Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday and will become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court when Justice Stephen Breyer retires this summer. Many observers were impressed by her poise under intense questioning, and three Republican senators voted for her, despite her being nominated by a president who is a Democrat.
Way before she became a candidate for the high court--or even a lawyer or a judge--Jackson learned a lesson about what to do when faced with put-downs or unfair odds. It's a lesson she has passed along to others, and one every leader should learn.
In a 2019 speech at the University of Chicago Law School, she explained that she often found herself the only Black woman in a room full of white men. And she received more than her share of disparagement, including from her high school guidance counselor who discouraged Jackson from applying to Harvard, saying she would never get in. (Michelle Obama was given the same advice about Princeton, but also ignored it.)
Jackson was raised by parents who had survived the Jim Crow laws in the South, and they taught her that the best way to deal with discrimination and hostility was to tune it out. She added:
"I cannot recall a single time in my childhood in which I cared about the slights and misperceptions and underestimations that came my way. What I do remember is often thinking, 'Hmm. Well, I'll show them.'"
Hmm. Well, I'll show them. She demonstrated this approach as a college student at Harvard when someone hung a Confederate flag from a dorm window. The university's Black students organized marches and other protests. Jackson took part as well, but she had a warning for her fellow Black students. "Wait a minute, as we're doing this, we're missing out on classes. As we're fighting against this injustice, we're actually doing them a service because we're going to be failing," a classmate remembers her saying.
The students continued protesting, but they also made sure to attend to all their classes, to complete all their homework, and generally to shine academically in a fiercely competitive environment. It was a collective mentality of Hmm. Well, we'll show them.
I can't imagine a more effective reaction to insults, criticism, or dismissal. What if every time someone put you down or failed to take you seriously, instead of feeling angry, you said those five words to yourself? What if you said them every time someone told you you weren't good enough for an investment or a job, or to run your own company?
The next time someone makes you feel small, start by taking a deep breath. Then tell yourself, as Jackson did--Hmm. Well, I'll show them. And then go do it.
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