Career & Life Vision Conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter '80

"If you're scared, do it." 

Anne-Marie Slaughter is currently the President and CEO of New America, a think tank and civic enterprise. She is also the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. From 2009–2011 she served as director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. Prior to her government service, Dr. Slaughter was the Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs from 2002–2009 and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School from 1994-2002. Dr. Slaughter has written or edited seven books, including Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family (2015), A New World Order (2004), and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007), and over 100 scholarly articles. In 2012 she published the article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, in The Atlantic, which quickly became the most read article in the history of the magazine and helped spawn a renewed national debate on the continued obstacles to genuine full male-female equality. Dr. Slaughter is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times and writes a bi-monthly column for Project Syndicate. She provides frequent commentary for both mainstream and new media and curates foreign policy news for over 80,000 followers on Twitter. Foreign Policy magazine named her to their annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. She received a A.B. from Princeton, an M.Phil and D.Phil in international relations from Oxford, where she was a Daniel M. Sachs Scholar, and a J.D. from Harvard. 

Read and watch to learn how Anne-Marie navigated the scary uncharted territory of, “What am I going to do with my life?”, how millennials should think about their career development, and why it's so important to do things that scare you.

1. Tell me about your path since graduation.

When I arrived at Princeton in 1976 I knew exactly what I wanted to do. My roommate says I was the most directed person she’d ever met. I wanted to be in the Woodrow Wilson School, study international relations, go to Harvard Law School, study international law, work for a large New York law firm, hook myself up with a partner who would go to Washington to the State Department, go with him – and I thought it would be a him- and go in and out of government and foreign policy rising as high as I could get. I had it all mapped out. I went off to Oxford for two years on a Sachs Scholarship. I then did go to Harvard Law School. I did study international law. I spent two summers in law firms, one of them in a big New York firm of which Cyrus Vance, the former Secretary of State, was the head. And then everything went wrong. I realized I didn’t want to practice law in a big New York firm. So I spent four years getting a Ph.D. and trying to figure out what I was going to do. I ended up as a law teacher, first at Chicago and then at Harvard. Then Shirley Tilghman asked me to put my hat in the ring for Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, which I also didn’t expect to ever do. But I did, and then in 2009 I did what I did expect to do, which was to go and be the Director of Policy Planning for Secretary Hillary Clinton. I did that for two years, came back to Princeton, and then in yet another unexpected twist I decided to leave academia. I now run a think tank and civic enterprise that does policy and technology called New America.

2. What made you leave academia for the New America foundation?
Probably the same thing that led me to step out of a law firm and into the very scary uncharted territory of, “What am I going to do with my life?” which is that I like new challenges always. If I don’t like what I’m doing I change it. So when I didn’t like being in a large New York firm, even though that was part of the grand plan, I just said, “I’m not going to do that.” I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I want to do something that excites me when I wake up every morning. That doesn’t mean that I’m happy all the time. Nobody’s happy all the time, but it’s something that I feel has meaning and purpose, and I’m learning things. When I came back from the State Department having been a Dean, having run a large State Department Office…I love teaching, but being a professor again was going backwards. New America is an organization that I’m deeply committed to. Its mission is “renewing America in the digital age” so it has a lot of tech. I just thought, “I love these people. I’m excited about this. It’s a risky thing to do, leaving a tenured position at a great university, but I’ll learn something. I will continue to learn and to grow.”

3. You’ve written about how important it is for America to live by its values. By what values do you try to live?
So I think the first one is integrity. Integrity means being whole. We always wonder, where does integrity come from? Integrity comes from “integer,” a whole. And that means being true to who you are. And that’s got me into trouble in the sense that I’m too honest for my own good. I’ve written about women and work in a very public way. I don’t always strategize as much as I should in terms of thinking, “Well if I do this then that could happen,” but I think being true to who you are and doing the right thing. It’s not always obvious what the right thing is, but trying to figure out what the right thing is, that’s what’s the most important. Honesty. Courage. I think it’s very important to stand up and speak truth when you can, or to stand for others when you can. That one is something I think my parents really instilled in me. And then a sense of larger purpose. “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity” as we now will say is something that drew me to Princeton. That feeling that at the end of my life I can look back and say I tried to do something more than advance my self interest. I’m all for earning an income, don’t get me wrong, but something that was larger than myself.

4. What issue larger than yourself do you care about most?
What is most important to me is essentially I would like to leave the world a more peaceful and prosperous place. Secretary Clinton always said, and it made a big impression on me, “We are seeking a world in which every human being can live up to his or her God-given potential.” That’s the way Secretary Clinton frames it, but what she’s saying is a world in which the birth lottery matters as little as possible. I won the birth lottery, I mean I was born to an upper middle class family with a father who went to Princeton, and had lots of opportunities - even though he was a scholarship student - but there are people in this country that didn’t win the lottery, and then when you look at the world, you think, “I could have been born into a society where girls can’t go to school.” A country in which I would have no opportunities as a woman, but frankly no opportunities as a very poor person in a country that doesn’t provide opportunity.

5. If you had a magic wand as head of Policy Planning at the State Department what change would you have implemented?
Well what I wanted to do more than anything and tried to do, which was Secretary Clinton’s agenda, was to elevate development as an equal part of foreign policy. And I have to say this is something she taught me. I went to the State Department coming out of the Woodrow Wilson School in the graduate program, we call that Field 1. I’m an international relations person, that means diplomacy and national security, and development was something other people did. You know, you either do it for charity or you do it through USAID, or the Peace Corps, any number of ways. She really convinced me that actually development is just long-term diplomacy and security. Development is investing in people and in institutions that over the longer term are what will contribute to peace and conflict resolution and prosperity and resource stewarding, all of that. And so what I wanted to do more than anything was to have everybody in the State Department be thinking like a development professional just as we wanted development professionals to be aware of the political context and think about diplomacy and security.

6. After you realized you didn't want to practice law in a big New York firm, how did you go about figuring out what you wanted to do?

I have to say it was not a happy period. It was a very scary period, because I really had had it all mapped out. I’d figured out, you know, I want to be doing foreign policy. This is how it’s done. When I got to this large firm in New York I really felt just fungible. I felt like there were fifty associates - in those days there were big classes- and I’m just indistinguishable from all these other people, and we’re all working on these deals, and I didn’t even know who the clients were. I thought, “I just don’t want to do this.” And that was very scary. I took a risk, I took a big risk. I was working for a Harvard law professor at the time, and I loved doing that, so I had this contrast that I was working on all these exciting cases for him and then there was this firm, and I didn’t love the firm. I loved the people in the firm, but not the work. So the first thing is, I was willing to take a risk. Now again I was married at the time, so it wasn’t like I turfed myself out on the street, I didn’t, but for four years when people would ask me “What do you do?” I would have a multi-part explanation that even my mother could not really understand. That was scary. Anybody who comes to Princeton, we’re very directed, we like to have a plan, and so to say, “Well I’m doing a little of this and a little of that.” But what was great about that was first it made me really ask myself what I did want to do, but even more important, because I’m not sure had good answers, it left me open to opportunity.

So what happened was the law professor I was working for at some point said to me, you know, “Have you thought about being a law professor?” I said, “No.” In fact the one thing I’d have told you in 1980 was, “I’ll never be a professor. I’m an action person.” But you know, law teaching is different. Law is very close to the world, and I had lived his life for a while vicariously. When he said that, I said, “Well I’d never thought about it,” and believe me, my grades show that I’d never thought about it because I didn’t have a great transcript. I thought, well actually, this would be great, you know I hadn’t thought about this, but I like this. I like law as an intellectual discipline, it’s absolutely fabulous. I would like to teach. And so the advice I give is take risks and really be open to doing things it never occurred to you you might do. You know, you’re an English major and your friend says, “Hey come to a startup with me,” and you thought, “No, I’m going to law school,” or “I’m doing something.” Why not? Particularly in your twenties, you know. I was married but I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have any of the things that would tie me down.

7. So your professor saw something in you that you hadn’t seen.
Yes, and he thought I could be a law professor. I had been working for him long enough that he thought, “Boy this woman could do this.” And he helped me do it right because I really had not laid the foundation. Most law professors get very good grades, and they are on law review, and they clerk, and clerk for the Supreme Court, and I had not done any of those.

8. Think of Anne-Marie 1.0 to 3.0. What are some key leadership lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Well the first is, Anne-Marie Slaughter who graduated in 1980, I would not have said I’m a leader-absolutely not. I never ran for student government, I wasn’t captain of anything, I did not think of myself as a leader. I just didn’t. And I didn’t think of myself as a leader until probably my mid-to-late thirties. I was a member of the American Society of International Law, and I was pretty high up because I was a Harvard law professor in international law and they were looking for a new president, and I was looking for names thinking about who could be the new president and my husband said, “Well what about you?” You know it’s the classic female story. I said “Well I couldn’t do it.” And he said, “Why couldn’t you do it?" And so I did it. And then I ran the Harvard Program on International Legal Studies. Again that was a small staff, but 150 students and it required me to see myself as a leader. Now I look back and think, “Well that’s ridiculous.” I was the head of student government in high school, I was the head of the student newspaper in high school, but I think I was the classic girl, really. You know that young woman who, on a bigger playing field like Princeton or later, didn’t think I was a leader. So that’s the first one, is step up.

9. What’s the second one?

If your stomach hurts you’re on the right track. I cannot emphasize that enough. The first day I marched down the street to go into the State Department to take over as Director of Policy Planning. I’d never been in government, I’d never met the policy planning staff. I was doing something I’d never done…I wanted to turn around and run home and hide in the bed. But I’ve learned that when you’re that scared you’re way out of your comfort zone, and you will grow. You will discover you can do it, and when you do, then you’ll know, “Well, I can do another thing I’m scared of.”

10. And the third?
The third thing is the best advice I got. John Sexton, who was the Dean of NYU Law School for a long time (and an awesome Dean) when I became Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School he said to me, “Figure out what you’re not good at, and recognize it won’t change.” And that was so important because, it’s like a diet. You think, “Oh, I’m going to lose 10 pounds. I know I love sweets, but tomorrow, miraculously I will stop wanting that donut, and then I will lose 10 pounds." He said, “You know, when you’re a leader, you owe it to the people you’re leading to know.” I’m for instance, a very visionary, transformative, high-energy person. I need somebody working with me who will curb my own tendency to bite off more than I can chew, and somebody who will follow up on details. I have to know that.

11. What do you look for in people you hire?
I want people who take initiative. I am a big believer in asking forgiveness rather than permission. I’m very willing to let people make mistakes as long as they’re self-starters. Now part of that is I know my own weaknesses. I will not have time to micromanage you and frankly, although I’m happy to manage you broadly, I don’t want to have to set out three goals every week or even every month. So I look for people who take initiative, who have energy, who have ideas, but also definitely people who are willing to disagree with me. Sometimes when I’m interviewing for a job I’ll challenge the person interviewing me to see how they respond, and if they don’t respond well I know they’re probably not going to like me. If they want me just to agree I’m not going to, and I’m not going to respect them for only wanting people who agree.

12. I read that you think that we all hire ourselves.
Yes, we all hire ourselves. I try very hard not to. The best book is Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It basically tells you, do not trust your gut when you’re hiring somebody. But we are all subject to the, "You know that person just seems like there will be a great fit." Well what that often means is, “I see myself in that person,” and if you feel good about your own career you think that person will succeed. So when I was on law school hiring committees I was always looking for the unusual candidate who was creative and had gotten there by a different path. I think we have to be very conscious of our biases and to create processes that guard against them.

13. Tell me about a time you failed.
Oh yes. Well let’s see, where do I start, there are plenty. Early on I went on the law teaching market. I had interviews at Harvard and Stanford and had visions of teaching in a school that’s comparable to the ones we go to and then I did not get offers from either of those. I was going to go to the University of Southern California, which would have been a great school, then Chicago came in right at the end and so I did find myself in the end at a really great job. But I learned that you don’t always win, you just don’t. And there are plenty of times in my life I’ve gone for things I have not gotten. There isn’t the Golden Path. There are plenty of people who have failed at one point and succeeded at another. You know it’s a cliché, “learn from failure,” and as a parent I tell my kids you know it’s not failing, everybody fails, it’s what do you say the day after. Do you say, “Okay well I realize I made that mistake.”

I would say on specific things I have in a couple of cases made enemies I didn’t need to make. Part of the flip side of courage is standing up and being willing to make decisions people won’t like. If you really want to be liked by everybody you should not aim to lead a large organization, because you have to be able to make decisions people will be unhappy with and some people won’t like you. That said, you can also push things further than you need to sometimes to push a point or because you can get carried away with your own self-righteousness or your own vision of yourself as somebody who was willing to break china. Particularly in Washington what you discover very quickly is the person you crushed today could be your boss tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up, because the downside of that is people who never make enemies. I don’t respect that. I have definitely learned that sometimes the lower key way of doing something, the face-saving way of doing something, is the smarter way of doing something.

14. Any other mistakes you made early on?

Well so I will say when I first got to Washington I did not understand that the game is to be in the meeting. Success in Washington is being in the meeting. And people will try to cut you out of the meeting. I learned the hard way that if you don’t insist on being in the meeting you’ll just get cut out, but that you have to insist in a certain way. So if you’re too, like, “Why aren’t I in that meeting?” and you push too hard, you can alienate people. It’s like the Goldilocks thing, right? On the other hand if you don’t say, “Well you know I assume I’ll be in that meeting.” You don’t really want to ask permission, that’s the point. If you have to ask permission people are likely to say, "Well…". So you need to be confident enough to assume you’re going to be in the meeting without being so pushy that you generate antibodies. I think now what I would say is, “I know there’s this meeting. I’ve prepared a memo for it and I’m looking forward to discussing X.” Or put it on your calendar and show up because it’s very hard for people to push you out of a meeting. You’ve got to be careful on that one. Sometimes they will and that can be embarrassing. But that’s another example of taking a risk. And again, do it carefully, but better to try and get told no, that you shouldn’t be in the meeting, then to be too scared to try. The way I’d probably do it is to say “I’ve prepared a memo for that meeting.” Something like that.

I think particularly for women, this is one where, again, when men are scared they’re often taught to hide their fear by kind of being more confident than they feel and they are rewarded for that. Women often learn to be kind of apologetic or too modest because we’re rewarded for being modest, we are not rewarded for putting ourselves forward. As any woman leader will tell you, too much and you’re abrasive (or other lovely words that we won’t say on tape), but if you’re not strong enough you’ll very quickly get run over.

15. How would you advise millennials to think about their careers?
In this book I just published, “Unfinished Business,” I write about about thinking about your career as a portfolio of skills and experiences. This is so important for millennials today because they are going to have many different jobs and there is not one path at one corporation-there really isn’t. So what you have to do is look at who you want to be and look at all the skills and experiences that person has. So if you look at me you would say, I do a lot of public speaking (and by the way I was terrified of public speaking until my mid-thirties so it can be learned), I do writing, I’ve had management experience, I’ve had strategy experience, I’ve had fundraising experience, I’ve been in the public sector, I have been in the academic sector, I’ve been now in the civic sector. So you can make a matrix. Here are the skills down one side and here are the places you can get those skills. You might have a child and be working part time but be fundraising for a really important charity in your neighborhood, right? There are many ways to get those different skills but the point is to sort of figure it out that way and then just see what comes your way, because you’re not going to be able to plan it. We’re in the world of everything’s changing all the time and we have to be flexible and adaptable - we do, but we don’t have to be rudderless. You can think, I can take this job and I can learn how to write. I could take that job and I improve my public speaking, or I can learn how to write an op-ed, or learn how to put myself forward. So it’s a constant back-and-forth between the skills and experiences you know you need and what’s out there.

16. What superpower do you wish you had?
I think I’d be invisible. I think the older I get, the more I understand how often we misunderstand others’ intent or meaning because we see it through our own prism, this is well-known, but so often, that leads to problems that could be avoided. If you could put yourself invisibly when the person is talking to their friend, or themselves, and figure out what’s really going on, then you’d have the ability to mediate or broker. So I think if I had to have one that would make me most effective, it would be to be able to listen in or be part of situations without necessarily knowing I’m there. It would also be great to listen to what people say about me honestly, because the higher you get, people are not honest with you. That’s another thing as a leader; you must hire somebody who will tell you the truth, and you must tell them that you will not “shoot the messenger,” because otherwise, you do not get honest feedback, and everybody can be saying, “She’s doing this, that, and the other terribly,” but they’re not going to tell you.

17. What advice would you give yourself when you were graduating?

I wish I’d had more confidence and courage then. I wish I’d known then that I could put myself in uncomfortable situations. So to give you an example, I stayed in school until I was 30. That has its advantages, but I did that in part because I was scared to do other things. In part I didn’t like the law firm, but I sort of wish now I’d taken two years off and gone and been in Washington or been somewhere else. I knew I was good at school, and I was scared that I wasn’t good at other things. From where I am now I look back and think, “Oh come on, of course you could have done that.” It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, you can tell my mid-thirties were a big time for me, that I developed this idea that, “If you’re scared, do it.” In 1980, I did not follow “If you’re scared, do it.” I stuck closer to things with which I was comfortable.

18. You’re a visionary. Is there any big idea you’re thinking about now that you’re excited to see to it’s completion?
I am writing a new book, and it’s a book that I planned to write the summer I wrote my article on women, work, and family. It’s on how we use Network Theory to develop a new set of foreign policy tools to essentially work in a people-centered foreign policy. Of course we have to work with States, but so many of the problems we face from climate change, to terrorism, to illiteracy and disease-they’re about people-and we don’t have any tools. So back to development; yes we have long-term tools, but we don’t know how to create a network that would make a country more resilient. We don’t know how to create a network that would allow us to counter a network or act effectively. We don’t know how to create a network that will scale up the work of 1000 NGOs in a way that has global impact. There’s a lot of theory about what network works for what purpose, we just don’t have it in foreign policy. So that’s the book I’m working on. This century, development and diplomacy have to go hand-in-hand, and we need a new set of tools.

19. Advice to people who want to write books?
Pre-commit yourself. Just like that thesis, I have never written anything that wasn’t on a deadline. Not ever, and I procrastinate fiercely. If you follow me on Twitter, and I’m tweeting, that should tell you that I’m actually trying to write something and I don’t want to write it, so I’m clicking on Twitter. Pre-commit, pre-commit. Get yourself a book contract, get yourself a co-author, do something that will force you.

20. Any final advice?

Take risks, absolutely. Take time. I was walking over here today and Princeton is so beautiful in the spring. Take the time to notice that, and take the time to notice the people who you don’t notice, the janitor, even somebody you’re passing on the street who’s asking for money. You don’t have to give them the money, but notice their humanity. And take care of the people you love. Obviously, take care.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13