Stacey Vanek Smith Author Interview

Portrait of Stacey Vanek Smith

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR’s The Indicator from Planet MoneyShe’s also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. She has also worked for Marketplace, where she was a correspondent and fill-in host.

Her new book just hit the shelves: Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn’t wait to talk to Stacey about happiness, work, and habits.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Stacey: Walking in nature (New York’s version of nature, that is.) In my case, it was Prospect Park in Brooklyn, a rather large, rambling park, full of joggers and dog-walkers and parents with strollers and chipmunks and lightning bugs and roller-bladers and giant, leafy trees. I would walk in the park for hours during quarantine. Somehow, no matter how dire things seemed (and they often seemed pretty dire), everything always seemed better after walking in the park. It made such an enormous difference in my state of mind that I have kept it up. I walk in the park most every day and when I don’t (when the siren song of Netflix is too strong) I really feel it.  

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I would tell my 18-year-old self that accomplishing things and getting what you want will not make you happy. (Also: I know you THINK low-rise jeans are a good idea… but they are not.)

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

Reading (and re-reading) Machiavelli’s The Prince (Amazon, Bookshop) and really coming to understand his work was the most surprising thing for me. The Prince was not what I thought it was at all. I had assumed it was a guide to being a power-hungry, soulless, spirit-crushing, megalomaniacal apex-predator. But in fact, Machiavelli’s intellectual through line in The Prince is clarity, that is, the ability to look clearly at a situation (without emotion), assess it and adapt your behavior in order to get your desired outcome. Instead of getting mired down in what ‘ought to be’ or enraged at injustices or wrongdoing, you simply observe what is going on and handle it the best you can: “Since it is my intention to say something which will be of practical use,” he writes “I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined.” It is the honesty and clarity of Machiavelli’s observations about human beings, leadership and power that have made his book timeless (and so controversial). 

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Smoking! Marlboro Lights, half a pack a day for five years. I tried everything to quit, but nothing seemed to work. I got to a point where I had basically given up ever quitting (I tried patches, gum, books, meditation, cold turkey, herbal cigarettes etc) and I finally managed to quit using advice from a friend of mine. She told me I was being too hard on myself (which was very confusing to me: “You mean, I can’t quit smoking because I’m so angry at myself for smoking?!”) But it was the thing that worked. When I would have a craving or when I was at the store within arm’s reach of cigarettes I would pause and say to myself: “OK. If I really really need a cigarette, I will buy them. Do I really need one right now?” Amazingly, the internal permission proved to be very powerful. I spent many cumulative hours parked outside the 7-11 in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles having this conversation with myself. That move away from being so angry and frustrated at myself and toward a more relaxed, permissive approach worked. I haven’t smoked in nearly 15 years.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I was sure I would be an Obliger, but the quiz says I’m an Upholder. This does make a lot of sense. I am very hard-working and reliable and people like having me on their teams. But I have trouble delegating and I think I can be hard on the people I work with—I have trouble letting go of things or not thinking the way I want to do things is… correct. This sentence in the description of Upholder resonated with me: “There’s a relentless quality to Upholder-ness, which can be tiring both to Upholders and the people around them.” Pretty sure my co-workers would agree with this!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

Work. I tend to totally pour myself into my work and will let other parts of my life go. I am very good at going on vacation, though. I just have to make sure I actually take vacation, which I’m less good at.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I’ve had a few lightning bolts in my life, to be sure. One big one happened when I was 30. I had just been promoted to the position of Editor at the radio show where I was working. The trouble was, I wanted to be a reporter. In other words, I was part of the way up a (very cool) ladder that I was not interested in reaching the top of. I had been applying for reporting jobs at this company for years (and staying late to report pieces—so I *was on the air quite a bit) but when I applied for reporting jobs, I never even got an interview. Finally, after four years, I went to the boss of the company and asked him why I wasn’t being considered for reporting positions. He said my work was solid, but that it lacked “specialness” (still digesting that one!) and the jobs were very competitive. I was devastated and I did what any mature, adult woman would do when facing a professional crisis: I called my mom.

“It sounds like you need to quit, sweetie,” she said. I was floored. My mom was not the “throw caution to the wind” type and public radio freelancing definitely seemed windy. So, I told her what I felt: That there was no WAY I could quit. I was already 30—“Editor” sounded respectable and like a thing I could proudly tell people. Saying I was a freelancer sounded… unemployed and like I’d failed. I told her that I thought it would be too hard to tell people that I was 30 and basically unemployed. My mom said: “Do you think it will be easier when you’re 31?” That was a lightning bolt. I still remember where I was standing when she said it.

That day I started saving up money to quit, which I did 6 months after that conversation. I realize how lucky I was to be able to do this at all. I would never have been able quit if I hadn’t been incredibly privileged on many fronts: I didn’t have dependents or family members counting on my income; I didn’t have a lot of debt; and I made enough money that I could save up and have a little nest egg to get me through a lean time. A lot of people don’t have those advantages and even though I did have every advantage, it still took every bit of courage I had inside of me to do it. Looking back, I can honestly say it was the best career move I have ever made. It changed my life. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

There is a quote from the poet Rainer Marie Rilke that I love and that I have put on Post-It’s in different places around my apartment: “Life is always right.” I think it contains profound wisdom and it always relaxes me when I see it. I actually think Rilke and Machiavelli would very much agree on that point. I am a person who can get very caught up in ideas of justice. If something seems unfair, I often cannot let it go and I will obsess about it. What this quote reminds me is that I can waste all of my time and energy raging against reality… but reality is reality. My opinions about it will not make it any less real. It is the present moment and it is the situation in front of me. It is so much better for me (in so many ways) to use my energy and mind to deal with the situation rather than being angry at it. And, it’s also much more likely that I can change that situation if I’m not worn out from raging against it. 

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

So many! Very, very much including The Happiness Project. [Aww, thanks Stacey!] As far as this book I have written is concerned, I would have to say Loving What Is, by Byron Katie (Amazon, Bookshop). (I really wanted to give a very literary answer, but the truth is probably more useful). I saw Byron Katie interviewed by Oprah years ago and there was a part of that interview that completely changed the way I saw conflict and negotiating. During this part of the interview, Byron Katie and Oprah did a role-playing exercise having to do with people asking Oprah for money all the time (it was something Oprah was struggling with).

In the exercise, Oprah was being a friend asking for money. Bryon Katie said, “You know, thank you for asking and no.”

Oprah (as her family friend) came back with: “I can’t believe with all that you have and you’re helping other people all the time, that you won’t give me $100,000.”

Byron Katie came back with: “I know. It sounds nuts doesn’t it? But it feels right to me.”

During the whole exchange, Byron Katie was calm, warm and compassionate. To me, that moment was a revelation—it is truly the centerpiece for how I approach negotiating in my book: There’s often an idea that a negotiation is adversarial and that asking for more or drawing boundaries or pushing back in a situation needs to be aggressive. The truth is, it doesn’t. You can just say ‘no.’ Or ‘I need X amount of money.’ A negotiation does not have to be high noon. I have traditionally been terrible at negotiating and asking for more exactly because I thought of negotiations as high noon. Realizing there was another way, was a huge intellectual shift for me. As much as I love a good Western, I do not think it’s the best approach for a negotiation (unless Clint Eastwood is somehow involved and then it’s a fantastic idea). 

What that moment and Loving What Is made me realize: Negotiation does not have to involve conflict. If you know what you need and do the proper preparation, there does not have to be any tension or stress in a conversation where you are asking for more. If you truly know your boundaries and your needs and are secure in them, getting angry and yelling and kicking up dust is not necessary.  

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

One big one: Women are to blame for getting paid less because they don’t negotiate. This is a very common story that really bothers me. The worst part is, it’s true! BUT, in this case, the truth is very complicated and, in reality, women are making practical and logical choices. The truth is, people don’t like it when women ask for more for themselves. I believe change is possible (and so important!) but I also think it’s important to move out of a mentality that women getting paid less, promoted less and getting fewer resources is because women are failing or because they’re lazy or wimpy. The truth is, women who ask for more money in a negotiation are automatically considered less desirable to work with. When women ask for more, it can cause a backlash and lingering resentment that is worth far more than $5,000 a year. There are absolutely solutions to this and ways to minimize this backlash, but, truly, when women don’t negotiate or hesitate to do so, it is not because they lack courage or are lazy. It is because they see a situation that has a very uncertain upside and very real downside. And they are not wrong! 

Anything else you’d like to highlight from the book?

One of my favorite moments in the book came from AI super-genius Vivenne Ming. She has studied happiness, purpose and courage (along with many other things). But one thing she told me is something I think of most every day. She said, “Courage isn’t something you just have. It isn’t something you are. It’s something you practice and that practice is brutally hard. I think most of my life is about structuring it to be as easy as possible to be as courageous as possible, because I’m not that good at it.” For the record, I think Vivienne is VERY good at courage, but the idea that courage is a practice and that you can make choices in your life that make it easier to be courageous (to be the person you want to be) is very interesting to me. I think that is one of the keys to being the person you want to be (that and NEVER wearing low-rise jeans).



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