Six Lessons Writers Can Learn from the Life and Career of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

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Like most people I know, I was devastated to learn of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She had been a mainstay on the U.S. Supreme Court for several decades, and only the second woman to serve behind Sandra Day O’Connor.

Her passing has made me think about my own legacy. What kind of impact do I want to make in my career as a writer? I can’t possibly live up to the same standards of success as RBG, but certainly I can make the world a better place in my own way through my writing.

Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As writers, we can all learn something from Ginsberg through her experience as a law student, an attorney, college professor, circuit court judge and Supreme Court Justice. Here are a few of them.

1. Don’t let rejection deter you from your goals. Ruth Bader Ginsberg graduated from law school at a time when women weren’t allowed to practice in law firms. She applied to hundreds of law firms and was turned away because she was a woman. RBG altered course and did what most other women who graduated law school did – she went into teaching. But she used her legal education to take up the fight for gender equality so that women wouldn’t experience discrimination like she had.

As writers, we’re bound to receive hundreds of rejection letters. But that shouldn’t mean we stop writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from writing. There’s always something to say, something to write about, even if others don’t want to read it or publish it. Keep writing. Somewhere there is an audience for your work.

2. Find a cause to be passionate about. After her numerous rejections by law firms, Ginsberg found her cause – gender equality and civil rights. And she persisted in her fight for equal rights throughout her career.

Writers too can find a cause to be passionate about. Whether that cause is social equity, climate change or rescuing homeless pets, your passion can fuel your writing. Write essays, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, even short stories that carry a theme around your cause. Use your words to fight for a cause that’s important to you.

3. Have a Plan B. I heard an interesting story during RBG’s televised memorial last week. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, once asked Ginsberg, “Where do you think we’d be if we had been accepted into a law firm? We’d most likely be retired from a law firm.”

In other words, neither woman would ever have been named to the Supreme Court. Their rejection by so many legal firms proved to be a blessing in disguise for it paved the way for a different legal career path.

As writers, it’s important to view repeated rejection as a sign that it may be time to change course, to redirect your energies elsewhere. For example, if you keep looking for work in the corporate world and keep getting turned down, it may be a sign that your talents are needed elsewhere, perhaps in a new industry or as a freelancer. It’s up to you to figure out how and where. Sometimes rejection means a better opportunity awaits you in a direction you never considered.

4. Do your homework and get the facts. For every case Ginsberg ever worked on, she needed to do research. Her ability to review past cases, study data, and conduct interviews was key to making her case in a court of law. As a Supreme Court Justice, there were numerous cases to review, hearings, review testimonies and more reading and research. Only then was she able to provide her judgment on key issues.

As writers, especially those in journalism, research is a key component of your work. It’s necessary to get all the facts, interview credible sources, and be thorough in your investigation. Presenting factual data helps establish your authority and credibility. People will want to believe you because you’ve taken the time to do your homework.  

5. Work for the common good. Whether through her teaching, trying cases on behalf of the ACLU, or hearing cases as a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsberg made sure she made decisions that benefited all people. She was committed to making the world a better place.

As writers, it’s important to write for the common good too. Use your words to persuade, examine, educate and inspire others. Like RBG, be kind and helpful to others, even if they don’t share your views.

6. Surround yourself with a strong support team. Ginsberg’s husband Marty saw Ruth’s potential while they were in college together. Many years later, when RBG was nominated for the Supreme Court, Marty became her cheerleader. Because she didn’t care for schmoozing, Marty met with Senators to persuade them that she was the right person for that role.

Writers can benefit by having one or two people in your inner circle who will go to bat for you, who will cheer you on when you finish that first novel, promote your work, and give constructive feedback. We all need that one person who supports our work and who sees our potential long before we do.

Throughout her long and productive career, Ruth Bader Ginsberg made a big difference in many people’s lives. As writers, we can all learn to approach our life’s work with the same grace, compassion and wisdom that made RBG so successful.

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