Rachel Kleinfeld was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, with two brothers. In 2005, she co-founded the Truman National Security Project, a leadership institute for training progressives on national security. She is currently its president and executive director. She is also a regular contributor on radio and television programs and her commentary has appeared in numerous national journals and newspapers. She was recently named by TIME Magazine as one of the 40 under 40 “rising stars of American politics.” She splits her time between Washington, D.C. and Colorado.
How would you describe the household you grew up in?
We lived in a log house in the country on a dirt road. My parents, brothers and I were close to one another, but the rest of the family–grandparents, one uncle and two cousins–were far away and not particularly involved.
Your father is a judge and your mom is professor of psychology. Is that correct?
Mom is a professor. She teaches psychology and sociology. She became dean of the Northern Studies program, which she created. It is an interdisciplinary study of the circumpolar north. My dad was a lawyer–just a one-man law practice–until I was in the fourth grade, then he became a judge.
How would you describe your relationship between you and your siblings while growing up?
It was typical. I was closer to each brother at different times. My older brother and I joked that we switched birth order at some point. I started acting like the oldest kid–being more ambitious and achievement-oriented. He started acting like the middle child in the stereotypical way by being better at smoothing over family differences.
When do you think that change happened?
Pretty young. By the time I was ten, when my parents went out of town, I would be the one who would get the keys and the description of what to cook for dinner and serve, and the household rules. My older brother was more dreamy. I was always more focused.
My parents’ style of child rearing was very laissez-faire, very libertarian. They gave us a lot of time alone. We were latch-key kids. We would go to school literally with keys tied on shoelaces around our necks so we could let ourselves into the house. We had lots of time to explore, and we really enjoyed that independence.
Weren’t they afraid to leave you alone?
Once in a while there were problems. Once it was thirty below and at that point we didn’t have keys anymore, we had an electric garage door opener. And the power had gone out. It goes out pretty frequently in Alaska, so the garage door wouldn’t open. We were sensible kids. We lived far from neighbors, but not ridiculously far. So we walked a quarter mile to the neighbor’s house and got them to let us in. My parents very much assumed we could figure our way out of problems and expected that of us. We valued the independence, and begged them to leave us alone, without babysitters.
How would you describe your father’s philosophy versus your mother’s?
Dad was much more hands-off. He felt his mom was very overbearing. He grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and part of why he moved to Alaska was to get away from his mom. As a result, he was going to be very laissez-faire. We had lots of time on our own, lots of time to dream. He felt it was very important for kids to make up their own play and to be left alone. We would always say he wanted us to play in the dirt, which we spent a huge amount of time doing. My mom was more focused on active play, or active education. It was my mom who got us all into nerd camp when we were in about sixth grade.
What kind of camp?
We called it nerd camp, but it was CTY. Center for Talented Youth, in Pennsylvania. Mom was the one who looked for educational enrichment activities, like the gifted-and-talented program at another school, which I loved. It was a pretty good balance. Compared to kids nowadays, we were very, very under scheduled. The things we were involved with were things we chose to do, not things chosen for us – and other than baseball, I didn’t do any organized activities until the 6th grade.
Describe a little bit more the values they each cherished.
They definitely both valued thinking for yourself. There weren’t many Jews in Alaska, and we were sent to Catholic school. We had a Sunday school class for Jews that my dad taught. At a very young age, third or fourth grade, he had us reading Josephus, Latin texts, or the Talmud. He would have us read, not the original, but the translated original, the primary text. And when he asked a question, he would just say the answer is in there in the text! He had eight-year-olds a little baffled trying to read Latin translated into English, but Dad assumed we could figure it out. There was a lot of focus on thinking for yourself from first principles and not accepting perceived wisdom of any sort.
While my parents were conservative, my older brother and I turned out pretty liberal. There was a lot of debate from first principles and understanding where you stood from that. They didn’t talk much about charity, but they certainly gave a lot away. My dad would always tip very well and talk about how if someone is not earning that much, but is working, you should tip a lot, because that was a great way to give away money and not have it seem like charity. We would talk about Maimonides’ eight degrees of charity with the best one is to give a person a job and the worst is to give charity face to face where the other person knows who you are. I thought of us quite wealthy compared to our surroundings, but we were not, compared to people I met later on the East Coast. But my parents were very generous. That sunk in.
And they valued the importance of being a part of a community and taking part. Both of my parents had made some really deliberate decisions about where to live and how to live their lives. They really valued that deliberation and thoughtfulness.
Talk about Catholic School.
They sent us to Catholic school, because they wanted us to be grounded in values. They wanted there to be some values to how we thought about things. Neither of them was particularly religious. Certainly, they were not Catholic, but they were disillusioned by the public schools, which were overflowing at the time because the construction of the pipeline had brought lots of people to Fairbanks, and classrooms were overcrowded as a result. Also, by that point, had become pretty conservative. There had some sense that the government didn’t care much about the individual, and they wanted a school to pay attention to us as individuals.
Did you attend Catholic school all the way through high school?
Yes, kindergarten through senior year.
In what way did your parents inspire you?
I think definitely their willingness to take risks. My dad graduated from Harvard Law School, and the normal thing to do for someone at the top of their class was to go to a white shoe Boston firm, or Washington, D.C. or New York. My dad took off to Alaska, which was barely a state—it had been granted statehood just two decades before. I admire the risk taking and the willingness to really think about what you want and how you’re going to get there, not in the nasty, negative networking way, but in a deliberate way about who you want to be, and what you value.
My dad really wanted to be a great man. He thought about it that way. He really wanted to be someone who made an impact on history and the nation. He thought, “if I go with the flow and do what everyone else does, maybe I can climb to the top of the heap. But if I do something different and do it really, really well, then I’ll have more of a chance.”
I really admire how both of them balanced family and career. They certainly had very good careers. My mom loved her work and really focused on it. They gave us lots of time alone, which I thought not as a trade-off between their work and our child rearing, but as a positive. I really liked that independence of being trusted, but they were home every day at five thirty or six. They rarely worked evenings. They almost never worked weekends, so there was a lot of family time. Part of that is because they moved to Alaska. It would have been hard for them to have the kind of careers they did elsewhere and have that family time.
How would you describe yourself as a child? What were you like?
Extremely difficult. I had a bad temper. I got frustrated easily. I had high expectations for myself. There aren’t a lot of smart, Jewish girls in Fairbanks, Alaska. There wasn’t a community for me to be a part of. It was hard to find people who were like me. So when I was very young, I spent a huge amount of time being sent to my room and throwing temper tantrums and climbing out of my second-story window to run away. That was a big theme until I was eight or ten.
Where would you go when you went out the window?
We lived miles from anything, so I would usually start walking down the road. We lived off a big hill, a dirt road. After two or three miles, I would get tired and have to find my way back. Sometimes I would just go to a gravel pit nearby and be by myself.
I was a very introverted kid and being with lots of other people was tiring for me. Because people weren’t like me, it took a lot of energy to interact and figure out how to befriend people who are very, very different. When I was young that was the issue. As I got older, I became certainly a happier kid and much more involved and part of different activities.
What kind of activities did you enjoy as a child?
For a long time, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wasn’t crazy about most people, but I wanted to do some good, and so I thought I could help animals. When I was nine, I had a job at a pet store, quite illegally and off the books. I also got to work for a veterinarian in town. And I had a bunch of animals –gerbils, cats, and birds–I would take care of. I would study and read up on how to take better care of them. That took up a lot of my time.
I had small businesses that I would start when I was a kid. I made Christmas ornaments and different crafts and sold them. I was always trying some new entrepreneurial scheme that usually involved spending a lot of time in the woods, collecting something, and selling it to people. That combined my two favorite things, spending time in the woods and being entrepreneurial.
Were you a voracious reader as well?
Yes. Oh, yes. The whole family. I should have said something about that. That was such an implicit value that I didn’t even think of it. We have a log house and it’s just lined with books. There are custom-built bookshelves that cover every wall. Even our garage is lined with books.
Was the most challenging aspect of your childhood the struggle against your introversion and feeling that you were different?
There were hard things and there were positive things. I liked being different as well. That was definitely a positive. The hardest part was that I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. Even when I learned to be friendly and social, the people weren’t very much like me, so I couldn’t have deep friendships. It was an isolating experience, but it also was a deepening experience, so I don’t think I would take it back.
When did you start going to summer camp?
In sixth grade when I was twelve. It was a huge positive thing for me, because I had never really known other intellectual kids. The one other kid like me in Fairbanks–we were always put together as a pair in classes–ended up committing suicide when we were in college. It was very difficult to be an intellectual kid in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Was the camp in Alaska?
No, the camp was in Pennsylvania. It was a three-week summer camp. It was the first time I met other kids who were readers, who were interested in the world, who were learning stuff. I made deep friendships at summer camp. It was a huge, huge help to me, I loved Alaska as a place, but I didn’t really like the other kids. I would eventually find people more like me.
At what point did you start excelling in school?
From the beginning. In kindergarten, I took an IQ test that got me into the gifted and talented [program].
Did you feel any pressure to excel, or was it self-motivation?
It was mostly self-motivation. It was easy. While it was certainly internally motivated, there was definitely some family pressure. My mom and dad would say if you get a bad grade in grade school, you won’t get into a good high school and if you don’t get into a good high school, you won’t get into a good college. They made it sound like your whole life sort of depended on getting into a good college. I remember my older brother freshman year in high school got a B, and my mom spent a whole semester sitting on his bed watching him do his homework. I really valued my privacy and I thought I never ever want my mom sitting over my shoulder watching me do my homework.
Once you were in high school, what kind of teenager were you?
I was a much happier teenager than a kid. I loved high school. My school was not very fancy. But by the time I was in high school, I had built up enough credibility that I was allowed to do a lot of what I wanted. I took courses at the university at the same time I was in high school. I could always say I had a course at the university and I didn’t lie about that. I generally did and I would be able to get out of classes.
I really liked the freedom. I started being able to do things on my own once I could drive, which was a huge deal. In Alaska, there’s not really public transportation. Once I got into high school, I just started doing a lot. I started an environmental club. I was president of our Key Club. I did a lot of national Key Club stuff. I started a bunch of Amnesty International clubs.
I was able to do my own thing, because I had a lot more time. The courses at the university were wonderful. I got to be in really intellectually, challenging courses. The University of Alaska is not a fancy school. It has a lot of adult community members who take classes. I got to be in courses with adults and got to make friends with adults, which I really enjoyed. I found people that I liked. I shouldn’t say I didn’t like the people in Alaska. I really like the adults in Alaska. I felt the kids were more small-town kids. When I got old enough to be friends with the adults, I was much happier.
What kind of classes were you taking at the university?
My favorites were anthropology, religion, and shamanism. I took a bunch of graduate courses with Professor Lydia Black, who is still to this day one of the professors I esteem the most. She was wonderful. I took courses in American history, Holocaust literature, poetry, whatever caught my fancy.
How many classes would you take at a time?
I can’t really remember. Maybe I started taking one or two. I don’t think I took more than three in any semester.
Were they during regular school hours, or did you also take night classes?
Both. I took some courses at night and some during school. It was whatever interested me.
Who besides your parents was a huge influence on you during that time period?
An odd assortment of people. When I was taking college classes before I could drive, my parents couldn’t take off work to drive me, so they made a relationship with a cab driver in town who would pick me up from school and take me to the university. He was a Cuban refugee. We talked practically every day, because we’d have a fifteen minute ride. We’d talk a lot about being a Cuban refugee. He had put all his kids through college as a cab driver. He was a big influence. His story was pretty compelling–what he managed to do in his life and his thoughts.
We had a family friend named Harry Bader, who had been a UN Special Rapporteur and became a faculty advisor for the Amnesty International club I started at the college. He was a lifelong human rights activist. He had gone to explore war crimes in Bosnia and East Timor and different places. He was a big influence by talking about what it was like to do international work on the ground.
He taught at the university as well?
He was a forester at the University of Alaska.
Alaska as a place, more than any particular person, had a huge influence on me. The cultural values of Alaska are very different from those I encountered later on in life. A lot of my life has been about balancing those sets of values. In Alaska, there is a huge value on self-realization, doing what feels correct for your life path. A lot of people go there, become subsistence trappers and build a house. That’s a very common thing to do. A lot of people live deliberately in Alaska and not at all based on what they have been taught to do. There was girl who had gone to Harvard Law School, graduated, moved to Alaska, and became a potter. She really liked to make pottery. She sold at the farmers’ market. I loved going to the market and meeting her and talking with her. That was a perfectly acceptable thing for her to do in Alaska.
I remember getting to Yale and feeling like people had such a limited set of life choices. They sublimated themselves. But at the same time, I felt the things people chose to do in Alaska seemed somewhat self-absorbed or self-focused. They were about realizing yourself, not necessarily contributing to the world. I struggled a lot with that–how do you contribute to the world, but maintain an authenticity to yourself. I did feel there are real limitations people put on themselves back East.
Are there any more cultural values that you associate with Alaska?
The other thing is a sense of people not being as important as people think they are, a sense of geological time. It’s pretty hard to live in a place that vast and not have a sense that people are a pretty small part of the show. People take that in different directions. I felt very differently when I got back East and all of a sudden everything was about politics or money. A lot of energy and effort put into things were actually very short time horizons. Even if you were President of the United States, you are only president for at most eight years and you can affect only so much. And then how many of us remember the twenty-forth, or thirty-second President? Alaska gave me a sense of people’s place in the bigger scheme of things.
Talk about your experience outside of Alaska besides summer camp. Did your family travel a lot?
We traveled a lot. Every other year we would go to New York City and visit the Strand and that kind of thing. My parents just really liked New York, so we grew up in this weird, cultural bifurcation. We subscribed to New York magazine (not the New Yorker). New York magazine is very much about current events and society in New York, and we were getting it up in a log house in Alaska. We’d also get Commentary magazine. We grew up with this Upper West Side Jewish intellectual milieu, but in Alaska.
How long were your stays there?
Pretty short. Maybe a week or two. We didn’t have a ton of money growing up and taking five people to New York City is not cheap.
There were times when we would go on adventurous trips when my dad was a lawyer and had a case that settled unexpectedly and he could take advantage of the time opening. We would go on spur of the moment trips. My parents would pull us out of school suddenly. We spent almost a month in Hong Kong. We spent a couple of weeks in Curacao, because it was as far as you can get without passports.
Did any of those trips abroad have an impact on you?
The Hong Kong trip certainly did. I remember vividly Vietnamese boat people begging. This was long before they handed Hong Kong over to China. I didn’t really understand what was going on and my dad explained about the Vietnamese, why there were boat people and how that happened. I remember thinking about how unfortunate that was and how big a difference these kinds of policies made on individual lives. But I don’t think it was just the travel. Talking to a Cuban refugee and Harry Bader gave me similar thoughts.
The big thing that I haven’t even mentioned is an example of how my parents gave me a lot of freedom. When I was 16, my older brother, who was 18, had gone to Russia for the summer. It was right when Russia was collapsing in 1992. He was supposed to go for the summer, come back, and go to college. He called at the end of the summer. There was almost no communication between Russia and anywhere else, because the phone lines weren’t really working and the mail wasn’t really working. He called and said, “Can you defer college? I’m staying in Russia.” As you can imagine, my parents from a general educational focus were not happy at all with this. But there wasn’t anything they could do, because he could say, “Oh sorry, the phone is breaking up. Gotta go.” And there was no way to call him. There was no way to send a letter. Nothing.
I was very close to my brother by that point, so my parents pulled me out of school for a couple of weeks when I was a junior and sent me to St. Petersburg to convince my brother to come home. To send a 16-year-old girl to a collapsing country by herself is unusual, but (like I said before) they had a lot of trust in us.
He met me at the airport. He was having a great time. He was living in a flat with a couple of other theater people and they were running the biggest theater in St. Petersburg. He was just doing great, so I went back and told my parents that Daniel was doing great and I wanted to move to Russia. They let me go the next summer after my junior year, when a lot of kids are usually pushed to focus on college or to be super grade grubbing and taking Kaplan exams. Kids now have a lot more competition. I was born during a birth dearth, so there wasn’t a lot of competition. It didn’t even occur to me [to do that]. I just went to Russia that summer to be with my brother and hang out. I didn’t have much to do. I was on a dancer’s visa, because you had to go on a work visa if you weren’t going to stay in a government-run hotel (since that part of the communist system was still functioning). I wasn’t that good of a dancer. I was just hanging out in Russia. That had a huge effect on me, seeing that country all summer with no program. We were just living there, running a theater. There was a big mafia casino below the theater, and the mafia kidnapped some of our friends. It was very raw.
Did you know any Russian?
The first time I went over there I could read the alphabet, but that was about all. Between getting back in December and going in the summer, I got myself a Russian tutor at the university. But she managed to fall in love with some guy and spent most of her time teaching me words like, “I love you,” which were not particularly useful. I could at least say some basic things and read, but mostly I wandered around a lot.
People loved to practice their English with me. It was before consultants started coming to Russia. That happened about a year later, so there weren’t many English speakers and people really wanted to talk. They were super excited about democracy, but they equated democracy with getting rich. It was pretty clear they were in for some rude surprises. It was a very poignant time to be in that country and it had a huge effect on me.
Since your parents gave you so much independence, I assume you didn’t really have a rebellious stage in your life.
I had a different take on rebellion. My older brother was a punk rocker. We all have curly hair, so he had a big Afro of curly hair and a lot of safety pins on his clothes. I would hang out with him and his friends. We would throw punk rock dances. I wasn’t particularly rebellious, because my parents didn’t really mind. A lot of parents would have minded if their son had decided to paint his room black and dye his hair green, but it didn’t matter to my parents. I tended to take my rebellion more internally. Obviously, politically I differed from my parents quite a bit. Politics was very important in my family, but I tended to keep my own counsel than be really open and fighting with them. We fought a lot on politics and ideology, but there wasn’t a ton to rebel against given how lax the rules were.
Was it difficult having opposing or different political views from your parents, or did they willingly accepted the challenge?
It was always a debate. My family debates. That’s what we do at dinner. There were certain ways it was a struggle. Most of the political differences were external. Should the government give food aid in Ethiopia or not? We had a big fight about that when I was in fourth grade, because there was a huge famine going on in Ethiopia. The government was manipulating the food aid. My dad and I had different views on whether you should give aid in that kind of situation. It made me think a lot, which I appreciated. It made me a much better debater and a much better thinker.
My parents are also fairly conservative about women’s and men’s issues. That got more difficult, because it was a more murky area. I was the only girl in the family figuring out how to thread that needle. My parents had a successful marriage, raised us well, and my mom had worked. So it’s not that they were advocating being a stay-at-home mom, but there were some traditional gender roles they emphasized. I was not so sure I agreed, but I didn’t have a place from which to argue, so that was more difficult.
When you went to college, did you enjoy going to Yale?
I adored Yale. I really, really loved it. It was the only college I applied to.
How did you decide on that?
I visited a couple of colleges. New Haven, at the time, was more dangerous than it is now and my parents sent my older brother to meet me at the airport. He was going to Columbia when I was doing college visits. He was supposed to talk me out of going to Yale, because they were worried it was too dangerous. He spoke for two minutes and then I said, “Daniel, Mom and Dad must have put you up to this, because I know perfectly well you don’t care whether I’m in a dangerous situation. We went to Russia together.” Daniel admitted it was Mom and Dad, so that argument didn’t hold much water.
Yale was a great mix for me. It had really, really smart kids, but not egotistical. They were intellectual. It was a nice, middle ground. Smart, not super-egotistical, which I felt about some other Ivy League colleges. Also, they were not so intellectual that they were academic in their thinking, which I felt from some of the smaller colleges, which I had assumed I would go to.
I liked how pragmatic Yale seemed to be. There was a sense that you learn and you try to be the best at what you do with a real sense of public service. I went into a program called Directed Studies which was a Great Books program. I went into it, because I thought I hated the ancient Greek and Latin texts. I didn’t really want to learn any of it. But I thought I should, because I hadn’t gotten any of that background in high school. I felt like I should take the medicine and get a good education. Instead it turned out that I loved it. I really like being taught it well, and I had a great intellectual experience – still the most important intellectual experience of my life. I met my closest friends in this very intense program and they are still my closest friends fifteen years later.
During college, did you go through a period of self-reflection, or did you not need to, because you were already reflective?
I’m a pretty reflective person in general. College exacerbated that. I loved the value system at Yale. Extracurriculars were a huge focus and everyone seems to be involved in doing a bunch of interesting and different things. There is a real sense of being well-rounded there and a value on being well-rounded. I really loved all those values, but I also felt there was a drive and a narrowness to people’s possibilities that I hadn’t seen before, and so there was within me a constant reflection of how do you balance those kinds of things.
When did you have a breakthrough with that?
It’s a constant balance even now.
Who or what was your biggest influence during your Yale years?
Definitely the Directed Studies program. It’s only available to freshmen and it’s very focused. You take a literature class, a history class, and a philosophy class, and you have to write a paper once a week. It was selective even within Yale. When I took it, they let in only eighty kids from the freshman class.
Why was it so important? Partially, it was full immersion into an intellectual world where (like my Sunday school class) you were expected to read original source materials, learn with them and argue with them. I felt it gave me an intellectual grounding that I still go back to. I still remember the Aristotle I read and think about it when I’m considering political questions. I still remember the Iliad and the Odyssey. It gave me a lot of confidence intellectually that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, because I hadn’t had a good education compared to, say, my roommate.
My roommate was from Andover. She had already read everything I was reading. So having that gave me a lot of grounding. But it was really how it was taught. We were treated very much like adults and fellow learners with our professors. There were small seminars. We were in a class of fifteen, working with really great Yale professors. You got great professors and small classes considering the timeless questions. You let yourself ask those timeless questions about what is the meaning of life, what is an ethical person, what is great literature, what makes it timeless. It was extremely valuable.
How did it come about that you applied for the Rhodes? Is there a story behind that?
It was a total accident. When I was a kid, I remember asking my mom what a Rhodes Scholarship was, because Bill Clinton was President and he had one. My mom said that it was something you did if you were really focused on public service and really smart. I thought, “Oh, well that’s something I want.” I was in seventh or eighth grade. And I didn’t really think about it again and I didn’t think about it much in college. I didn’t apply in college. I went to work for a mixed income-housing fund in New York City. A couple of things happened. I had a boyfriend all through college, but we broke up. And I thought, “Well, gosh, because I wanted to be with this guy, I never applied to any programs abroad. I really want to spend some time abroad.” So I started planning a self-directed trip to do development and human rights work in Nepal, India, and Israel. Then my boss at this housing fund took me out to lunch and intimated that she was looking for someone she could groom to be her successor. She had been at the job for thirty years, and I had only worked there for a year, just out of college. I really admired my boss, but I didn’t want to work in that field for the rest of my life.
I needed a way out of that situation socially, and I hadn’t told her yet I was thinking of doing this big, international trip. So I said, “Oh, I would love to, I’m flattered, but I’m applying for a Rhodes Scholarship.” I thought it’s hard to begrudge somebody a Rhodes Scholarship if they get it and it’s a good way to leave a job. That’s why I applied.
Once you got to Oxford, did you experience any kind of culture shock?
I had less culture shock than a lot of people, because I went to Oxford after spending a year in India, Nepal, and Israel. At Oxford, a lot of people complained about the water taps and the heat. I had just been living in rural India where there was no running water or heat, so I was thrilled to be in first world conditions again. So that wasn’t much of a culture shock.
I didn’t know anything about international relations. Almost by accident, I had gotten into the international relations program that was a bit hard to get into. In my application, I had written about anthropology, which I knew about because I had studied it back in high school. It just so happened that I quoted some things that were cutting edge in the international relations field. I hadn’t known that, so it looked like I was taking part in a big debate that they were having within the field. But I was clueless. I had gotten into this program and didn’t know anything about international relations, but even so, I felt like the classes were not very good. But the students were amazing. The things we got to read were incredible. I know a lot of people took their Oxford years and traveled a lot and played a lot. I read a ton. I was in St. Antony’s which was an international college and I talked with everybody a lot. I really threw myself into the field of study I was in, because I was so excited about it.
Because you are a Rhodes Scholar, did you feel any more pressure to be greater or to succeed even more?
Yes. But it started to change with Yale, not just with the Rhodes. Before that, I had always felt like David versus Goliath. I was this kid from Fairbanks, Alaska, applying to Yale, and hadn’t had that great an educational background and I was competing with fancier, more sophisticated people.
When I applied for the Rhodes and went to the interviews in Alaska, my competition in Alaska was very strong. They were amazing people who were applying. I hadn’t expected that. I had expected it to be a pretty small pool, because I had been told in the past they hadn’t had many applicants from Alaska. In fact, that session was harder than the national. At that point, you had two different selection committees, a state one and a regional one. In my state pool, there were six of us and only one could get sent on. Numbers-wise it was harder. In the national pool I think it was twelve and four got sent on.
All of a sudden, the other kids who went to University of Alaska or different places were the Davids. I remembering feeling like, “Wow, I went to Yale. Now, I’m the Goliath.” I’m the one who’s supposed to sail into a Rhodes Scholarship. That was a much more uncomfortable position. It made me much more worried about failing. Having that realization worried me a lot, because I had never been scared to fail. I always thought it was neat to get to do the things I had done. I hadn’t expected to get to do them. The fear of failure is such a risk-averse way of being that it worried me to see that in myself. After that thought, I really fought against it. The Rhodes interview in Alaska made it apparent. But Yale more than the Rhodes caused that feeling.
You mean the fear of failure, because you now had that badge?
Can you talk a little bit more about your perspective on failure or obstacles as a teenager? What was your approach back then? As a teenager, how did you deal with obstacles or challenges or any kind of failure?
I have a tendency not to see obstacles. I don’t think that’s good or bad, because it’s some of both. I often plan out a strategy and work toward it. I don’t really pay much attention to the odds. For instance, when I applied to Yale, you can see that as an obstacle to get into competitive school, but I thought “heck, somebody has to get into Yale and I might as well try.” That was my perspective towards most obstacles. I might as well try. If I fail, it’s not such a big deal. I didn’t have a sense that failure would affect me deeply as a person, because I felt like a lot of these things were against the odds. And it was that first Rhodes interview where I thought, “Oh. Now this could affect me as a person, because I don’t have any excuse for failure.” That was hard, because I was raised to take risks. I was raised to think as taking risks as a positive thing. To feel risk aversion was difficult. Since then, I’ve tried to put myself in situations where I’m always a little over my head and that pushes me toward taking more risks, but also insulates me from fear of failure. If I fail at something I’m at least trying for something much bigger than what I thought I could do. I’ve been more reluctant to take positions that were well within my comfort zone and probably part of that is a sense if I fail at those, then I don’t have a lot of excuses.
You only applied to Yale. Your parents or counselors didn’t say you should apply to other schools in case you don’t get into Yale?
I applied early. If I had not gotten in, I would have had a little bit of time to apply somewhere else. I can’t remember the exact months, but I think my application was due in the fall and I found out in December. I think to apply regularly was in January. I wasn’t totally out on a limb. I didn’t have a guidance counselor.
Were you first in your class at your Catholic school?
I was. But there were only 19 of us, so take that with a grain of salt.
Are there any qualities the Rhodes committee looks for that you continue to value?
I’ve been lucky to have been asked to sit on the Rhodes selection committee twice now. When you’re on the selection committee, you’re not given much guidance on what to look for. You’re supposed to follow the will and look for what you think is a Rhodes Scholar. So we had interesting discussions about that on the committee.
I certainly look for self-reflective people. If you’re into advocacy and can’t reflect on controversies in your field, that might be a successful advocate, but not a Rhodes Scholar. If someone doesn’t have thoughtful personal opinions, and have some sense of self-reflection, I’m less likely to think of someone as a Rhodes Scholar, because I think of that as a real intrinsic part of it.
And I look for people who don’t really put boundaries on themselves, who are constantly thinking there is a big world for them, their world is a large world, and they’re not looking to change some small part of it, but looking to be a participant in the world as a whole.
They have to be well-rounded people. On our last committee, we were worried that we were getting people who were extremely excellent in one field, but for instance didn’t know any science, or had never looked carefully at a work of art. It’s not exactly in the will, but being a whole person and valuing that whole person is very important to me
How much of a physical person (athletically) were you while growing up?
When I was a little kid, I played baseball. I loved baseball. And then girls weren’t allowed to play baseball at a certain age, so I switched to softball, which I did not like. It seemed very girly. Then I played basketball. In my small, Catholic school if you didn’t do sports, you were really an outcast. So it was pretty central that I did team sports through high school. Outside of baseball, I didn’t really like team sports. When I was in high school and had a car, I got much more into hiking and individual pursuits.
At Yale what did you do physically?
I wasn’t part of a team of any sort. I went on very long walks. I remember I scared my freshman roommate our first week. I told her I was going for a walk and I came back about seven hours later. At that point, she was freaking out , she assumed that I had been kidnapped or something, because just before I left, we had been given our security briefing, which was pretty intense at Yale. Pretty frequently I would go on all-day walks. In New York, I got into rock climbing.
Do you think being a physical person is a good thing as a Rhodes standard?
You have to be physically able to take on the world’s fight, and it is very important. It’s about general healthiness. Some people interpret that as about playing a team sport and the spirit you learn– the wars of Britain are won on the fields of Eton, that kind of thing. I get that. I understand some people are into team sports. It’s not my thing. But being physically able to do things you want to do is important. It’s also part of being a whole person.
But it’s a tough call. My committee interviewed someone who had been in Africa and gotten extremely ill to the point that it was a real question whether she would still be able to do the types of physical pursuits whe had done before. She’s now a Rhodes Scholar, because we thought she clearly exhibited the personal fortitude and strength.
Personal strength and some abilities to be physically active are important. It would be silly to ignore that. But you’d also be silly to say that someone in a wheelchair couldn’t be a Rhodes Scholar just because they are limited in what they can do physically.
Let’s talk about your present day work. Can you list the three things you love about what you do?
I run my own organization. I answer to a board of directors. There are two boards of directors actually, because technically we are two organizations. Usually, in my field in foreign policy you have one or two mentors and you attach yourself to them and move up, or you’re one junior person in a bigger machine. I very much like having a little more control over my own destiny.
I really like mentoring people. A lot of my job is empowering other people, taking extremely able people and helping them be even more effective. I find that very gratifying, much more gratifying than if everything was about me and about getting ahead myself.
I like the diversity of what I do. Every single day is different. They are also very exhausting, but very, very different. I like not having to do just one thing, or being pigeon-holed into one area. I like to be able to think across the whole range of issues in my field.
What would you say to anyone young or old about leading a meaningful and useful life? What is your advice?
I’m definitely still trying to figure that out myself. It’s worth thinking about. It’s very easy to lead a star-studded life, or a life where you get lots of kudos from the rest of the world. It’s not necessarily the same as a meaningful life. Meaning is derived internally. Different people find different things meaningful. For instance, a lot of people think my job is glamorous. I do pretty neat things. That’s not the part that gives me meaning at all. But it’s certainly what other people get most excited about–having a fancy advisory board, or working with the director of the Hurt Locker. Really thinking about meaning is worthwhile, because you’d hate to wake up when you’re forty as a Rhodes Scholar, had every opportunity open to you, and not have taken the ones that felt the most meaningful.
What about a useful life?
The two are in constant tension for me. I think about that tension all time. It gets back to that sense very early that I wanted to be useful to world, even during the time when I didn’t like people that much, I chose to be useful to cats and dogs. But meaning is not always derived from usefulness. You can get meaning from your family. You can get meaning from nature.
At my Rhodes interview, they asked me how I was choosing what I wanted to do. I held my arms up in a cross and said first you look at your own nature, who you are as a person, what gives you meaning. And then you look at where you can have the most impact. And you try to find where those points cross. I’m still looking for that, being honest to my own nature and who I am and looking for where my impact can be greatest, where my leverage could be greatest.
Don’t you feel like you’re there yet?
I’m changing, so I certainly don’t feel I’m there. I don’t think it’s ever a finished process. For instance, I’ve become less introverted over time, so it’s easier for me to do external things. I love being on the ground in other countries. When you’re young, you can do a certain amount of good doing that. But unless you’re willing to expend the time learning the language and culture, as you get older and have more roles higher up, you can do less on the ground than you might in policy back in America. Usefulness changes as you do different things and your nature sure changes, so you’re constantly recalibrating where that X crosses.