This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By James Wright Jr.

U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson used the popular television show “Survivor” to illustrate lessons in life for over 500 graduates of American University’s Washington College of Law on May 20 at Bender Arena in Northwest with an audience of nearly 1,000 people.

“I watch [“Survivor”] with my husband and my daughters even now, which I will admit it’s not easy to do with the demands of my day job,” Jackson, 52, said. “But you have to set priorities, people. And that’s exactly the first lesson that I have for you today.”

Jackson is the first Black woman to serve on the high court. President Biden nominated Jackson on Feb. 25, 2022, and received U.S. Senate confirmation on April 7 of that year. Jackson’s commencement address to the American University law school is her first as a justice of the Supreme Court. Roger A. Fairfax Jr., the law school’s dean, and a close friend of Jackson’s, asked her to deliver the address. Additionally, Fairfax and American University President Sylvia M. Burwell conferred on Jackson an honorary degree.

Lessons from ‘Survivor

“Survivor” began its run in the United States on May 31, 2000. “Survivor” places a group of strangers in an isolated location, where they must provide food, fire, and shelter for themselves. The strangers, known as contestants, compete in challenging contests that assess their physical ability like running and swimming, or their mental faculties such as solving puzzles and surpassing hurdles for rewards and immunity from elimination. The contestants are progressively eliminated from the game as they are voted out by their colleagues until one remains and is given the title of “Sole Survivor” and wins the grand prize of $1 million. Jackson said the show is fun to watch, adding it teaches “a number of broader lessons that are helpful for becoming a good lawyer.”

The justice said lesson one “was to make the most of the resources you have.” She said as an assistant federal public defender in the District handling appeals, she often had less resources than prosecutors. Jackson talked about being prepared to move forward despite the odds and keeping her composure despite the unfair resources disparity. She spoke about a “Survivor” competitor who despite a prosthetic leg, surpassed her colleagues in a balance beam competition. Jackson said she possessed similar energy and passion when devising strategies to help her clients win on appeal despite the resource disadvantage.

“I kept my composure and put my head down,” she said. “My advice is to shut out distractions, use your time wisely and figure out how to make the most of what you have. That will increase the odds of success in law and in life, even if it seems that others have a significant head start.”

You do you. Lean into your personal strengths. Use them to get you where you want to go.

Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson

Jackson said knowing your strengths was lesson number two. She advised the graduates “not to be something you are not.”

“You do you,” she said. “Lean into your personal strengths. Use them to get you where you want to go.”

She referenced a “Survivor” contestant who lacked the physical stature and knowledge of the outdoors that her colleagues had, but possessed empathy and the ability to connect to people. Jackson noted the contestant often did well on multiple Survivor appearances despite her deficits.

Finally, the justice urged the graduates to “play the long game.”

She said some “Survivor” contestants had the physical prowess to win, while others had the ability to strategize their way to victory. Nevertheless, Jackson said, all successful “Survivor” contestants had to learn to do one thing: work together.

“‘Survivor’ is not an individual game,” she said. “The contestants need each other for food, for shelter, for challenges, for support. They really must get along.”

Those contestants that understand community and conflict are keys to survival tend to do well, she said.

“They build alliances, stay optimistic, stay-level headed and disagree without being disagreeable,” Jackson said. “They try to resolve conflicts amicably. They never burn bridges with anyone.”

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