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Meet My Mentor, Condoleezza Rice: An Exclusive Interview with the Former Secretary of State

By Lila Barton

In August 2012, Levo contributer Lila Barton wrote about how she met her mentor, Condoleezza Rice, while playing golf. (Yes, really!) We are republishing her story in honor of #MayIsForMenotorship Month.

"You will make a difference in the world, but not immediately. Your first obligation is to find something you like doing, because if you like doing it, you'll do it well."

It’s 6:15 am as I walk into the gym to meet my Stanford golf team for our morning workout. The gym is usually quiet at this time; however, one person is finishing up her routine. Dr. Condoleezza Rice works hard in the gym. As we warm up, we watch her do weights, stretch, and end with the VersaClimber, a cardio machine that simulates mountain climbing. It’s brutal.

When Dr. Rice finishes, she always walks by to say hello. At 6:15 am I have to wipe sleep out of my eyes so that I appear awake as I talk to one of the most powerful women in the world. I once asked Dr. Rice how she balances her life in order to fit in early morning workouts. She replied, "I never sacrifice my workout. And I try not to sacrifice too much sleep."

Condoleezza Rice has been surfacing in the headlines recently, as many people want her back in Washington. The role of V.P., or maybe even president, seems like the natural course of a career for someone like her, but she has chosen a different path. At a relatively young age, Dr. Rice has said goodbye to Washington for now. Only she knows whether she’ll ever return. She has made her home back at Stanford University where she is personally impacting the lives of young people, like me.

How It All Began

My relationship with Dr. Rice began my freshman year when I met her at the Stanford golf course. When the spring of my sophomore year arrived and it was time for me to declare my major, I had no idea what I wanted to focus on for my remaining two years. I enrolled in a political science class taught by David Holloway called “The History of Nuclear Weapons,” which turned out to be one of my favorite classes at Stanford. This class, along with my desire to get to know Dr. Rice, inspired me to major in International Relations. Soon after I made this decision, I asked her to be my academic advisor.

After spending the last four years listening to Dr. Rice speak to different groups, studying one-on-one with her to further my knowledge of the Middle East, and spending time with her on the golf course, I want to share with others the mentorship side of Condoleezza Rice. I’ve learned countless lessons through her disciplined and graceful manner, and I’d like to share these lessons with my peers.

I recently sat down with Dr. Rice to talk about how she viewed her career as a college graduate, how she dealt with the pressures of public opinion without losing her confidence, and how she defines success. I walked away with amazing insights. What she told me can help anyone shape their professional journey and lives by taking one step at a time. Her wisdom showed a glimpse of who Condoleezza Rice is behind the scenes: an extremely strong woman who is serious and fun, dedicated and caring.

Lesson 1: Take things one step at a time

This past June, I finished my senior year at Stanford. Every day I’m asked, "What are you going to do with your life?" My simple answer is always, "I'm not quite sure." Fortunately, I have one more quarter in Italy to complete my degree, allowing me more time to delay answering this question. Since I've spent the last four years in Silicon Valley, some people think it’s normal to make a million bucks your first year by either A) scoring the perfect job or B) starting your own company. Obviously, it's not that easy.

My conversation with Dr. Rice, held in her office at Stanford on a typical beautiful and sunny afternoon, began with me, the panicked post-graduate, wondering how in the world I go about designing my life. Her response immediately calmed my nerves.

"First of all," she told me, "recognize that you have a long life ahead of you and things come in stages. You don't have to try to do everything at once. When you're just out of college, the most important thing is to find what's going to be your first job. What is going to be the first set of experiences that will then set you up for either the next job or going on to graduate school."

I've heard similar advice from her before. It was the same advice she gave me when I first talked with her in her office my sophomore year. She's constantly reminding me and other students to take life one-step at a time. Worry less about the future. Tackle the current task that you are facing.

For those of us who are now searching for the place to kick-start our careers, I asked her advice on where to begin. There are many different types of jobs, and it can be overwhelming to tackle the application process. Students often look for a job in the field of their undergraduate studies, which makes sense after spending four years concentrating on a specific interest. Dr. Rice offered a piece of insight that I had never thought of before, and it’s something that shows her desire to isolate and conquer a weakness or problem.

Lesson 2: Target your weaknesses. Manage your time.

Dr. Rice referred to the first job as skills development. The big challenge in today's job market is finding a way to differentiate yourself. Through strengthening your weaknesses and learning the art of presentation, you immediately launch yourself ahead of others.

"You should look for a job that gives you skills that you don’t think you've fully developed. Perhaps writing is not your strong suit. Go ahead and take something that requires you to write. Have a job that allows you to make presentations. For the rest of your life, whether you rise to be the CEO of a company or the Secretary of State, you’re going to be making presentations to people and arguing a position."

Dr. Rice's ability to identify her weaknesses is one that I’ve seen her use on the golf course. She knows exactly which parts of her game need improvement, and I've seen her strengthen these areas over the last four years. Last fall, during one of our rounds at the Stanford golf course, Dr. Rice mentioned that she needed to work on her shots from the sand trap, as well as low shots to get her out of the trees. The basic parts of her game were developing nicely, and she knew she needed the shots to save her from trickier positions if she was going to lower her scores. During her next practice session, we went to our team’s practice facility and worked on these particular shots. After one lesson, her sand game has continued to improve and she can now easily punch it out from under the trees. Targeting her weak spots is also something that she focuses on in her music, propelling her to be an extremely accomplished pianist and chamber musician.

Until she fell in love with international politics in college, Dr. Rice had trained to be a professional pianist. Her favorite composer is Brahms, which she has performed with the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma. She has also performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. This past spring, I decided to perform in the Stanford harp recital. I knew Dr. Rice would be the right person to talk to, as she has performed some of the most difficult pieces without making music her profession. Her advice reflected what I’ve seen her do on the golf course: isolate the part that gives me the most trouble and turn it into one of your strengths. The ability to acknowledge and accept your weaknesses is something that takes a great amount of discipline.

Her discipline shows in her ability to do so much in 24 hours. I once peeked over her secretary’s shoulder to look at the schedule and blinked a few times before I believed my own eyes. Her time is in high demand, yet she finds time to teach students one-on-one and in the classroom, play golf, practice her music, workout, and enjoy football games. Oh, and sleep. She laughed when I asked her about sleep, as I had no idea where she would fit that into her schedule. She smiled and referred to herself as “a pretty good juggler.” She gives credit to her days as a figure skater.

"Having been an athlete helped me. I was a figure skater, so I had to be on the ice at 5 o'clock in the morning. I would skate and then I would go to school. I had to find time to do my homework assignments during school because after school I'd go practice the piano. And if it was competitive season I'd go back to the rink."

Her years of figure skating and piano lessons taught her now to manage her time, and she still plans out every single day. Her ability to succeed at time management comes from diligent planning.

"I do manage my time. If I have a concert coming up, I absolutely know that I’m going to have to find the couple of hours a day to practice, even if it means that I won’t play golf."

She went on to say that she did not wake up one day as a master of time management, but rather it took discipline and practice. Her ability to get the most out of her time has not only allowed her to be successful, but it gives her the opportunity to touch the lives of so many people.

Lesson 3: Broaden your dreams. Narrow your focus.

Dr. Rice was able to use her passions to bring change to the world, impacting over a billion people. As someone about to embark on my post-college adventure, a dream of mine is finding a way to change the world. Many of my friends and peers express the same feeling, and it’s something that drives people to be their best. I asked Dr. Rice how she was able to find the area where she would have the greatest impact, and it came down to focusing on small steps. She also gave the common example of working in your community.

"You'll have plenty of opportunities to make a difference. And you can make a difference by working at a Boys & Girls Club. You’re not going to make a difference being secretary of state for quite a long time in your career, so don’t focus on whether or not what you’re doing in your first job is making a difference to the world. If you’re fortunate, your skills and your talents and what you’re passionate about come together."

When talking to her about impacting the world and defining success, I asked her how she did it. How did she design her career so that her skills, talents and passions came together so perfectly? How did she determine short-term goals to set her down a long-term path?

"I never had long-term goals for my career. It was focusing on shorter and intermediate goals. People make the mistake of focusing on what’s out in the future, rather than what is before you to keep giving you good options, to keep you on track for having been successful at whatever it is that you've done."

She described her path to success by beginning with her studies in international politics. As a young professional, her first step was a job at Stanford. People realized after just a year that she was a good teacher, and she went on to publish her first book a few years later. She explained how her success does not always come overnight, but rather in stages as you succeed at different levels.

"So I was making little steps towards success, and that’s the way it is. You just take little steps, achieve what you can, accomplish what you’re asked to accomplish and before you know it you’ve built a successful career."

Lesson 4: Developing personal confidence at the piano bench.

Part of this success was understanding when to stick with her intuition, despite public opinion, and knowing when it was time to make a change. It’s no secret that we can never earn everyone’s approval. In her recent memoir entitled No Higher Honor, Dr. Rice addressed the importance of focusing on her duties, even while in the media spotlight.

"Today's headlines and history's judgment are rarely the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter."

Dr. Rice faced extremely challenging times, particularly following the September 11th attacks. I asked her how she handled making decisions under the pressure of public opinion, and how she knew when to listen to different opinions. She reminded me that you can’t always be focused on what others think of you, but you have to know when it’s time to make a change if a plan is not working. She relies on discussions with those close to her for guidance.

"You can't constantly be looking back or over your shoulder. People would often ask, what is Plan B? I would say that Plan B is to make Plan A work. But you can't be stubborn if what you've chosen to do isn't working. You have to think about whether or not it’s time to make a change."

After talking about her confidence as secretary of state, I wanted to know more about where she gets her personal confidence. You don't have to be around Dr. Rice very long before you realize that her confidence is inspiring.

"In terms of personal confidence, that’s something you gain over time. You gain it from a successful concert, from a successful tournament, from giving a good presentation in class or to your boss, and it builds up. Confidence comes from learning how to do something, having some expectation that you’re going to do it well, and knowing that if you make a mistake you’re going to recover."

Dr. Rice's confidence has also been broken down when experiences fail. Over time, she has found tricks to prevent this from happening. During our discussion, she told me a story about changing the fingering of a piano piece a few hours before a concert, despite the risk that comes with this change.

"I wasn't confident going into it because I hadn’t practiced it enough. Some of it is preparation. Practicing it. It actually went okay. But I had to have the confidence to say, 'Alright, this isn’t working. I'm going to make this change even if it's a bit risky, but I've been able to do that before.' You have to draw on other times you’ve been able to do it. If the golf shot works five times and not the sixth, you have to stop and say it worked five times. It's going to work the seventh."

After talking with Dr. Rice about searching for a first job, setting short-term and intermediate goals, and managing time and confidence, I still wondered how she puts it all together. She has been able to perform her duties during extremely emotional situations, and I’m sure that takes a toll on her personally. However, I’ve never once heard her say she was tired. She has so much energy and gives so much to the world, therefore she must have some sort of way to recharge.

Lesson 5: Make time for yourself.

One of the hardest things to do is give your self the rest and time to recuperate from your daily life. Whether it’s going on a walk or run, doing yoga, or reading a good book, we all have something that refreshes our minds. For Dr. Rice, it’s Sunday afternoons.

"I would go to church at 11. I’m Presbyterian, so we were done at noon. I’d come home and from noon until 7 o'clock, I’d tried to play the piano, watch the football game or play golf and see my friends, and then at 7 o’clock, I would call back in. I knew if I didn’t have that separation, I would constantly be on the treadmill and that’s bad for you mentally. It makes you less sharp."

This was particularly hard for me in college, and something my close friends struggled with as well. I asked Dr. Rice how she maintains a healthy balance between work and play, and she expressed that it’s not always possible, but it’s something she prioritizes.

"If you don't, you’re cheating yourself. But it’s hard to learn. It takes discipline."

For her personally, it’s almost impossible to rest by sitting in silence, as her mind goes back to whatever she was working on before. It’s important for her to do something that requires focusing on something else.

"If I just try to sit, then my mind doesn’t turn off. I need to focus on something, like the piano or golf. Something that makes you focus on something else."

I've always believed that people offer their best when they are in a good place personally, and allowing time for yourself is key. Even if it’s only a few minutes a day, these few minutes can help you relax and refresh and be better prepared for your daily battles.

My goal with this article is to share a side of Condoleezza Rice that most do not see, but that many can learn from. Her positive attitude, dedication to the country and people she loves, and her desire to see freedom throughout the world, are just a few of her many admirable qualities. What she does behind the scenes, the effort she puts into her daily routine, and her faith make her a hero to many people, especially young women like me.

I love the final words of her memoir. They provide a perfect picture of how she views the world.

"As secretary of state I was always aware of the constraints of the world as it is and resolved to practice the art of the possible. But I also tried not to lose sight of the world as it could be, and insisted on a path toward the end. This is the long-term work of diplomacy. History will judge how well we did. I can live with that, and I am grateful for the chance to have tried."

Watch Rice's exclusive MAKERS story in the video player above.

More From Levo:
• 5 Women in Politics You Need to Know
• Why Aren’t There More Millennials in Politics?
• Why Women Don’t Run for Political Office