Tips for success from an 81-year-old

Women still feel the need to be credentialed. Maybe because we’ve been such good schoolgirls...but men who get bad marks are leaders in so many other fields.
— Madeleine Kunin
Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Madeleine Kunin (photo: Paul Boisvert)

Being old is generally not seen as a good thing in American culture. But I want to interview more older women for The Broad Experience. And when I say 'older' I don't mean 55 or even 65. I mean 80 or 85 or 95. I mean bona fide old ladies. Women who've lived long lives, made mistakes, had successes, had families or not had families, and acquired some wisdom along the way.

Recently I got to talk to former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, who starred in my show Politics is Power, about women in politics.

Here are five career insights from our interview that I believe women - or other humans - can use no matter what their profession.

Do Something Uncomfortable

Or “step out to the edge of the precipice”, as Madeleine put it. Getting away from what I know has always made me squirm, but I have come to realize I need to do this to achieve anything substantial. Madeleine Kunin knew she wanted to be in politics but she was terrified when she landed an early role at the state legislature handling the budget. An old (male) lobbyist stopped her in the hallway and said, ‘We’re going to be watching you.’ The learning curve was tough. But gaining that knowledge of the budget’s inner workings gave her immense confidence to tackle other issues later.

You Don’t Always Need to Have the Answer

If you’re female you know how unnerving it is not to have the right answer to something when you’re on the spot. You feel discombobulated, like you’re not good enough and that others are judging you for not knowing. Men, Madeleine points out, are much more comfortable blustering than women are. Don’t know the answer? They fudge it. Women don’t do this to anything like the same extent. Madeleine said there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’ll get back to you on that.’ One local voter remembered her fondly years later because he’d once asked her a question she couldn’t answer on the spot, but she did her research and responded later.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Kids

Madeleine had four children with her first husband, to whom she was married for decades, and like virtually every mother who works outside the home she often felt she should be in one place when she was in another. Here’s what she said about her kids:

“I think they’re generally proud of me. They did not grow up with helicopter parents. They had to learn to be more independent earlier, they learned to cook, and I did have help, not a full-time nanny but somebody always there when came home from school.”

She also pointed out that kids need you just as much when they're teenagers (even if they won’t acknowledge it) as they do when they’re little. I’ve heard this from other working mothers too – that they wanted to be home more when their children were teenagers, because the teenage years are often when emotional problems kick in.

She has a good relationship with all her children. “I’m sure I would have been a worse mother if I’d felt confined and frustrated,” Madeleine said about going into politics. “If you’ve got it in you that you want to make a contribution, you want to be part of a larger circumference than your family or your neighborhood it’s much healthier to express that.”

You Can’t Make Everybody Happy

Especially in politics (and at home), but in other jobs too. Not everyone will like you, “and this is harder for women,” she says. “Maybe it’s our motherly instincts.”

You Have More In You Than You Think

“Try to believe that you can actually make a difference, and that your voice counts. And then test it,” Madeleine said. She was talking about politics, but this goes for any situation that involves putting yourself out there.

Before I started hosting the podcast I told myself I couldn’t do it, I was a reporter, not a host, I didn’t know how, etc. You name it, I could think of a reason why I couldn't pull it off. But once I put my toe in the water I knew I wanted to continue. It just took that first experimental step to sweep my doubts away and instill me with the confidence I needed to keep going.