An Idealist’s Advice

She has been a journalist, a human rights activist, a presidential advisor, and a top diplomat. Yet, in an all-school Assembly on March 3, former Ambassador Samantha Power was primarily a mentor as she spoke candidly about how she had “stumbled” into different careers, also sharing some of the pragmatic approaches she has found useful in facing formidable problems.

Global-sized challenges are familiar territory for Ambassador Power. From 2009 to 2013, she served on the National Security Council as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. Then, from 2013 to 2017, she served as the 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and as a member of the president’s cabinet. Today, she is the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Harvard Law School.

In 2003, Ambassador Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Her most recent, bestselling book, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, was the focus of this visit to campus – a place she has become increasingly familiar with over the last decade. “I married into Middlesex,” Ambassador Power laughed, adding that she and her children continually hear about the School from her husband, Trustee Cass Sunstein ’72.

Before reading a passage from her memoir, Ambassador Power explained that she felt compelled to write honestly about her own vulnerabilities in order to “meet young people where they are.” As she related, “I know from my teaching that young people often wonder, ‘How am I going to make a difference at all?’ People want to make their mark. They care, but they feel small. I have felt small in every one of those incarnations. The point is getting past that feeling.”

To that end, she mentioned a favorite adage: “Never compare your insides with someone else’s outsides.” Ambassador Power recounted her experience of trying to find the Oval Office for her first meeting there. Not wanting to look like a political rookie by asking for directions, she was relieved to find a map on Google. A year later, she learned that five of her colleagues had done the exact same thing and were just as lost as she was that day.

The selection Ambassador Power read aloud, from the chapter titled “Tank Man,” highlighted the first time that she “reacted as though current events had something to do with me” – a response inspired by seeing unedited coverage of the Chinese government’s crackdown in 1989 on student protesters in Tiananman Square. In retrospect, this marked a turning point for her, shifting her attention from sports to history and, eventually, to human rights and law school.

With enthusiasm, warmth, and humor, Ambassador Power comprehensively answered questions initially posed by Assistant Dean of Students Kathy Smithwick Swain ’08 and then by students. From illustrating how dignity can be a geopolitical force – like the Tiananmen protester facing down a Chinese tank – to detailing her own struggles with anxiety the stemmed from family turmoil in her childhood, she covered many topics and offered helpful insights to Middlesex students.

“Sometimes the things I care equally deeply about are in conflict with each other,” she noted when acknowledging that human rights and economic concerns can be at odds. “You have to think about all the tools you have to balance multiple objectives.” One approach she finds effective is to “shrink the change,” to find a smaller part of a problem that can be tackled, potentially influencing the larger issue.

“There is a temptation to fight many battles at once,” Ambassador Power reflected. “Don’t be shy about digging deep in one thing.” While her post-college experience in Bosnia was “very narrow,” she learned a great deal about big issues and ideas, about journalism and humanitarian aid. “When you go deep into something, you’re not wasting time that could be spent on something else,” she counseled. “You’re adding to your toolbox.”