and dislikes. They could try new things and make decisions about their activities and the time they spent on non-essential pursuits, ones where they could have a choice.
(Granted, I wouldn’t overwhelm them with more than two or three options in most cases. More than that could prove tough. I saw the paralysis that picking from a whole toy store elicited on birthday shopping trips.)
And as time has gone on, we’ve reaped the benefits of this approach. My daughters are growing up, and I feel I can trust them—in public, to get information, and to speak confidently with people they don’t know… in school, to perform to their best in academics, respect the learning environment, while navigating the complex social situations they encounter… after school, to decide which extra-curriculars to do, and to help get to said activities on time and prepared (at least minimally)… in life, to develop their own interests, whether it’s in pop music, guitar, piano, coding, animated movies, theater, Lego, running, writing, art, basketball, constructing with glue guns, or Tae Kwon Do.
I could never have been a “Tiger Mom.” I have no interest in constantly making decisions for my kids and propelling them forward towards “success” with high-pressure activities. That kind of management may seem to work in the short term with certain (pliable) kids, but in the long term, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly not how I want to connect with my family, my relationships, or my own career.
My kids’ sense of autonomous responsibility has mushroomed over the past year. Both my daughters took the initiative on a few things lately I never quite thought I’d see. Each may be small, but the overall effect adds up. They quite thoroughly cleaned out their bedrooms when my husband and I were busy with other projects one afternoon, much to our astonishment. They went from dawdling over the smallest things (like putting on shoes—I can’t count the number of hours I have wasted waiting for my kids to put on shoes!) to being very concerned about arriving to their classes on time. When teachers allow it, they voluntarily make up or re-take tests that they’ve made mistakes on to earn more points.
But we still check in on them all the time, offering guidance and help and love and unsolicited advice and exposure to super-old movies that every American should know.
So next time you think about how you’d like to relate to your boss or even your kids, consider this: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.