On November 18, 2013, Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke to an audience of about 1,600 on the campus of CUNY's City College.City College's Great Hall is a cathedral-like room, with soaring gothic ceilings. On the entire back wall of the stage is a large, ethereal mural depicting a student receiving his diploma from his alma mater. High above them is a colossal figure of wisdom, a woman ensconced in flowing robes, holding a globe.
At the outset, and to the apparent dismay of her handlers, Justice Sotomayor asked the audience seated in the main area, approximately 750 people, to move closer to her stage. Tentatively, the audience slid their chairs across the limestone floor, forming new rows abutting the stage. City College Professor Lyn Dilorio mused that she had never seen the great hall as it looked that night -- a sign of the intimacy and wisdom to follow.
For nearly two hours, Justice Sotomayor read from her engaging book, My Beloved World, and responded to questions from a rapt audience. She described how she originally wanted to title her book "My Beloved Worlds" to convey all of the wondrous spaces she inhabits. She did not characterize her life story as surmounting or eluding adversity. Rather, she viewed her varied experiences (the loss of an alcoholic father and her brilliant and sensitive drug-addicted cousin, being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, etc.) as threads woven to create the tapestry of her life. Her goal has been to examine what each experience teaches.
In terms of career advancement, she recommended that one exercise curiosity to get ahead both personally and professionally. Her own secret to success is that she is relentlessly curious about her many worlds; unafraid of hard work, her true fear is boredom. She pursued college courses in subjects she knew little about, e.g. economics and sociology, to expand not just her knowledge, but her world view. Indeed, her unique love of learning (and descaro!) permeated most of her advice.
She explained that the primary purpose of her book was to show young people that anyone can accomplish great things. Achievement in life is not determined by how smart you are, but by how hard you work. She reiterated that she was an ordinary person blessed with extraordinary opportunities; because of this, she strives to make herself eminently accessible to a generation that has increasingly few role models.
Attorneys, she said, are people who help others have better relationships. Skilled, passionate and creative advocates are ones who think outside the box to solve problems. She became a lawyer because she liked painting pictures with words. Despite this, she claimed that her most unlikely accomplishment was being #1 on the New York Time Bestsellers' list.
Before we retire each day, she encouraged that we ask ourselves what new thing we learned, and what kind deed we did for another. Your day isn't done unless you have an answer, she joked. Justice Sotomayor recommended that the best way to stay connected to your community was never to leave it. She urged parents and children to grow together and that children bring their parents along as they journey through life. Parents, as they care for their own children, should model the importance of contributing to the world.
She presented a life of approachability, generosity and humility. It is her down-to-earth views and plainspoken manner that breathe life into her position as a Supreme Court Justice today, and make us eager for more of her penetrating paintings. That evening, she held the world, and us, in her hands.