Valerie Jarrett’s great-grandfather was the first African-American to go to MIT. His father was born a slave. So it is with a sense of history and purpose that Valerie Jarrett pursues her life’s work. But that doesn’t mean her path has been a straight line. There have been detours and there have been hard decisions, especially when she was in the Obama White House. She has always looked for balance. As she told IN PURSUIT’s Amy Elisa Jackson, “All of us in life have to find what grounds us. And it might be religion. It might be family. It might be a stranger. But you have to center yourself.” Valerie talks about finding her center and what it’s meant to her and to her daughter to be a working parent. These days, Jarrett is working with President Obama on the Obama Foundation, with Michelle Obama on the voting initiative When We All Vote, and on the United State of Women.
“When you’re doing what you enjoy, then you don’t really view it as work. I used to say in the White House, I would pay to do this. They don’t have to give me a dime,” said Jarrett. “I would just for the privilege of doing this kind of work that’s exciting and interesting and purposeful.”
Click to listen now. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Through honest and candid conversations, guests share how they navigate their careers through achievements, hurdles and heartbreaks encountered along the way. If you have a question or feedback for us, message us on Twitter (@glassdoor using the hashtag #InPursuitPod).
Amy Elisa Jackson: Welcome to In Pursuit the podcast from Glassdoor. I’m your host, Amy Elisa Jackson.
Amy Elisa Jackson: In every episode, we share the real stories of extraordinary people navigating life’s most pivotal moments; at the intersection of personal and professional. Today we’re talking to Valerie Jarrett, author of Finding My Voice, My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward. In addition to being the longest-serving Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, Valerie is a lawyer, former CEO, board member and founder of the United States of Women and When We All Vote. She’s also a proud mom and a brand new grandmother. This is one conversation I have been so eager to have, so let’s jump into it.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Valerie Jarrett, welcome to In Pursuit.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here, Amy.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely. Well, congratulations on becoming a grandma.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I have to know, what is your grandmother name?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, so when I was growing up, I couldn’t say Valerie and so I nicknamed myself Lally and so my whole childhood, that was my nickname and I have decided that’s the perfect name for my grandson to call me. So we’ll see if it sticks. You never know. Kids have a mind of their own, but that’s what I’m pushing.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I love it. Is that the best title you’ve ever had because you’ve been, like I said, CEO, commissioner. You’ve had so many titles. Is Lally the best?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, mom is probably, there’s nothing like being a mom, but I will say it’s a very different and special relationship with your grandchildren and I come from a family of women and so this is our first boy, so that’s going to be a whole new world as I discovered changing diapers.
Amy Elisa Jackson: My mother had the same reaction with her first grandson. Same thing. Like, wait, what am I supposed to do here?
Valerie Jarrett: Exactly.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What am I supposed to do?
Valerie Jarrett: Exactly.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Well, congratulations to Laura and to you.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s a big, big deal.
Amy Elisa Jackson: So this conversation is really about your career and that intersection of personal and professional as you write about so eloquently in your book. When You look back at your career, what has surprised you the most about it?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, how much sense it seems to make now and how a circuitous it seemed at the time, because I did a lot of, as I call them zigzags and I didn’t realize as I was zigging and zagging just… because I was always afraid when you make these big changes and I didn’t appreciate that with that fear comes exhilaration and a sense of adventure.
Valerie Jarrett: Now when I look back, each of the different steps added up to a whole life. But when I was younger I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. So it turned out pretty well.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I love the line in your book where you talk about, you write, you wish you would have embraced the thrill of the zig and zag rather than crave straight lines. What do you think has been your best detour?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, my smartest detour I think was leaving a big law firm and I was about six years out of law school in the middle of a bad divorce and I had just had my daughter Laura not long earlier, and going back to work, I thought I’m leaving my daughter to do something that my heart isn’t in and I thought will she ever really be proud of me if I’m doing this.
Valerie Jarrett: So the separation was getting to me and the work was getting to me and I thought, let me do something that I care passionately about it, which meant I had to learn to listen to the most important voice and that’s the quiet one inside of all of us that we all too often ignore. I think that that’s what I’d been doing. I’d been doing what seemed to make everybody else happy. My family and friends were really proud and impressed by this fancy office and big salary that I had, but it wasn’t rewarding to me and when I took that pivot into local government for the City of Chicago, it changed my life completely.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How did you find yourself having those conversations with your daughter along your career journey? I think a lot of mothers kind of struggle with, okay, mommy has to go to work or mommy’s traveling and having to have that conversation because it’s not just one. Right? It’s a series of conversations throughout high school and then into college.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How have you and Laura sort of navigated that?
Valerie Jarrett: That’s a really good question because I think there’s always that tension and as with many other working moms, I felt that particularly when she was young, I wasn’t good at anything. I wasn’t doing everything I thought I should do as a mom. I wasn’t doing everything I thought I should do at work. I had a thousand balls up in the air at one time and one of the strategies that I had with Laura was to try to demystify what I was doing when I wasn’t with her.
Valerie Jarrett: So I took her to my office all the time, particularly on weekends. If I had business meetings around the city of Chicago, community meetings, I would take her to those. She traveled with me whenever it was possible and so she was able to kind of close her eyes and imagine where I was.
Valerie Jarrett: Then the other thing I always did is, no matter where I was or what I was doing, and I wrote about this in the book, that if she called, then her call got put through because I wanted her to know that no matter what job I had, she was my first priority. She was my most important priority. Now there are a lot of people who are in jobs where you don’t have that flexibility, but sometimes we don’t ask for it and if we asked for it, we could have it.
Valerie Jarrett: When I was earlier in my career, Amy, I was so busy when I was at work trying to pretend to everybody that all there was was work and then my life was this compartment and when I was in this compartment, that was it. Even pregnant, I can remember just trying to like pretend nothing was happening below my neck. Well, I gained 90 pounds. There was a lot going on. That was obvious to everybody but I thought it would diminish the seriousness with which people took me and I think that’s wrong.
Valerie Jarrett: I think that we should tell our children about what we’re doing when we’re not with them and we should bring the rest of our life with us to work and the reason I think that is is that number one, people can’t help you meet your demands outside of work unless they know what they are and number two, I think it’s how you build relationships. You have to be open and you have to be vulnerable and you have to be a whole person in order for somebody to really care about you. They just can’t see your work product.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes, it better be excellent, but that plus you being a human being and them getting to know that person, which means bringing your personal life into it, I think is what really solidifies the bonds of trust that you need in order to be as productive as you can and also so the people want to mentor you and want to be your advocate and one would invest in you. They’re not going to do that for somebody who just works and all I see is that. They have to… There has to be a human emotion dimension to it as well.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s interesting because where we are at, I think in America and in the world, bringing your authentic self to work is kind of a new wave, right? It wasn’t necessarily something that our parents had in their realm. It’s even still, as a 36-year-old, I’m kind of like, wait, can I do that? Can I bring my authentic self to work? I think it took me years to even do that. Only in this job have I been able to fully bring myself to work and it feels that much more rewarding. It’s like what was I doing all the rest of that time? What was I passing up?
Valerie Jarrett: You were pretending and pretending is hard work. It’s stressful.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s a full-time job.
Valerie Jarrett: It’s a full-time job but I can remember being in the White House, one of my staff walked in and I could take one look at her face and tell something was wrong. So I sat her down and I said, “What’s going on with you?” Then she opened up and told me and it helped me to know that, otherwise I would just think, well, you’re not in a good mood or something.
Valerie Jarrett: I think that so often we think we’re compartmentalizing, but we’re really not. It’s written all over our face. So I say, and it doesn’t mean you have to overshare, but I do think you have to work on building relationships and that you shouldn’t have to be ashamed or try to hide who you really are and this doesn’t just have to do with parenting. People who feel like they have to come to work and lie about their sexual orientation or gender identity, their faith, anything about themselves. If you can’t be yourself and you have a choice, and I say that hastily because a lot of people don’t have a choice. But if you have choices, then don’t pretend.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Now the pivot for you going from sort of corporate law life into public service was rewarding, but what was the most challenging moment of the zigzags going from sort of law firm, live local politics, being a CEO advisor, and now board member. What has been the most challenging part of those pivots?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, getting used to change. I come from an administration that has believed in hope and change, but nobody said those were easy. Right? What I often find is that people were like, Oh yeah, I like hope and change. Oh, you don’t mean I have to change. I thought it was you that was going to change. No, no, no. Everybody has to change it.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Everybody has to change.
Valerie Jarrett: I think that what you have to learn to do, and it has taken me a while, as recently as today, I’m not a spontaneous person by nature and a dear friend said, “Would you like to go out to dinner tonight?” And I was like, “Well, I hadn’t planned to go to dinner tonight,” and I thought I really want to see my friend, so of course I’m going to go, but I’m a planner and I think what I had to get used to doing that helped me with the zigzags is to get comfortable with the notion that initially upon change, I was going to feel uncomfortable. I was going to feel the imposter syndrome. I was going to feel unsure about whether or not I was going to be able to meet the expectations of this new opportunity.
Valerie Jarrett: I just those natural insecurities that most people have but people don’t talk about. I had to say, “Okay, you know now with your track record that it’s going to seem really hard on the first day and then it’s going to get better. It’s going to seem really different and then it’s going to get better.”
Valerie Jarrett: So I wish when I was 30, that I had known that does get better and that with each challenge, once it sinks in and you and you develop new skills, which is a part of the growth process as well, you see you can meet the challenge.
Amy Elisa Jackson: One of the passages in your book that I underlined and dog-eared because I’m one of those old school highlighters and circlers, is this quote, “I had ambitiously created this plan for my life. I had this notion that by sheer force of will I could drive my life in a rigid linear path and that it was a sign of strength if I had the self-control to never waiver from my intended course.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: When you hear that now, what comes to mind?
Valerie Jarrett: How stupid was I? I mean I could, well I took pride in fulfilling what I set out to do. I mean, part of it was I don’t think I quite heard my parents message right, which is my parents did say, “when you start something you have to finish it.” So if I started taking piano lessons at the beginning of the school year and I didn’t like piano, well you know what? You’ve got to finish it up. Same thing with viola, which I really didn’t like.
Valerie Jarrett: If you sign up for a class, you finish the class. I think it took a bit to get comfortable with this notion that there are always going to be kind of zigs and zags. Some of them are intentional because you make a decision, but some of them just come at you too, right? Learning to just absorb all that and kind of go with it and not let it cripple you because you’re so scared, I think was important and that it’s okay to change course.
Valerie Jarrett: I think I thought once you start a job, it should be fulfilling and you should will it to work. Once you start a marriage, you should be able to will it to work and sometimes that’s just not possible. So realizing that just because something doesn’t work out, it doesn’t define you as a failure and that’s how I felt when I got a divorce initially. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I must be a failure because I couldn’t make this work.” No, we just were not meant to be married and that’s okay.
Valerie Jarrett: I used to say to Laura, “Look, if you have one happy parent, that’s more than most people have.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s more than most. That’s right.
Valerie Jarrett: I knew that if I’d stayed married, she would have had two unhappy parents.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Amen. Amen. It’s interesting because thinking about that plan for your life made me also think about sort of this legacy that you and your family have around educational and professional success and how inspiring and empowering that is, but also how much it can conjure up the fear of never living up.
Amy Elisa Jackson: … Also how much it can conjure up the fear of never living up, of knowing what your father and grandfather and people who have blazed trails for you have created. How did you navigate the fear of never living up? It’s something I navigate and struggle with at times, and it’s something that I think my friends also navigate and struggle with, like, “Oh, I want to make my parents proud. They’re first-generation college attendees, so I want to do this for my family.” How did you navigate and juxtapose the feelings of pride in your family with trying to live up to it?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think my parents helped me in a way, in that my parents and my grandmother, in particular, were very open about our family history, with pride. My grandmother talked about my great-grandfather, who was the first African-American to go to MIT, and his father had been born a slave, freed after the Civil War, and saved enough money as a carpenter to send his son from Wilmington, North Carolina to Boston. And I used to often think about, “My goodness. What must that trip have been like?” Both for my great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather. And then I looked at how successful he was and then his father, and I thought, “That’s a steep climb for anybody.” But on the other hand, any time I would get nervous before I would do something, I would think about those folks, and I would say, “Well, you know what? You can get on a train and go up to a school and you’re the first? I can do whatever it is I have to do.” So it also gave me the strength and the courage.
Valerie Jarrett: And my parents were really very good about saying, “What’s most important is effort. Effort will lead to excellence.” And excellence doesn’t always mean an A plus. Excellence is defined by, did you do the best you could do? So I can remember bringing home my report card and if I got an A plus, my parents would say, “Did you give it your best?” And if I got a B and I was disappointed, they’d say the same thing, “Did you give it your best?” The question was effort, because you can control the effort, you can’t control the grade. And if I got an unfair grade, I would complain, and my mother would say, “Well, who told you life was fair? You did the best you could.” And also, it was like, “And you have to do twice as hard as other people.” And we always knew that the other people were people who were not black, right?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Correct.
Valerie Jarrett: Because it’s not a fair world out there.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It isn’t.
Valerie Jarrett: So I think the unconditional love that my parents gave me, the safety net of support, knowing that if I did stumble and fall that they would catch me motivated me. But as I said initially, they were proud that I was at this law firm, and I remember the first day I started at City Hall. My mother, for reasons I do not remember, drove me to work, and she dropped me off in front of City Hall and she said, “I cannot believe I paid all that tuition for you to work here.” And she was so disappointed in me, and fortunately, I was old enough and was so unhappy in the law firm that I thought, “I have to prove you wrong.” And about three or four years ago, she finally admitted maybe I made the right decision.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s so funny because I was laughing as you were telling that story because I remember when I graduated from Stanford and I wanted to become a journalist. And of course, both of my parents are doctors, all four of my grandparents are in the medical field, and my mother was like, “A journalist? You’re not going to be able to afford Manolos with that. Did I just pay all this money to Stanford for you to be a journalist?” I was like, “No, no.” And when I got my first cover story, she couldn’t have been happier.
Valerie Jarrett: Of course.
Amy Elisa Jackson: She was walking around like the mother from The Joy Luck Club, just showing everybody. But again, I think it goes back to you’re trying to blaze your own trail, and do what speaks to you, and listen to that inner voice, as you talked about.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes. And frankly, my parents, they did what they wanted to do, they didn’t follow what their parents told them. They had a really adventuresome life, and so in a sense, I could always say, “Well, you all did these really exotic things. Why shouldn’t I take a chance?”
Amy Elisa Jackson: Great.
Valerie Jarrett: But it takes a certain level of confidence to say, “I’m going to try something really different, even if everybody’s telling me it’s a mistake.” Knowing that the worst thing that would happen is, well, if it doesn’t work, you’ll go try something else. And I think sometimes we get so caught up that we don’t realize that when something doesn’t work out, the next day, you just go on to something new. It’s a marathon, and each leg of that marathon has different challenges, different trade-offs, different opportunities, different setbacks, and I think my view is, the question is, because you often get, “Can you have it all?” And I say, “Certainly not all at the same time, and certainly not if you have to do it all yourself.” But when you look back, maybe the question should be, “Did I have a whole life?” Did I love? Did people love me? Was I purposeful? Do I feel as though I have the respect of those who I love and cherish? And, did I do something to make the world a little bit better? You don’t have to change it radically, but did you do your part?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Do your part. Absolutely.
Valerie Jarrett: Do your part when you’re here on earth.
Amy Elisa Jackson: As you’ve written and you’ve sort of alluded to a little earlier, marriage was a big part of the plan for your life, the vision of having a love like your parents. How have you wrestled with the detour of divorce and single motherhood? Because as you said, it could seem like a failure or a loss in a very significant way. How have you wrestled with that in the long term? Not just when it happened, but over the course of the past several years?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, you know what? I think I got married for the wrong reasons. I was hoping that my husband would complete me, and I think the mistake, that was putting too much on another human being. You’d better go about the business of completing yourself first, and then you have more to offer. So I’ve been completing myself for the last number of years, and I say this perhaps particularly to young women who think that, “Well, if I’m married, I’ll never be lonely again.” And they’re looking for that partnership, and frankly, I’ve never been lonelier than in an unhappy marriage. I have surrounded myself with friends, and family, and raising Laura was the most satisfying thing I could ever do, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get married again one day. I don’t feel the need to get married, but if I find that person who I think I want to share my life with, then I would be certainly open to it, but I haven’t found that person yet.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Yeah. You write that you deserve a man as good as your father.
Valerie Jarrett: I do, and I’m holding out for that.
Amy Elisa Jackson: I hear that.
Valerie Jarrett: My daughter was smart. She found just the right person who does remind me, in a lot of ways, of my dad. And look, it’s hard for particularly women in high powered jobs, successful, high profile positions, because it can be a little intimidating I think, to say the very least. But hope lives eternal.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Well, right now, the man in your life is your grandson.
Valerie Jarrett: Exactly. My little Jimmy.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Your little Jimmy. Oh, so sweet.
Valerie Jarrett: Named after my dad.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Valerie Jarrett: Yes.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Oh, that’s wonderful. What has been the most impactful thing you’ve learned about yourself as a woman in the last 10 years?
Valerie Jarrett: Yeah. I suppose I have learned a bit earlier to be resilient and to say, “Okay, I can take a punch and get back up.” And I certainly learned that over, and over, and over again during the course of the last 10 years, but I also learned about my ability to take the long view. And I think it’s really hard, particularly in this 24-hour news cycle that we’re in, where you are expected to react to every single thing that’s coming, all the incoming. And I remember early in my career, when I was running the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Chicago, I always wanted to be very responsive, because I thought the government wasn’t sufficiently accountable and responsive to the constituents. So I would answer every phone call, read every piece of mail, but I wasn’t moving forward in my affirmative agenda. It took me about three months to figure out I had got nothing done except for answering a lot of calls, and I think when I was the CEO of a company, the most precious commodity you have really is time.
Valerie Jarrett: Time is of the essence and being efficient at using that time. So one of the many lessons I learned in the White House is that you just cannot get distracted, and you can’t get thrown off course because if you do, you’re wasting time. There were times when I would come in kind of flustered and President Obama would say, “You’ve been watching television. Have you been looking at cable TV? You probably have.” And it was kind of a subtle reminder to take the long view and to look beyond that 24-hour cycle to say, “Where are we really trying to move our agenda forward?” And yes, we have to react if there’s an oil spill or something like that, a hurricane. There’s lots of things you can’t control, or even mistakes, like when the Healthcare.gov site crashed, we all had to rally behind that. But you can’t let that also distract you from moving forward with your agenda, and I think learning that balance is a skill I had to hone. And in doing so, you have to learn to absorb pain because there are a lot of people who aren’t going to be with you in taking that long view, and you’re asking them to change. And I already told you, people don’t like to change. It’s not about you, it’s about service, but that does take an inner core of strength and resilience that I’m still working on.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s interesting when you say taking the long view and not being distracted by the things that are happening to your right or to your left because a lot of people can interpret not being distracted as being myopic, as being singularly focused, and I think a lot of employees, I don’t care what level or stage you’re at, can be singularly focused on something. But that long view, that career length view-
Valerie Jarrett: That’s different. Yes.
Amy Elisa Jackson: …very, very different.
Valerie Jarrett: It is. And the problem with the singular focus is that sometimes when you do that, you stop listening. And you do have to listen. Just because you’re taking the long view doesn’t mean that you don’t want to make sure that you socialize your decisions, and particularly, again, when you’re in service, the whole point is to be in service. So listening to your constituents is really important, but you have to sometimes do what might not be popular because you believe in listening, again, to that quiet voice, after having listened to all the other voices, that it’s the right thing to do, and that means you’re going to take some heat.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely.
Valerie Jarrett: And that’s okay.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It has to be okay.
Valerie Jarrett: And you’ll have to learn to deal with that.
Amy Elisa Jackson: What was the hardest thing to learn over the past 10 or 15 years? The lesson that you felt like either God or the power above was constantly putting in front of you. What was the hardest thing?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, keep in mind, say, over the last 10 years, we came in with this fierce urgency of now, and I had to learn patience. I had to learn that even when I knew what I thought we should do and that it should happen quickly, and sometimes change is incremental, and it takes a lot of groundwork to get mobilization in place. The whole idea of a grassroots organizer that President Obama started his career doing takes time, and I kind of learned that lesson working in local government as we tried to do redevelopment plans around the city of Chicago. So for example, when we wanted to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we were trying mightily to get Congress to pass a piece of legislation to do it, but every day, as people who came out serving in the military were being discharged, we were causing them pain, and we were doing something we didn’t believe was right or true to our core values, and I had to learn to absorb that in the short term. So learning that in the short term, not just you have to feel some pain, but you might be causing other people pain too, but you’re looking for that long, sustainable solution, so patience is important. It’s a virtue, as my grandmother would say.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Your journey to finding your voice is one that so many can relate to, as we’ve been talking about today. How would you describe the evolution of harnessing your authentic voice while being in the political spotlight? In your book, you talk about having a …
Amy Elisa Jackson: While being in the political spotlight, in your book you talk about having a clear and firm voice, unwavering air of calm. How did that evolve during the administration?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, I think that when President Obama took office, I mean, just remember we were in a horrible economic crisis. Banks were on the verge of collapse. The automobile industry was in bankruptcy, we had two wars. Had a lot on our plate, and so learning how to look at what your options are when you’re sometimes choosing between bad and worse. There weren’t always good options or great options on the table, and figuring out how to make decisions, informed, thoughtful decisions quickly and then moving onto the next decision I think is something that we all had to work at doing. Which means you have to multi-task. It means you can’t just be myopic when you have 10 things going wrong.
Valerie Jarrett: You’ve got to… It’s like whack-a-mole every single day trying to keep things moving, to keep the trains moving. And you also have to be able to catch your breath. And people often say to me, “How on earth did you last for eight years in the administration?” First of all, it never in my wildest dreams occurred to me to leave. And I went in thinking, knowing that this was going to be the best job I’d ever had working for a president who I don’t just respect but love, consider like my brother and at a time when our nation was really in crisis because of the economy and the Wars, but yeah it’s hard job and there’s a lot of pressure and you’re working 24/7. I would wake up every single morning terrified, terrified about what’s going to happen today. And will we be able to rise to the occasion?
Valerie Jarrett: After the first term when he was re-elected, notwithstanding everything that had been so challenging, it was so affirmational that I did say, “Okay, we’re not going to work any less hard, but worked with more confidence.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: What did you tell yourself in those mornings when your feet hit the ground and you’re just like panicked and tons of anxiety about what the day would hold? What did you have to tell yourself?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, one thing I did that I mentioned in my book is every morning I thought about this man named Earl Smith, who I’d met on the campaign trail in 2007. And he had been operating the elevator in a hotel in Austin, Texas for then Senator Obama while we were in town. And on our last day there he gave the Senator a patch from his military uniform and of course, Senator, I wanted to take it, when he realized what he was and they went back and forth and the gentleman said, “You know Sir, I’ve carried this with me every day for 40 years and it’s given me strength and courage and the ability to tackle the ups and downs of life and I want you to have it.”
Valerie Jarrett: And I burst into tears. I was so moved by this act of unselfish generosity of spirit and the sense that he felt a part of something bigger than himself. And so, one of the things that helped ground me in addition to laughter, which you do need to have in your life at all times, was every morning when I came to work as I came through the security gates of The White House, I would pause and I would look up at the Washington Monument and I would watch it blink three times. And then I close my eyes, which is a split second, and I would say, “You’re here because of him.” So do something to make him proud today. And so when those moments where everything was going chaotic and people were so upset with us for whatever reason, I’d say, “What would Earl want you to do?”
Valerie Jarrett: And I didn’t even know his name for the whole first term. I had this made-up fantasy and then, in fact, a reporter from the Washington Post found him at the end of the first term, because I’d tell this story all the time. I didn’t really want her to find him because I thought, “Well what if he turns out to be like an ex murderer or something?” I’ve been having this fantasy of this man who made a split second good impression on me, but who knows? And it turned out as I got to know him once I reached out to him that he’s a very special man and he was certainly worthy of my thought every day. But I think all of us in life have to find what grounds us. And it might be religion, it might be family, it might be a stranger, but you have to center yourself.
Valerie Jarrett: And centering helps you keep both feet planted firmly on the ground, which is where they belong, and I think sometimes the higher up we go, sometimes we tend to think we’re floating and no you’re not. You need to keep the feet on the ground.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely.
Valerie Jarrett: And in doing so you remind yourself what’s really important.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s funny because I have a little Post-it note on my computer at work that says I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams. And that’s the thing that I find always grounds me and makes me just very humbled when I’m getting stressed and what I’m freaking out about something at work. I mean, I’m not curing cancer here, but there’s a limit to the impact I have, but to know that I can run because they were walking and crawling and doing and laying that foundation is just monumental.
Valerie Jarrett: Exactly.
Amy Elisa Jackson: In this new chapter of your life, how would you describe your voice today?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, today I have, I call it a portfolio of things that I’m doing that I’m interested in. And when I left the administration, as I was going through my stages of grief over the election, I did some soul searching and I thought now that you don’t have to have a job and you could wake up in the morning and do whatever you want to do, what is it that you really care about them? And it’s the first time since I was 16 that I haven’t had a job working really for somebody else except when I was a CEO and I still had a chairman. So I thought, “Well, what I really care about are a few things. I care a lot about gender equity.” I started an organization called The United State of Women together with Tina Chen, an outgrowth of the work we did at White House Council on Women and Girls, fighting for gender equity.
Valerie Jarrett: I care a great deal about civic engagement, and so I’m helping President Obama with The Obama Foundation, which is to teach the next generation the best practices in civic engagement. And then Mrs. Obama and I started an organization called when we all vote that’s bipartisan, nonpartisan, I should say, designed it to change the culture around voting in our country. Because one of the facts about the last election on the outcome that was most disappointing to me was that 43% of eligible voters did not vote. And that’s a travesty in a democracy. And there’s probably a whole host of reasons why they didn’t vote, but trying to re-engage them and have people appreciate the fact that our country is only going to be as good as we the citizens demand that it be and that the only way to ensure that special interests aren’t setting the agenda is if we set the agenda.
Valerie Jarrett: So that’s very rewarding to me as well. Join the faculty at The University of Chicago Law School where there’s just a treasure trove of smart both faculty and students that are helping with ideas on areas like criminal justice, which I also care a great deal about. And my board work, I joined companies where I share the values with the CEOs and their mission is one that resonates with me and where I think that they’re contributing to society. They making the world a better place. And so I’ve been very, very rigorous in my selection process because again, time is most important thing I have in this chapter and I am going to really loving a grandma.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Good. With all of that, it seems like I have to ask the question, how do you juggle it all?
Valerie Jarrett: As I said, I have the freedom to do what I want to do and when you’re doing what you enjoy, then you don’t really view it as work. I used to say in The White House, I would pay to do this. They don’t have to give me a dime. I would just for the privilege of doing this kind of work that’s exciting and interesting and purposeful and I think we should be bystanders in our own life, right? We should get in there and do something where your kids and grandchildren will be proud of you. Not that you had to change the world, but that you did your part.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Absolutely. What career insights that you’ve learned over your career? Do you pass onto your daughter as she navigates her career?
Valerie Jarrett: Well, my daughter is a far better version of myself I think. And when she was young I felt, as I said earlier, so guilty when I wasn’t with her and recently she was on my book tour with me and she joined me for a part of the conversation and the moderator asked her, “What did you learn about your mother and the book that surprised you that you didn’t know?” Because I’m very open with her about everything. It was just the two of us for so long. We are very close and open relationship and she said, “I had no idea how guilty she felt.” And so she said, “To all the working moms out there, we kids, we’re going to be just fine.” And not only was I touched that she said that, but I realized that we shouldn’t internalize our guilt and assume that we’re not good parents. She was perfectly happy with… And it doesn’t mean that she didn’t write me a note saying “Mom, please come home,” every day. I miss you so much when you’re gone. That’s what kids are supposed to say.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s what kids do.
Valerie Jarrett: But what she learned was how to be a working mom and put your children first. And that it can be done, and that the mighty juggle as I call it, is never perfect, but you can get the job done in a way where you have a fulfilling relationship. So that’s on the personal level. On the professional level, she saw me swerve and she swerved herself recently. She left her big law firm. I’m not sure why she went to the big law firm to begin with, but if that’s the worst rebellion there is, then I think I came out okay. But when she decided that it wasn’t for her, she really didn’t hesitate about swerving, much more willing to do so than I had been when I… took me longer to leave the law firm from the point I was unhappy than it took my daughter. And I think it’s because she saw through my example that good things lie with those who take chances.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Exactly. She learned from the best.
Valerie Jarrett: She knew that I would give a safety net to her as well if she stumbled and fell. But she did what she really cared about and she cared about journalism just as you do. And she likes to tell a good story, an honest story, a true story, and having the confidence to be able to go on television, which took me decades to learn how to do and be sure that it would be okay. And I’m not saying she wasn’t nervous the first time, but I think her attitude was, “Look, I’m a litigator, I get on my feet and I talked to the jury. My job as a journalist is to tell a story in a way that people can understand and believe.” And so that’s what she’s been doing. I’m proud of her. She’s Valerie Jarrett 3.0.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Lastly Valerie, as we look ahead to 2020 what are you in pursuit of?
Valerie Jarrett: I’ve learned not to plan too far out in the future. That 10-year plan didn’t go so well for me. I’m really doing it like quarter by quarter. So I know what I want to do between now and the end of the year, which is to help my daughter and son-in-law with this transition into a new family that they have created and be as available to them as possible. I’m working on the paperback version of my book, which I need to get wrapped up by November and I want to get back to The University of Chicago and spend some time with the students and my mom who lives in Chicago. So I’m juggling between Chicago and DC.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Valerie, for taking the time to speak with us. We really appreciate it.
Valerie Jarrett: It’s a pleasure, Amy. Thank you for having me on.
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s our show, everybody. Thank you for listening to In Pursuit by Glassdoor. This episode was produced by Lee Schneider and Allison Sullivan, music by Epidemic Sound, production by Red Cup Agency. Check us out on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to share the love. Give us some stars, leave a comment. It’ll help us grow our audience. Thanks for listening. I’m Amy Elisa Jackson, and this is In Pursuit.