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What I learned about life from Henry Kissinger

My very first job was working for Dr. Henry Kissinger, a well-known statesman and diplomat who served as the United States Secretary of State under President Nixon. The Economist recently did an extensive interview with him as he turns 100 years old. For you, dear readers, I can do no less than impart a bit of his wisdom through my years of working at a desk outside his office. 

A little context…

Decades ago, I graduated from college and braved the most extreme culture shock of my globetrotting life (LA>NYC!). I carefully printed my resume on fancy pants cream-colored bonded paper and started hustling for positions commensurate with a liberal arts education, a grand sounding Diplomacy and World Affairs major and a lofty position as a summer camp counselor.  

Answering a classified ad for a “bi-lingual associate in multinational company” in the back of the New York Times, I found myself in a dark rabbit warren of an office straight out of private investigator central casting. She was chain-smoking with blondish frizzy hair piled into a high bun. He wore a rumpled white shirt pulled taught over an ample belly and when they saw me, they glanced at each other with a look that said, “we know just the place”. 

They refused to tell me where and what the company was, but it was an address on Park Avenue in midtown so curiosity got the better of me…

And that, my friends, is how I got my first job after college, working for Dr. Henry Kissinger.

While I can’t tell you what happened at the office, I can tell you what I learned. 

1. The importance of strategic thinking: Kissinger was known for his strategic thinking and his ability to see the big picture. He was uniquely able to identify long-term goals and develop plans to achieve them.  

One of the surprising things that I learned in that office is the way that big picture vision was assembled. It’s one thing to have a big idea, like stabilizing the world order. It’s an entirely different one to figure out how the pieces of that grand puzzle can fit together.

He read voraciously, spoke to people from the heights of policy to the folks at the dog park and made time to think and reflect and write. I’ve had a lifetime focused on strategy and disruption after those formative years learning from his example.

>> Impact happens when you identify the big themes you want to focus on and consider how your personal values and talents can apply. 


2. The value of relationships: Kissinger was a master of diplomacy, and he understood the importance of building and maintaining relationships with people. 

Many a day when I went to serve the tea (yup, that was part of my job!) I would hear him asking a visiting luminary their thoughts about various subjects and integrating perspectives and wisdom from multiple sources as he formed his own considered opinions. 

Curiosity was always at work as is evident from his current forays into AI with Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google. He knew how to ask excellent questions, listen actively, and understand an issue from multiple sides. A great background from which to negotiate complex agreements and resolve conflicts.

>> Listening well, developing relationships and weaving different perspectives is a valuable skill in a world of uncertainty. 


3. The need for resilience: Kissinger faced many challenges throughout his career, including criticism, controversy, and personal setbacks. Plus he had to put up with an unruly assistant who felt that he should be more curious about her foreign policy ideas!

In the 30 years since I worked with him, I wonder at how hard he has worked. Now from this perspective, I see what an extraordinary model he is for the people I work with designing their third act. He has made himself available as an elder statesman in a way that many people now, living ever longer, are making themselves available as modern elders, mentors or coaches. 

>> Continuing to build and refine ideas, weaving in new perspectives and events and sharing them with new generations gives meaning, purpose and legacy. It puts to use your lifetime of wisdom. 


Dr Kissinger taught me that strategic thinking, relationships and resilience can give you the opportunity to go beyond accumulating knowledge to learning how to think. 


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