Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Madeleine Albright (@madeleine), a professor, author, diplomat, and businesswoman who served as the 64th secretary of state of the United States. In 1997, she was named the first female secretary of state and became, at that time, the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government. From 1993 to 1997, Dr. Albright served as the US permanent representative to the United Nations and was a member of the president’s cabinet. She is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Dr. Albright is chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and chair of Albright Capital Management, LLC, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets.
She also chairs the National Democratic Institute, serves as the president of the Truman Scholarship Foundation, and is a member of the US Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board. In 2012, she was chosen by President Obama to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of her contributions to international peace and democracy.
Dr. Albright is a seven-time New York Times best-selling author. Her most recent book, Hell and Other Destinations, was published in April, 2020. Her other books include Madam Secretary: A Memoir, her autobiography; The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs; Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership; Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box; Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948; and Fascism: A Warning.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Secretary Albright, welcome to the show.
Madeleine Albright: Great to be with you. Thanks.
Tim Ferriss: I am so thrilled to have you on the show, and I want to offer a few introductory remarks that will help me feel better about anything I might make a mistake with later. I will apologize in advance if I make any types of statements that need to be corrected by you because I’m so far outside of my area of expertise with anything related to, I’d say 90 percent of your background. So that just as way of introductory comment.
And I thought we could start at the beginning. I do love stories. You have no shortage of stories. And I thought we could begin with the cellar in Notting Hill and the green paint. And that’s not going to mean much to a lot of my listeners, but could you provide context for why that has a special memory and has a special place in your mind?
Madeleine Albright: Well, it was during World War II. And we were in London during The Blitz. And in order to provide context, my father was a Czechoslovak diplomat. And when the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he, my mother, and I managed to escape. And he went to London in order to join the government in exile. I was two years old. And we first lived in a bunch of different places, but ended up in this apartment house in Notting Hill Gate before it was fancy. And it had been an apartment house basically, as I understood, built for refugees. And what happened was that during The Blitz, the bombing, we went down to the cellar which was supposed to be the air-raid shelter, and spent the night there. And I remember my father at some point saying, “Well, we have to go down there, but it’s full of hot water pipes and gas pipes. So it’s not exactly safe if the building is bombed.” But we went down there.
So what did happen when I was writing one of my books, Prague Winter, I went back to visit everything to kind of get a sense of where it was. And obviously the apartment was a lot smaller than I remembered it. And I remember asking the superintendent of the building was the cellar still there and he looked at me like, “Are you crazy? Of course the cellar’s there.” So we went down to the cellar, and I immediately had one of those recollections that there was this ugly green paint down there. And it was the same ugly green paint that I remember from World War II. So really kind of weird. But it was interesting to be there in that apartment house, which was full of refugees at the time. And then to think about where it’s now located in Kensington Park Road, a pretty fancy part of London.
Tim Ferriss: What are your strongest memories of your father?
Madeleine Albright: Well, I have many, many of them because he was a dominant personality in my life. But my strongest memories are that when we came to the United States and he became a professor at the University of Denver, all we ever talked about was foreign policy. But the strongest memory, which really goes to the kind of person he was. He had been a diplomat. He had been an ambassador in Yugoslavia. We came to the United States. We were refugees. My mother went to work in the Denver Public Schools as a secretary. And my father was a professor at home. So Ambassador Korbel washing dishes and cleaning house. He and I used to do that, but together, and what an incredible person he was in order to be able to make the abnormal seem normal. And he was obviously the major force in my life. But all of a sudden from being an ambassador, he’s washing dishes. But the thing always about him was that he smoked a pipe. So the pipe was always there.
Tim Ferriss: Now to, to most people listening, or I shouldn’t say most, but certainly if I think back to my childhood, politics was something that I really only observed in the context of my father getting into maybe dinnertime arguments with a visiting uncle, something like that. So there wasn’t much nuance to it for my experience, let’s just say. But when you say foreign policy was this ever-present topic of discussion, what might that look like as a young woman or as a girl sitting at the dinner table? What does that conversation, or what might that conversation look like?
Madeleine Albright: Well, it’s about America’s position in the world and what has to happen. But I need to go back a little further so that there’s a little context. So we were in England during the war, and I was little. And then we went to Yugoslavia in 1945 when I was eight years old, and my father was the ambassador. And you’ve probably seen pictures of little girls in airports in their national costume. That’s what I did for a living. I gave flowers to people at the airport.
And then there would be people that would come to the embassy, foreign ministers and ambassadors. And then one time, the ruler of Yugoslavia was Marshal Tito and I gave him flowers. So I grew up in this kind of a sense of who are these people? What is their role? Czechoslovakia was a small country. Why were we in Yugoslavia? So this was a constant teaching about what was history. And how did that evolve to current foreign policy. Because he was a professor, there always was this historical context.
So then we come to the United States and we’re refugees. And we’re living in Denver. And my father was teaching for international relations. And it was 1948, ’49, ’50, during the Cold War. So the conversation was always about democracy, believe it or not. Kind of how fragile it is, how important America was in the role. And when America was absent, terrible things happened. So I grew up with this kind of sense about talking what America’s role in the world was.
And then I went, believe it or not, when I went to high school, I would create an international relations club and make myself president of it. And make sure that I went to a small private school, that all the girls there had to come and listen to me talk about foreign policy. So it was basically about relations in the world, the United Nations, and what America was doing and fighting communism. That’s what I grew up with.
Tim Ferriss: So looking at your history, you seem to, on one hand, have been operating in sixth gear for many, many, many decades. I mean, the homework that I’ve done just in and of itself is kind of exhausting. And also fascinating, but it’s hard to believe one person has done so much. And then on the other hand, I’ve read, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but that you felt like you were in some ways 10 years behind at points because of decisions that you made and how long it took for you to get your PhD. Could you speak to the latter sentiment?
Madeleine Albright: Absolutely. The thing, you have to put yourself back. I kid about this, it just happens to be true that I went to college sometime between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire. So it was a long time ago. And even though I went to a women’s college, Wellesley, we had all the leadership roles and I was one of the editors of my newspaper. And I had wanted to be a journalist.
And then what happened was that, this is also old fashioned, I met the man that I married. There was this thing where somebody in a fraternity gave you his fraternity pin, kind of pre-engagement. So I was pinned. So our graduation speaker was the Secretary of Defense at the time because his daughter was in our class. And we all kind of remember the commencement speech differently, but the basic wording was, “Your main responsibility is to get married and raise children.” So I waited a long time to get married — three days after graduation.
But I did want to be a journalist. And when my husband was in the Army, I worked on a small newspaper in Rolla, Missouri. And then we moved to Chicago where he had a job on a newspaper. We’re having dinner with his managing editor, and he looks at me and he says, “So what are you going to do, honey?” And I said, “I’m going to work for a newspaper.” And he said, “I don’t think so. You can’t work on the same paper as your husband because of labor regulations.” And even though there were three other papers in Chicago at the time, he said, “You wouldn’t want to compete with your husband, so go find something else to do.”
So I actually saluted and found another job at Encyclopedia Britannica. I usually tell young people that it’s a book. And I had a lot of fun because newspaper columns have space at the bottom, and I would look up factoids and send them in to the newspapers.
And then we moved to Long Island and I was pregnant. And I had twins and I had them prematurely, and had to leave them in the hospital. So I started taking Russian, and that made me want to go back to school. So when the twins, when we moved to Washington and the twins were a year old, I started going to graduate school.
But because I was trying to combine everything, I got a master’s and a PhD. And I didn’t get my dissertation finished until 1975, ’76. So it took a very long time, and I didn’t have my first real job job except for the one in the newspaper until I was 39 years old. Which meant that I was actually more than 10 years older than everybody else on Capitol Hill. And that 10-year difference has kind of stayed with me all through my career.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to come back to the twins and the premature birth. So just as a quick side note, I was actually also born premature. Six or so weeks premature, on Long Island myself. So I was on the receiving end so to speak, in the NICU for quite a long period of time. But that’s not my comment, I suppose is more of a question. And that is how did you choose Russian? Why did you choose Russian?
Madeleine Albright: Well first of all, I have to ask you, were you born in Nassau County Hospital in Mineola?
Tim Ferriss: No, I was born in Suffolk.
Madeleine Albright: So what happened was I’m Czechoslovak, and that is a Slavic language. And I always wanted to learn Russian because partially I was interested in international relations and particularly interested in the Cold War and a number of aspects. And it didn’t make sense to take first-year Russian at Wellesley because the Slavic languages are similar. But I couldn’t take second-year Russian because I didn’t know the alphabet.
And what happened frankly, this also goes back into old time. One of the things that happened in the ’60s, they didn’t have sonograms at that time. And I was fat. And the doctors were really nasty and they said, “You’re so fat, you can’t eat, and you have to walk all the time.” So we were living on Long Island and I was walking around having drunk some — Metrecal was this diet drink — and a lot of coffee. And all of a sudden I saw that Hofstra College was offering Russian for eight hours a day for eight weeks. And I thought, well in the summer. And I thought well I can’t do that because these children, I didn’t know I was having twins actually for a long time. But not due until in August. Then they appeared prematurely in June. I had to leave them in the incubators. So that’s when I took Russia. So I had so much fun surprising my father when he came to visit and talking to him in Russian.
But I just have to tell you the problem with the language is there’s always a story about a Czechoslovak military person after World War II who went to Russia and he wanted to tell them that they had a beautiful life. So he said [phrase in Czech], which in Russian means “You have a red stomach.” Which is the reason that you can’t just go from one Slavic language to another.
Tim Ferriss: When you then had your first job job at 39, could you describe for people what that was and what in your experience contributed to landing you in that job?
Madeleine Albright: Well, my story just generally is how one thing led to another. So just to give you a little bit of context, when we came to Washington, what had happened was we first came in ’62, ’63 then moved back to Long Island when I did most of my work on my PhD. And then came back to Washington in 1968, and I was working on my dissertation, and my twins were in second grade. And I had another, a little baby with that.
So I’d began to do a bunch of other things, volunteer work. And I became chairman of the board of a private school in Washington, associated with the National Cathedral. And I got a reputation for being able to fundraise.
So the thing that happened literally was the person that I had fundraised with was a man from Maine. And then in 1972, when Ed Muskie was running for president, this man had been asked to do … by the way, this will blow your mind. It was the most expensive fundraiser ever given in Washington at $125 a person.
So he asked me to co-chair with him. And then what happened was that the whole thing had been undermined by the dirty tricks of Nixon. It’s a long story, so that was my first experience with that. And then I did a bunch of different fundraising while, and volunteer work while I was finishing my dissertation.
And then when President Carter, Governor Carter was running, and I was with Ed Muskie, who at the time was one of the vice presidential candidates. Actually that’s when Walter Mondale became the vice presidential candidate. And somebody from Ed Muskie’s staff went to work with him. So Muskie asked me to come and be on a staff. And having the PhD made a difference because then he could say, “This is Dr. Albright,” rather than “my friend Madeleine.” And I became his chief legislative assistant. So that’s how one thing led to another.
And then the other big leap that was interesting, I had gone to Columbia. One of my professors was Zbigniew Brzezinski. And President Carter names him as his national security advisor. So Brzezinski calls me up and he said, “Madeleine, perhaps you’ve heard that I’ve been named national security advisor.” And I said, “Yes, I have.” And he said, “Well, can you find me a place to live?” And I said, “Geez Big, I thought you were calling to offer me a job.” And he said, “No, I’m calling to ask you to find me a place to live.” So I found him a place to live, but two years later he did offer me a job. So I went to work at the National Security Council for President Carter. But my whole life is like one thing leading to another. And that’s why when people ask me how things happen, and do you have the background to do it? I was dependable. When somebody asked me to do something, I actually did it. And I didn’t think things were beneath me. And I loved every minute of it and one thing led to another. So it worked out.
Tim Ferriss: It seems like you’re also very good at the ask. And if we look at fundraising, I mean that is a valuable skill in so many different areas. What made you a good fundraiser?
Madeleine Albright: I think what made me was that I believed in what I was fundraising for. And when I started out, it was the school which was easy. And then the candidates that I’ve raised money for are people that I really believe in. And I love politics. So I can explain what the policies are and what the connection is, and why you need to have X person elected. So it really is something that I’m not asking for money for myself, and I think that makes a difference. I’m really doing it on behalf of either causes or people that I believe in.
Tim Ferriss: And why did, after finding housing for your former professor, did you get offered a job two years later? Did you follow up? Did he find a memo with your name and contact information two years later? How did that come to pass?
Madeleine Albright: It’s interesting, and life is really crazy. Because I was an older student, he and I became friends and I also became friends with his wife who was a couple of years older than I am. And believe it or not, is Czech. She was the niece of the president of Czechoslovakia, Beneš. She had also gone to Wellesley. So we had kind of just got to know each other as we say socially. I have a farm, and they would come out to the farm.
And then also, I did begin to, what was interesting, Brzezinski wanted me to help with foreign policy issues on Capitol Hill. So I think he asked around about what was I doing. And they wanted to make sure that this had to do with the Panama Canal and a number of different issues that were foreign policy issues during the Carter administration. He wanted to have somebody that understood Congress and understood foreign policy.
So because my life really is crazy, he asked me to come down to the White House, and I’m sitting in his office. And who walks in but Walter Mondale? So Brzezinski says to Walter Mondale, “I’m interviewing Madeleine to see whether she wants to come and do congressional relations for me.” And Mondale says, “And you couldn’t do better than that.” Because one of the things I had done on fundraising was when Muskie didn’t win the Democratic nomination in ’72, McGovern did. And I didn’t know any of the McGovern people, but I knew the Mondale people. And Mondale was, he had been appointed a Senator and then he was running for the Senate. So they asked me to come and help him. So I was in the only happy place for a Democrat in November ’72 was in Minneapolis, Walter Mondale. And I had raised money for his campaign. So it literally, there’s always some connection of one thing to another. Which is why as I say, I always tell people, “Do what you’ve been asked to do because your reputation follows you everywhere.”
Tim Ferriss: When did Georgetown and teaching come into the picture?
Madeleine Albright: What happened was I live in Georgetown, about two blocks away from the university. And when I was doing my research for my dissertation and various things, I’d go to the library there. And then also, what happened was that I was in the Carter administration until we left in 1981. There was a man that was dean of the school. And believe it or not, he was somebody that was a student at Harvard when I was at Wellesley. And he had married one of my college classmates. That was one connection. And then another one that was another dean there had been in the intelligence community during the Carter administration. And we had somehow crossed paths.
And what had happened was that Georgetown was a single-sex school. And when it went coed, they didn’t have that many women professors. So I was actually initially funded by a foundation to be a role model. To work in a coed situation with women students. So that’s what I was hired to do. I did have a PhD, but I’d never taught. And I then ultimately went on tenure track there and taught regular courses.
And to speak of what one thing led to another, so I did work for various democratic presidential candidates, and one was Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts. So this man who was the governor of Arkansas comes up to Boston in order to prepare Michael Dukakis for the debates. And it was Bill Clinton, and we had the Georgetown connection.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about that Georgetown first chapter of teaching for just a moment. I’ve read, and you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, so feel free to confirm or deny. But that you found teaching at least at times, difficult and lonely. I don’t know if that’s true. But could you describe what your first few weeks or few months of teaching were like?
Madeleine Albright: Yes. And I want to go back to something of my father washing dishes, because it all fits. One of the things when we came to the United States, as I said, my mother was a secretary in the public schools. And she would work, get up early, go downtown, come home, was exhausted. And we’d do the dishes. And my father was a professor. And I so well remember saying, “Mother works so hard and you only teach three hours a couple of times a week.”
So all of a sudden, I become a professor and I realize that that is not the story. And that you really have to work hard in terms of teaching and obviously doing all the research. But you do do it alone ultimately, you’re standing up in front of a class by yourself. And there were a couple of things I team taught, but mostly I did it by myself. And you are then responsible for what you are telling people and teaching, and you have to base it on facts. I don’t think you can brainwash or bluff people when you’re teaching. And it is lonely in that particular way.
So for me also, there was an additional part. I had just been divorced. And it was the first time that I could talk about I instead of we and trying to get used to being in an entirely different setting professionally. I mean, it really was different than being on Capitol Hill. So it was a combination of doing a lot of very different things all of a sudden and getting used to an independent life. My kids were, I mean my youngest daughter was at home, but the others had gone off to college. So it was a matter of having a very, very different life. I loved it in the end, but it took me a while to not be nervous teaching and try to figure out how to be with this whole new group of people.
Tim Ferriss: At that point in time when you were teaching, did you have a long-term plan for your career and you knew that your teaching would likely end at a certain point in time? Or were you, for each of these chapters, more doing the best job you could and assuming that doors would open as a result of doing the best job you could? I’d just love to hear how you thought about doing what was in front of you versus, or maybe in combination with longer-term planning at that point in your life.
Madeleine Albright: I have to tell you frankly, there was no longer-term planning. What I thought, I liked the teaching because I liked the subjects. We’ve already made this clear, that I’m the perfect daughter. And I always did whatever my father wanted me to do. And he used to say the following thing regularly when we came to the United States. He said, “There is nothing better than being a professor in a free country.”
So I thought great, I’m teaching international relations. I was teaching classes to some graduates and some undergraduates in terms of US-Soviet relations or things that really made a lot of sense for what I had trained for. I liked it. There were a lot of good people there. But one of the things about Georgetown is it is a school of international relations, school of foreign service. That also likes when their professors are, they call them practitioners, people that have been in the government. So it didn’t seem out really crazy when I was asked to, I worked in the Mondale-Ferraro campaign. I traveled with Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman vice-presidential candidate. And I would do political things while I also was teaching. So I was able to kind of combine the various things I wanted to do.
I thought I would be teaching for as long as I could. But I also at some stage hoped I would be in the government again. I didn’t know what, but I clearly worked in campaigns with the idea that at some point, I might be in the government again. But it never occurred to me at the kind of level that I ended up.
Tim Ferriss: So at that point in time when you’re thinking to yourself at some point, I would like to go back into government, when you were just maybe daydreaming or ruminating over a glass of tea, or wine, or coffee, or what have you, what was perhaps the biggest dream that you dare dream for yourself in government at that point in time? Was there any sort of pinnacle, hypothetically speaking that you had in your mind?
Madeleine Albright: Well, not really. I mean, I thought I wanted to do something interesting. And I saw myself perhaps as an assistant secretary of state. I didn’t actually want to be an ambassador because I liked living in the United States. And then there was a certain moment when there had been a woman deputy secretary of state. And I remember some passing thought that goodness, that would be nice. But it never occurred to me that I would have a really high-level job. What did happen was, and then this is so funny. I had worked in practically every presidential campaign in some role or another. The only one I really didn’t work in was Bill Clinton’s. And the reason was that at that time I was also, by the way, I’d never do just one thing. I was also the president of a think tank, the Center for National Policy, which was bipartisan. So I did that during the ’92 campaign. And again, because there’s always some connection. One of my students from Georgetown was working for Bill Clinton. So all of a sudden, she sends me this memo where he had won the presidency, and a memo with people’s names that should be in the administration. And the only name that was checked off was mine. So I thought well, that’s interesting.
I then was asked to run the transition for the National Security Council when president Clinton won. So I was the first person to come into the White House, and I went back and worked at the National Security Council area, which I had left in 1981. And I worked on that transition, which is when I was trying to, I knew I’d get something but I didn’t know what.
So what happened is it was already December 5th and nobody had called me. And I went to work on a Sunday and I kept checking my phone every five minutes. And Warren Christopher, who was running the transition, there was a message saying, “Where have you been? Call.” So I called him and he said, “Get your taxes and go and see this man Chuck Ruff and get yourself vetted and come down to Little Rock tomorrow, and don’t tell anybody you’re coming.” So that’s what happened.
Tim Ferriss: So I’d like to ask your help defining a few terms. That for people who are not immersed in politics, they might in fact have some difficulty defining. The first, maybe I’ll lead with this is a quote that I enjoyed and you can tell me if this is accurate or not. But this is from a speech at Harvard Forum apparently. “When we’re trying to solve difficult national issues, it’s sometimes necessary to talk to adversaries as well as friends. Historians have a word for this: diplomacy.”
So I ruminated on that a bit. I enjoyed that, but I realized that perhaps taking a step even further backwards. How should people who are politically naive think about politics? I know this might seem like a stupid question, but what are politics or how do you encourage people to think of what that means?
Madeleine Albright: Well, politics is really the way people talk to their governments. If you go back and you look at the Greek and Roman philosophers, it is the language that you have in order to express your views to the leaders of a country.
So part of all of, whether it’s politics, or diplomacy, or whatever, is partially being able to express what you want to the powers that be. And I’m very glad you asked about diplomacy because I have to tell you, I now do teach at Georgetown now. And I say foreign policy is just trying to get some country to do what you want. That’s all it is. What are the tools? So my course is called the National Security Tool Box. And there’re not a lot of tools in the tool box. And the major ones are diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral. And then economic tools like trade, and aid, and sanctions. And then various ways of talking about the use of force and intelligence. And now I’ve added cyber.
So the diplomacy, and it’s very interesting because there’re all kinds of great definitions of diplomacy. And that it is the language that was used by noblemen that were representing their countries during the monarchies, etc. And then there are all the kind of sarcastic ones like it’s lying on behalf of your country.
Or one of my favorite ones is actually from one of my former colleagues, the French foreign minister. Who said it is the way that you can have a language to talk to monsters. So the bottom line, it is the language that is there in order to talk about your nation’s national interest with somebody who’s trying to talk about theirs.
And one of the things that I do in class is it’s absolutely essential to put yourself into the shoes of the person that you’re talking to. To know what it is they want. And diplomacy is the way to find out.
Tim Ferriss: So is diplomacy in effect another word for negotiation without use of the other tools in the toolkit, or is it verbal negotiation in conjunction with the other tools in the toolkit that you’ve mentioned?
Madeleine Albright: Well the way I teach the class, it is the way to talk. But you do need to think about the other tools. And the art of statecraft frankly is trying to figure out how you combine the tools. And I think the hard part, and it’s at basis of what you’re asking, which is: do you talk to people that you disagree, countries that you disagree with? And how do you get through talking about things you agree with before you get to the ones you disagree with, what kind of order you put it in? But it’s a tool, it’s how to talk. And then you figure out how to use the other tools with it. But it is the most bread and butter of the tools. It is the basic aspect of it. And countries, even that don’t have a lot of strong economies or nobody cares whether they trade with them or not, they still have diplomats and diplomacy. So the language is what it is.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to delve into a subject that no doubt you’ve spoken about ad nauseam. So I’m going to apologize in advance. But a number of my friends were insistent, male and female. They wanted to know how you thought about navigating, say, entering a room with foreign leaders who are accustomed to dealing with male representatives. Perhaps they have vodka and cigars, and any number of other sort of expectations as to what their interactions would normally look like with the foreign emissaries. And I apologize if this isn’t a good question, but I’m also curious if that was intimidating or how you thought about navigating those waters.
Madeleine Albright: Well, let me just say that all the jobs I’ve had where I’ve basically been the only woman. That’s the 10-year part. Whether I was on Capitol Hill or then came to the White House. And there were not a lot of women around. And one of the things that when I started teaching, having been in the Carter White House, I was trying to explain to my coed groups basically that you wouldn’t have had this experience.
But women, when you’re there in a room by the only one, you think to yourself, “Well, I’d like to say something.” And then you think, “No, it’ll sound stupid.” So then you don’t say it. And then some man says it and everybody thinks it’s brilliant, and you’re really mad at yourself for not having said something.
So with that experience, I go and teach. And I develop my own little saying, which is women have to learn to interrupt. And if you’re going to interrupt, there’s a different process I called it active listening where you’re going to say something. But you have to know what you’re talking about and you have to have a strong voice to do it. So I said to my students, both the men and the women, that nobody in the class could raise their hands. That they all had to interrupt. My classes were a bit of a zoo. So I have this whole mantra.
So then I get to the UN in, I’m sorry, in ’93. And I’m a member of the UN Security Council. And the only woman, there are 15 members and there are 14 men sitting there staring at me. And I think to myself well, I don’t think I’ll talk today. It’s not all in that fancy room. There’s kind of a back room. And I thought I’ll see if they like me or if they respect me. And then all of a sudden I see the sign in front of me that says United States. And I thought to myself, if I don’t speak today, the voice of the United States will not be heard.
So after all that tutoring, I had that experience and I did learn to talk. And it helps if you’re the United States at that particular time. But it’s not easy. So you try to figure out what the best way is.
So when my name came up to be Secretary of State, somebody said, “Yeah, well a woman can’t be Secretary of State because the Arab leaders won’t deal with a woman.” So what happened was the Arab ambassadors at the UN got together and they said, “We had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright. We wouldn’t have any trouble dealing with Secretary Albright.” So that went away. Then somebody at the White House, and I never want to know who said, “Yeah, Madeleine’s on the list, but she’s second tier.” So I was sure that I would never get the job. So it was intimidating in that particular way.
But I now know, I have to tell you this story. Once I was Secretary of State, what happened often was that first lady Hillary Clinton and President Clinton and I would travel together, and we’d be abroad somewhere at an embassy. And I would introduce her and she would introduce him.
So then he told this story that during this period of the great mentioning, that Hillary would come to him and say, “Why wouldn’t you name Madeleine? She is most in tune with your views, expresses them better than anybody else, and besides, it would make your mother happy.” So this is how it happened.
Tim Ferriss: I have a number of follow-up questions. The first is about the art of interruption. There must be a spectrum of ways to interrupt going from the very indelicate and damaging, to the more subtle and artful. What are good ways to interrupt? Or if you looked at your students, they’re not allowed to raise their hands. What are the better ways to interrupt?
Madeleine Albright: Well, I think that the best way is if it actually is germane to what they’re talking about. And you really do know that you want to say something. And you begin talking. I think one of the parts that I still do, which I also think is a mistake, is to say, “I’m so sorry to interrupt.” Or, “I apologize.” I mean, you begin by some introduction and you think, why would anybody want to listen to you? But you can’t make a total habit of it.
So I do think that what was important that I learned at the UN, and by the way, this is very interesting when you’re the United States and you actually are in a meeting and you’re supposed to raise the sign in front of you and you get called on. And whether as the United States you speak first to kind of set the debate, or last to summarize, or sometimes just in the middle in order not to be the one that does everything. So it was interesting in that time trying to figure out when I would speak and what kind of tone.
But it wouldn’t always be to disagree. I think one of the things is to find out what, I mean, you’re an instructed ambassador. So when are you going to say what you’re supposed to say? And I teach my students this because we do game simulations now. Who are your allies? So you say, “Well as the ambassador of Morocco just said, I would like to,” etc., etc.
But there were times when I was secretary and I’d have a particularly unpleasant meeting. And I was being lectured to. That is one of the things that often happens if you’re a woman Secretary of State even. And I was in Serbia, and the President Milosevic was lecturing me about the Serbs. And I said, “I know about the Serbs. You don’t have to tell me about the Serbs.” So you sometimes have to just tell it like it is.
Or what would happen, I have to tell you. When you go someplace and the other person keeps talking, and you have something you want to this country to do and say, I would say, “I have come a long way, so I must be frank.” And then I would start talking.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s a great line. I have a quote again, and maybe accurate or inaccurate, so please do let me know. And I’ll set the stage for reading it, which is you’ve interacted with many, many powerful figures of all different types of both genders. And the quote that I have here, and you can tell me if it’s a real one or not, is from Time Magazine, I think from 2006. And it’s, “I’m not a person who thinks the world would be entirely different if it was run by women. If you think that, you’ve forgotten what high school was like.” Is that a quote of yours? And if so, could you elaborate on what is meant by that?
Madeleine Albright: It is accurate. Because I do think that there’s always, as the mother of three daughters and having been in high school myself. High school is actually pretty nasty. In girl schools. And we all did that. So there are cliques and all kinds of things. So I happen to believe that the world is better off when men and women work together. I do think that we have a different approach to things. And this is kind of, I don’t want to generalize too much. But basically I think women, we’re very good at multitasking because we have to in order to exist. And also to kind of take care of the family and make sure that children don’t fight. And that kind of a way of trying to find compromise in some ways.
I think men have the capability of thinking deeper about one subject different than the multitasking. Women have more peripheral vision as a result of that. And I also think that for a woman to get ahead, you kind of have to be nice to people and not think about yourself all the time. I think men have a different way of pushing themselves forward. Women are not like that. But I do think that there are capabilities, and the world is better when we can work together. That’s what I’ve enjoyed.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for elaborating on that. I’d like to ask about your birth name and how it changed. I know this seems like a non-sequitur, but hopefully I’ll be able to tie this together somewhat. But what is your birth name, or what was your birth name?
Madeleine Albright: But I have to tell you this story, which is that when President Clinton came in and there was a cabinet, the cabinet was invited up to Camp David the first weekend in January. So at the end of a couple of days, President Clinton said to everybody, “Tell me something about yourself that I don’t know.” So I said, “My name is not Madeleine Albright. My name is Marie Jana Korbelová.”
So my birth name is Marie Jana, which is basically just Mary Jane in Czech. And for reasons that, I mean I was told this story, but I have no idea why it really happened. There was a play in Prague at the time called Madla in the Brick Factory. And for some reason my grandmother liked the name Madeleine. Because she had an accent and my mother had an accent, my name was Madeleine, and I had no idea what kind of a name it was.
And after I had been, when we were in Yugoslavia, my father didn’t want me going to school with communists. So I had a governess, and I got ahead of myself. And in Europe, you can’t go to the next level until you’re a certain age. So they sent me to school in Switzerland.
I didn’t speak French. I was in the French part of Switzerland. They wouldn’t feed me unless I said it in French. Anyway, I learned French. So they said, “You don’t know how to spell your own name. You have to spell it M-A-D-E-L-E-I-N-E.” And now that’s my name, but it’s still not my legal name.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. All right. I’m glad I asked. That’s just a segue to lead into a question about being Secretary of State. And I’ve heard a friend of mine who is involved in government describe it as being the face of the United States to the rest of the world. It is as you’re aware, and perhaps some of my listeners may not be, but a very, very high post. And I’d be curious to know if you think being a refugee, being born in a country outside the United States has been an asset or a handicap in any way in serving as Secretary of State.
Madeleine Albright: I have to say no. And by the way, the first person to call me when I was named was Henry Kissinger. And he says, “Madeleine, you have taken away my one unique characteristic as Secretary of State of being a refugee.” And I said, “No Henry, I don’t have an accent.” So he then introduced me and he said, “Welcome to the fraternity.” And I said, “It’s not a fraternity anymore.” But I have to tell it is a great job. It was Thomas Jefferson’s job. So my favorite thing to do ever is to give naturalization certificates. And the first time I did it was July 4th, 2000, at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. I gave this man his naturalization certificate. And as he walks away he says, “Can you believe it? I’m a refugee. And I just got my naturalization certificate from the Secretary of State.” And I go up to him and I say, “Can you believe that a refugee is Secretary of State?” And it is really my fondest moment.
I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. Recently, I was asked to describe myself in six words. So worried, optimist, problem-solver, grateful American. And the grateful American part is determinative in the way that I feel. And the answer to a lot of some of the questions that you ask. What is it like to sit behind the sign of the United States, and the responsibilities that come with that, and diplomacy, and all those things? So from my perspective, it’s not a disadvantage.
Tim Ferriss: Worried optimist. Can you elaborate on what you mean by worried optimist?
Madeleine Albright: Well, I usually am better at giving the line, which is people ask me, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” So then I say I’m an optimist who worries a lot. That’s more words. But I am an optimist because I so believe in America, and the history, and the diversity, and the value system, and the people that I’ve dealt with. So many reasons to be an optimist. But I worry and I’m worrying more in terms of a lack of full understanding of how the institutions need to work together. The importance in the end, very important is about the freedom of the press. The press is absolutely essential, a free press to a functioning democracy.
And also, there are divisions in every society. But when you have leaders who are trying to exacerbate the divisions rather than trying to find unity, then it makes me worry.
So I did write a book called Fascism: A Warning. And I looked at some of the things that have been happening in Europe with Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian, or in Poland. Or what has happened in the Philippines and in Venezuela, that there really are leaders who are trying to divide their countries. So that’s what worries me a lot.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned Fascism: A Warning. In that book, you list a number of questions that people can ask themselves in evaluating leaders or potential leaders. And I’d love to hear you elaborate on one of those, which was: “Do they echo the attitude of Mussolini: ‘The crowd doesn’t have to know,’ all it has to do is believe and ‘submit to being shaped’?” Could you explain that or say more about that?
Madeleine Albright: Yes. I mean, Mussolini was the first fascist. And it’s very interesting to kind of follow the things that he said or did. But what really happened was there were divisions in the Italian society. And also the Italians had felt disrespected. They had fought on the side of the Allies during World War I, but were not really recognized enough on that. So he was able to kind of interpret facts in his own way.
By the way, he did talk about draining the swamp and being a stable genius. But the best quote in the whole book is from Mussolini, which is, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.” So there’s a lot of feather plucking going on right now. And you can’t say those two words together too quickly. I do think that that is what that statement is about, to kind of pluck one feather. And that the people don’t really know until the chicken is bald.
Tim Ferriss: What can we do? And by we, that could mean citizens, could mean me, could mean policy makers. So I’ll let you define we, but what can we do to protect freedom of the press? What are things that can be done or that you would hope to see done?
Madeleine Albright: Well first of all, one of the things when I was talking about that book. I said we all have [heard the term] see something, say something. I added to that do something. And I think that it’s very important to question the rule of law — whether our leaders respect the rule of law and whether there is not a deliberate decision to divide the population and to disrespect what other people are saying. But I think that the freedom of the press is essential. And I am worried about it. Because what has happened is it’s hard because so many people get their news through their own echo chamber. And then the kind of classic newspapers or channels are derided by kind of saying “fake news.” But I think it’s very important for people to understand it’s not easy to find out exactly what the truth is. Especially if this has been going on a long time. But I think that it’s important to look at a lot of different sources. But also to try to follow what is written, how the research is done. Can it be validated so that there’s nothing that’s made up? And this is a particularly hard time. And I think that the terrible thing is to call the press the enemy of the people. It’s the opposite.
By the way, when I was a genuine academic. I wrote my dissertation on the Czechoslovak press in 1968, the Prague Spring. And I’ve always been interested in the role of information in political change. There’s always some new kind of method of information, and it has affected how people think. So I think we need to know where people get their information. How does it jive with what we ourselves know to be true. People know a lot. It just may not be exactly stated that way. But I think it’s, information and a free press is the lifeblood of a democratic society.
Tim Ferriss: What does your — and this, again, might seem like an odd left turn, but I’m going to take it anyway. You are clearly very sharp still. You’ve been prolific in what you have packed into your years, especially when you consider as you put it, having your first job job at 39. I’ve read that exercise is important to you. Could you speak to your self-care practices? What allows you to keep this high octane car running at such a high speed for so long?
Madeleine Albright: Well, I do have a lot of energy. And you have been kind enough to ask this. But what happened when I left my job, I was really fat, because I was eating for my country. So I decided that I really did have to … by the way, when I was younger I really did exercise. I swam. I was a good swimmer and did all kinds of things, play tennis. But while I was in office, I have to say I didn’t do as well. So afterwards, I really had a regular exercise routine and had a trainer, which I have continued to do. Shall I stop this while I —
Tim Ferriss: Sure, no problem. Yep.
Madeleine Albright: Let me just … So I found a trainer and I really did start aerobics and weight lifting and all that. And what I really got good at, you’re going to laugh, is leg pressing. I could leg press 450 pounds. And then of course, it really was not a smart thing to do because my back began to take a toll. But I have until now having not been able to go to see my trainer. I really have, to the best of my ability, exercise three times a week.
I now am doing some floor exercises to build up my core. And I walk around my garden. But I do believe in exercise. I really do. And it’s been literally a lifesaver.
Tim Ferriss: What do your mornings look like? Do you have any morning routines? Does your morning look somewhat consistent day to day?
Madeleine Albright: Well it did, until this. So my routine, and everything kind of goes back to habit. So back to my life when my children were little and I was writing my dissertation. I would get up every morning at five in order to do the work before they got up. So I’m a morning person.
So the thing that I did when I was in office would be to get up at 5:00 and read the newspapers that were delivered. And then kind of get my act together and go into the office where I would … this is the only thing I miss about not being in office, which is the intelligence in the morning. Because I’d come into my office and there’d be a folder there from the intelligence section of the state department. And then the CIA person would come in and I’d get to read, people now know about the PDB, the president’s daily brief, and what it was all based on. So my morning would be to get up and read, and then get dressed and go to the office. And to this day, what I do is get up early in the morning and I read the newspapers. And then I get my act together and I go and exercise, and then I come home and then I start all over getting my act together. But I do get up early and I enjoy that time early in the morning to read.
Tim Ferriss: Do you drink coffee or caffeine, or do you not?
Madeleine Albright: I do drink coffee. I’m trying not to drink as much coffee.
Tim Ferriss: How do you have your coffee? I know this seems like minutia, but —
Madeleine Albright: Black. Just black. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Black coffee. In the stories that I’ve read, many stories, you seem unflappable under what most people would consider duress. Whether that’s facing some angry group of people overseas, or sitting in a very tense negotiation. You seem to have a pervading sense of calm. Is that something that you developed? Is that innate? Is that something that you absorbed through parents or teachers? Where did that come from?
Madeleine Albright: The truth is I don’t know. I mean I think that I really, in this last book, I’ve decided the following thing that my parents really did have the most incredible influence on me. And I begin by talking about World War II. And that’s how they behaved, because we’re talking about what it was like living in London during The Blitz. And that they were able to, they had no control over the bombs that were falling. The only thing they had control over was their mood and their behavior. And that’s something that I saw throughout, because they went through an awful lot of changes from up and down and different countries, and different political systems. And they did the same thing when we came to the United States.
So I am feeling, and I always did, is that I couldn’t control the things that were happening to a great extent. Because sometimes, there were unintended consequences to various decisions. But I could control my behavior. And that’s certainly something that is true right now because I don’t have control over the virus. I only have control over my behavior. And I think that is part that has been kind of my lodestar.
The thing that is very strange for me, and this has to do with the age issue. The reason I wrote this last book was to to show that I’m still alive. And I kind of thought about afterlife and whatever. And it did take me a long time to find my voice, and I’m not going to be quiet. And I’ve been fighting gravity in terms of age.
So this is the first time that all of a sudden I’m very conscious of my age. Because that is what the subject is. If I were not as old as I am, I wouldn’t be in the group that is threatened or whatever. And it’s ironic that I should have a book about fighting age just at the time when all of a sudden there’s no way to deny that I’m in the elderly group or whatever we call it. So it’s kind of ironic is the only word I can think of.
Tim Ferriss: Can you describe the title? So Hell and Other Destinations. Where does the title come from?
Madeleine Albright: Well the title, everything is based on my own experience. The most famous thing I ever said was that there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other. It was so famous, it ended up on a Starbucks cup. It came from that period now that you’ve asked me everything, when my twins were little and I was going to graduate school and working on, then later on my dissertation. I had the hardest time with other women who would say to me — we’re very judgmental of each other — who would say to me, “Why are you in the library instead of waiting for your children or being with your children?” Or, “My hollandaise sauce is so much better than yours.” And just kind of judgmental. So I then thought that, or the only woman in the room thing. That there’s some women that wanted the queen bee kind of syndrome. If there’s only going to be one woman, it’s going to be me and not you. So that’s when I really did think, that I do think that we’re not supportive of each other. We are very judgmental of each other. Or do something else, which is kind of project our own sense of inadequacy on other women.
For instance when I was traveling with Geraldine Ferraro, I remember being somewhere and some woman comes up to me and says, “How can she talk to a Russian? I can’t talk to a Russian.” Well, nobody was asking this woman to talk to a Russian. So I think there’s that.
So that was the genesis of the book. Now that it’s out, it’s a much more relevant and scary title than I had thought. I wasn’t writing about what’s going on now, the pandemic and everything. So I think it’s quite germane, and I think we need to find other destinations where we can be problem solvers with what’s going on and tell the truth.
Tim Ferriss: So thinking of mortality, and also you mentioned a name earlier, Thomas Jefferson. He was a big fan of the Stoics. Seneca, predominantly I think. Marcus Aurelius also. Do you have any favorite writers or philosophers, thinkers who have influenced you?
Madeleine Albright: Well, I do think having kind of a classic education, I have obviously been very moved by Plato and Aristotle. But also, I really do think, somebody that I find very interesting, not a philosopher, but de Tocqueville because of his descriptions of the United States and the way that he, in many ways, understood an awful lot.
And I do think that in terms of authors, I do like Tolstoy and War and Peace. I’m just not a fatalist the way Tolstoy is, but I think he’s very interesting. And then I have to say, and this won’t surprise you. One of my favorite writers is Václav Havel. He was somebody I never thought that I would get to know. We got to be very good friends. And he did practice the theater of the absurd, but he also was a philosopher. He really was a philosopher king in so many ways. So I love reading his things. And I do like reading about and reading the writings, The Federalist and things like that. I mean, I love American history.
Tim Ferriss: How do you think about what you’d like to accomplish in your life looking forward? And you’re talking about age or finite time here on the planet, at least standing on our own two feet. What is it that you hope to accomplish, and how do you think about I suppose life and mortality? These are big questions, I realize.
Madeleine Albright: Well, I know finally instead of saying if I die, I’m beginning to assume that at some point it’s a when. But I do think that this is going to be a very important time as we, this will end at some point. And what I want to do, and this goes back to my to do list, is spend … and why I like teaching. And why for me, I’ve often said there’s no speech or book ever written that doesn’t quote Robert Frost. The quote that I’ve liked is, “The older I am, the younger are my teachers.” And I’m fascinated by this younger generation.
And by the way, my course at Georgetown, we do a game simulation. Which is the favorite thing the students do. And of course we couldn’t do it in person. So we did it virtually about two weekends ago. And the students were brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And they took the crisis I’d invented, which was about Venezuela and a ship that had been seized. And they turned the crisis into an opportunity to deal with some of the political issues that are really out there between Venezuela and Colombia.
I also think that the thing that we’ve criticized young people for, which is that they’re online all the time and are not as socially adept or don’t care about privacy. That they have the tools in order how to be in the post virus time. So I look forward to teaching more. And I now spend my, I have three grandchildren that are college age. And I plan not to shut up. And I feel also very strongly about the role of women. And I think that this is a time that … by the way, I was asked recently in an interview, there have been articles about the fact that the countries that have managed to deal with the virus are the ones run by women. New Zealand, and Denmark, and Germany, and Taiwan. So what are the characteristics? So I do think that societies are, this goes back to something else we talked about.
In every country, women are at least half the population. So even though, I mean I would say this because I’m a feminist. But even the bottom line is why would you waste the talent of those women? So what we need to do, I believe in that democracy’s not a spectator sport. So I’m going to keep pushing. I’m chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute. I’m going to talk about democracy, I’m going to talk about young people. And I am going to get rid of the worried part about being an optimist.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it’s such a pleasure to spend time with you today. And I know you’re as busy as ever. Certainly, it’s just really mind-blowing to me to see how engaged you are. And your latest book is Hell and Other Destinations. People can find you on Twitter @Madeleine. As you mentioned, the French instructed you @ M-A-D-E-L-E-I-N-E. Secretary Albright, is there anything else you would like to say or share before we close this round one on the podcast?
Madeleine Albright: Well, you didn’t ask me about my pin.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I should. You know, we’re on video. So for the people who can’t see it, please tell me about the pin that you have.
Madeleine Albright: It’s a big five, as a Roman, or a V. And it comes from the following thing. Which is that during, as I mentioned we were in London during the war. My father broadcast over BBC, and I listened to BBC as a little girl. And they would open every broadcast with the first five notes of Beethoven’s fifth with a kettle drum: dah-dah-dah-DUM, which is Morse code for V for victory.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s amazing. Well, thank you so much Secretary Albright. This has been a very enjoyable and thought provoking conversation, so thank you for taking the time.
Madeleine Albright: I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in an interview. Thank you so much. Absolutely. I mean it, it was really fun. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my pleasure. And I will share links to the new book. To everything we spoke about. We’ll have very complete show notes for people to explore everything that you’ve shared at tim.blog/podcast for everyone. And I wish you all the best, much safety. I am confident that you will find a way to put a slash mark through the worried as you move forward as an optimist.
Madeleine Albright: Thank you. And good luck to you. Stay healthy and everything. Great.
Tim Ferriss: Wonderful. Thank you. And to everybody listening, thank you for tuning in, and take care.
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