By Stacey Vanek Smith
Most people dream of having a conversation with a president or a CEO or their favorite movie star or pro athlete. I dreamed of interviewing Janet Yellen. She was my Beyoncé.
For the last 15 years, I have been a business and economics reporter, first at the public radio show “Marketplace” and now at NPR’s “The Indicator From Planet Money” podcast. And one thing you quickly learn when you cover business and economics is that you spend a lot of time talking to men. Economics is about 75 percent male (and predominantly White).
Don’t get me wrong: Talking to economists is one of my favorite things on earth. I love their ideas, their commitment to data and facts and using those data and facts to make our lives better. But most of these inspiring souls are men. And economics has a long and storied history of excluding women and bullying and harassing those who do stick around.
For a woman, just staying in the job is an extraordinary accomplishment. Achieving superstar status? Almost unheard of. But Janet Yellen managed it. And as I was writing my book, “Machiavelli For Women,” and thinking about women and work and how to navigate some of the difficulties that come up for marginalized workers, my mind kept going to Yellen.
How had she done it? Janet Yellen’s resume is stunning: She headed the team of economic advisers to President Bill Clinton, was the first female chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve and, most recently, became the first female secretary of the treasury.
Not to mention she was the economist who first proposed setting the target inflation rate at 2 percent to the Fed. It was the first time the Fed had made its inflation goals public, and their policies more transparent and predictable, which was quite revolutionary at the time. (In my world, it was the equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile.)
I almost couldn’t believe it when Janet Yellen agreed to speak with me for my book. I barely slept for three days, and I kept writing questions on Post-it notes and sticking them to the walls of my apartment. But mostly I had just one question: How had she done it?
I spoke with Yellen for 1 hour 18 minutes. She was warm and down to earth, and I got my answer. Kind of.
Janet Yellen said that when she was starting out in the field, it was lonely. She was one of just a few women teaching economics at Harvard. The male economists would hang out in a big group, eating lunch together, exchanging ideas, publishing papers. “It was socially isolating,” she recalled. “It wasn’t natural for them to include me … though I thought at the time I was just screwing up.” But Yellen kept going: publishing, teaching, working her way up, and, eventually running the U.S. economy.
What was her great secret? “For me,” she said, “being prepared is the most important thing. Fortify yourself by being as prepared and as knowledgeable as you possibly can. That works to bolster self-confidence. It certainly does for me. And that’s what I do to this day. I do not wing it. I never wing it.”
She did months of preparation before she brought up setting a target inflation rate at a Federal Reserve meeting in 1996. Before that, the government had spent decades just trying to lower inflation. But Janet Yellen thought the Fed should have a target. Inflation is just a fancy term for prices rising, and Yellen thought prices rising a little bit every year was a sign of a healthy economy.
Yellen said her intense preparation inspired a couple of male colleagues to jump in and support the idea when she proposed it at the meeting. (Eventually, the Fed did set a target rate of 2 percent).
Janet Yellen’s other great secret was coping with the less enjoyable parts of her job. (I had read that she didn’t much like public speaking.)
“You often have to do things that are scary at some level,” she said. “You just have to force yourself to face up to it and do it. You have to pull up your socks and do what you were hired to do.”
When I first sat down to write, I wasn’t sure how to say that Yellen’s great secret to success is prep work and embracing all aspects of your job, even the crappy parts. This felt like the equivalent of saying the secret to weight loss is to eat less and exercise more.
But I eventually realized that this was exactly what I had heard from the diverse group of more than 50 womenI had spoken with for the book. I had tended to ignore the obvious and focus on unique anecdotes or surprising tactics, but then it occurred to me that maybe this was something we don’t hear enough.
As a reporter, I am naturally attracted to big flashy moments of progress: awards, emotional speeches, the dramatic takedown of some corrupt CEO … (the idea that you can lose 20 pounds by eating more pineapple and planking for 3 minutes before breakfast).
But so many of the success stories I heard boiled down to slow, sustained efforts; doing a job well — even the crappy parts; trying, failing and trying again; showing up every single day at a workplace where your presence is not necessarily welcome and producing good work.
It reminded me that a lot of the progress that gets made by marginalized workers comes from small, consistent efforts made by people we never hear about. It’s not sexy or even surprising, but the truest things rarely are.
Of course, Janet Yellen owes her amazing success to other things, too: exceptional intelligence, innovative ideas, a collaborative nature, support from her spouse — and certainly, a bit of luck and timing. Still, I think a lot of it came from exactly what she said: working hard, preparing a lot and doing her job every day.
What did I learn from talking to Janet Yellen for 78 minutes? Honestly, nothing that I didn’t already know. And I’ll never forget it.