Rubin, Harriet

Harriet Rubin, founder of Doubleday's Currency imprint, is a flourishing soloist. She works with leading CEOs to define and deepen their visionary objectives. A contributing editor and columnist for Fast Company, she is author of Soloing: Realizing Your Life's Ambition, and the bestseller The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, and she is the founder of She lives in New York City. asks Harriet Rubin ...

When was the last time you asked, "What do I want to be?"

HR: I last asked that of myself about five minutes ago, and I will probably ask that of myself in another 10 minutes because I'm feeling secure. Essentially I ask that of myself all the time, with every word that I write and every phone call that I take and every email that I read because every bit of communication is an invitation to go off course. That's what you want to do. I remember the days when staying on course was the goal.

You founded the Currency imprint at Doubleday. You had a real corporate job, one that someone once called "as good as it gets" in the publishing world. Were you ever wondering about leaving that world without being able to acknowledge to yourself that you wanted to leave?

HR: I was able to acknowledge it and as soon as the question got raised I heard it. The problem was I didn't have an answer for it. And it took another three years of thinking about that question before I found the answer.

And how did you go about finding the answer?

HR: By keeping the question very much alive and also by realizing I had become the person to whom everyone went to with questions in this particular arena in corporate America. I had no questions myself which means I was learning nothing. In addition, my responsibility was far outstripping my authority, which often happens in corporate America. Phrases like intellectual capital were very popular in those days but I felt my own intellectual capital was going bankrupt. Because I kept giving and giving from what I had learned and discovering very little to nothing. It took three years of testing and experiment.

What's an example of an experiment you conducted in this period?

HR: In my case it meant thinking about a book project of my own. Not editing a book for yet another author. As a publisher, that was my bread and butter. The idea of an editor writing a book in those days wasn't as prevalent as it is now, so I floated a book proposal and sold it and taught myself how to write a book. The result was The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women. That more than anything convinced me I could have a life outside corporate America. It convinced me I could be doing something different from what I'd been doing for fifteen years.

During the period you were working as an editor/publisher had you always dreamed of writing your own book?

HR: In those days I was happy seeing my ideas filtered through my authors. I don't think I would have dared admit to myself that I could write a book. I don't think I felt that I had enough to say.

Let's say someone is out there in corporate America and she's unhappy in her work and knows she could do something on her own, but isn't quite sure what that is—what is the single most important thing that one has to do in order to break out of that situation?

HR: A divorce lawyer sat me down and said, "How would you rate your job on a scale of 1 to 10? Answer it immediately, don't hesitate." I answered "3." Her response was, "If it's less than a 4, you should move on, you should get out." People don't even realize how unhappy they are in their jobs. In the same way a lot of people are unhappy in their marriages. But they don't know what can be better; they don't know how life can be better because they've been in a rut so long. And when you force yourself to give it a number, you force yourself to see the truth. If you're living in a job that's a "3," my God, what are you doing with your life? With your time? With your passion and your love?

What if you say 5?

HR: Well, if you say 5, then chances are you're not ready to go. You've got to want to leave. Leaving has got to be more important to you than staying. That's what it became for me. You have to feel that every cell in your body just wants to be out of that organization, that your soul waits for 5 p.m. each day; even if you don't know what it is you're going to be doing once you do get out because that's very difficult to know. It's very difficult to see the future when you're stuck in a part of your life that represents the past.

Then I'm hearing you say that if you're unhappy where you are, you're not feeling productive, you've become 'Dilbertized,' you're just putting in your time, you need to make the break in order to begin to see clearly.

HR: Absolutely. It was true for me, and it's true for many of the people who've gone solo.

That seems so terrifying. You've got a family, you've got a mortgage—how do you get the courage?

HR: I think it takes more courage to get up every morning and go to a job that's killing you. That's courage. To do something for yourself is one of the best things you can possibly do. Also for your family. And the funny thing is that in this world, more rewards go to the person who does what he or she loves because you do such a better job at it.

There are three different references to gifts in Soloing. You write that you always carry two books, one that you're reading and one that you've already read and will give to someone you meet. The second was the story about Tibor Kalman and how he was in the habit of giving unique gifts on particularly obscure occasions. And the third is that you mention sending a gift to a potential client who has rejected you, as a way of keeping open a channel of communication and good relations. What does a gift represent for you?

HR: It's a form of bonding. It's one of the greatest and oldest forms of friendship. At the "potlatch" ceremonies among native American tribes, people would always exchange gifts. And thereby seal a friendship, seal a commitment for the future. So even if someone rejects you on a certain project, if you respect their work, give them a gift. Whenever you call back, or if they hear your name from someone else, they'll think well of you. It's one of the great transactional vehicles we have. Better than money, really.

Is there a sense of karma in that? A lot of people will devote a good amount of energy wishing ill on someone who'd rejected them. There's a life philosophy here it seems?

HR: My hero is Gandhi, and he always said you should always love everyone, particularly your enemies. With a philosophy built on that simple belief, he was able to drive his enemy, the British overlords, out of India and give India its freedom. And even more importantly, he taught the Indians not to be afraid of the British who considered themselves superior. Our lives are limited by our fears. Our ideas of what we can do together in collaboration, our goals, are limited by our fears. If the backdrop in any collaboration is love or friendship or gift giving, it means that so much more can be created, so much more can be produced.

You quote Carl Jung: "People are more frightened of their strengths than they are of their weaknesses." What does that mean to you?

HR: Many people in corporate America today are dying to go solo, they're dying to walk out the front door for the last time in their lives. They know they're good, and deep down they know that they can do better and more satisfying work by themselves, but they are afraid of that strength, afraid of that ability. Because when you know how strong you are, it comes with a responsibility. You have to use that strength, or act on that talent. For women, this is problem number one: women have so much power that even hearing the word power frightens them. They think that if anyone realizes how powerful they are they will hate them, they will wish them ill, wish them defeat. We're all afraid of how good we are. We're much happier dressing in black and disappearing into the background, not speaking in full voice, just speaking at half volume, undermining our opinions with qualifications like "maybe this is right?" or "I think that?" rather than just saying what we believe. We're always looking for ways to diminish ourselves.

Why is this? Do you see this happening more in females than in males?

HR: You see it a lot more in women than in men because women don't have the same expectations of success by and large that men grow up with. But I also see it these days in men who have been beaten down by the gender wars. The doctrine of machismo has been discredited and no pride or strong new sense of masculine identity has replaced machismo for men. But then, the corporate culture instills this feeling in us of being lesser creatures. The corporate culture which very neatly gives us a nice little box to work in, a very clear job description, tells us not to rock the boat, not to reinvent the wheel. And as long as we feel we can't do any of these grand things, we're going to feel small and inhibited and defeated even before we begin.

You say: "Aim higher." This reminds me of one of Tom's slides that is a quote from Michelangelo: "The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it." How do you help people to aim higher?

HR: Always take a risk. Aim higher than your credentials allow you to represent in one way: if you tell someone that you can do something that you can't do, it forces you to learn how to do it. That's one way to aim higher. For example, I agreed to consult with a woman CEO on developing her identity. I had done some of that when I worked with CEOs on their book projects, but I had never done it to the extent required for this engagement. But I said that I could do it—and I did it. The aspiration is what gets people to work in their discomfort zone. As long as you have at least one foot in the discomfort zone, you're always growing and always learning.

Do anxiety and learning go hand in hand?

HR: I've never seen an artist create anything worthwhile when life was good and perfect. And if life was just good and perfect, they did something to break it all apart. Look at Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, any of the great American painters or poets: they wouldn't relax without thinking about the next painting, the next poem. You may be perfectly happy living your life sitting in front of the TV watching golf tournaments, but a lot of people aren't.

A line from your book states: "A client is someone who pays you to learn." I know this fits into your model of continually putting yourself into a discomfort zone, but is this something you want your clients to know?

HR: No. I wasn't writing this book for clients. But if they read that statement, it shouldn't disturb them. Because what I learn, I make available to them. Columbus got famous from discovering America, which Queen Isabella paid him for. But she got the gold from the expedition.

There is a character in John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor who wanted to learn how to play the violin. To do this, he set himself up as a violin teacher. In this way, he forced himself to learn the instrument. Your theory seems quite similar. It's got a wonderful counterintuitiveness to it.

HR: What you say reminds me of Peter Drucker's beliefs. He says the only way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. He suggests that if you know it beforehand you're not going to be effective at teaching it. Every summer Drucker teaches—at least he used to, I don't know if he still does—a course, such as the Russian novelists. He'd sit down and study the books along with the students. It seems to me a great formula. These days I find that people love to read stories of adventure. They love to see somebody struggle with a problem as they go through it. They don't want to hear the lecture at the end. They don't want to hear, "This is how I did it." They want to go through the drama with you. And I think that's true of clients, too. So if I get someone who says to me, "I have a leadership task," and it's one that I've never encountered, well, since I know some of the coolest thinkers on the planet, why can't I go and find out the answer and learn it with them?

You're, in effect, saying to the client: "Let's explore this problem together, let's learn together."

HR: Because if I knew the answer at the beginning then I don't think the answer is worth their time or effort. Known knowledge doesn't go far enough anymore. We've got to find new questions and new solutions.

You're making yourself the guide through the wilderness? Is that right?

HR: The guide—yes, but it becomes a collaboration. It becomes a co-created solution. Clients, I find, love to create something with you. They add a tremendous amount of wisdom to the project, and they want to feel ownership.

What's an example of co-creating with a client?

HR: For example, earlier this year I did a web site for I was brought on as a consultant. Nancy Evans, who is a co-founder of Women's Network, and I sat down and co-created this channel called Working Diva. Could I have done it on my own? Sure! Could Nancy have just spun out all the ideas she had to some assistants? Yes, she could have. But the idea of co-creating it was that each of us would be able to struggle through high level and interesting problems and come up with something that would probably not be cookie-cutter. You're working peer-to-peer, arguing and respecting each other's points of view. The result is something very rich and unusual.

Part of this world of soloing you say is freedom and you quote Sartre who says that freedom is nausea and you write that soloing can feel like a freefall. You're not painting an entirely pretty picture. It's like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. How can people guard against that or stop that kind of anxiety from consuming them or ruining them?

HR: You can't guard against that anxiety is the true answer. But you can stop it from ruining you. You can't completely minimize anxiety because it's what keeps you alive, it keeps you curious and hungry and searching. If you don't want to feel it, get a job. Really. Get a job and tick off every day as it comes and goes ... until ... until you can't take it anymore.

What are the most important attributes of a soloist?

HR: Courage. An ability to work well with others. (Yes, that sounds like a cliché, but it's true.) And a ferociously allergic reaction to office politics. Such that if you get close to it, you break out into hives. A real delight in creating something that only you could create. Making a personal difference.

Is everyone an artist?

HR: No—but many people are. And the people who are suffering most in anonymous corporate environments are the artists. They're poets and they've been working underground for a long time. Soloing can free up their gifts and free up their spirits. Just release them from all kinds of bondage.

Do you have the seven-word definition of a soloist?

HR: Someone who, unlike a free-lancer, works on projects that keep testing her and stretching her limits. A free-lancer pretty much does the same thing for a wide variety of clients. A soloist is always doing something different for somebody.

Harriet's favorite web sites:—I love the attitude—it keeps me perking.—they are the Christopher Columbuses of the new economy.—one of the great research sites in the world. The other day I was checking on instances where the word 'king' occurs in the classics, American and European classics. And with one click you can find all the references in Shakespeare, in Paul Bunyan, in Turgenev and Chekhov. It's like having your own personal reference librarian who is so much smarter than you and George Will.—site I started for iVillage.

Your favorite books?

HR: This is so hard because I fall in love with everything I read. All-time great favorite for the last few years is The Divine Comedy, by Dante. This book is about power and the excesses of success. What most people miss out on is any sense of an inner life. When you read Dante, it wakes you up from inside out. One of the most beautiful books ever written. I suggest that people just read it through, even if they don't quite understand every line of what they're reading. They'll be different by the time they've finished reading it. They'll have learned so much they didn't even realize they were learning.

The Bhagavad Gita: What The Kama Sutra is to sex, The Bhagavad Gita is to work. How to achieve ecstasy with your clothes on! A tiny, awesome book.

The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. About ambition and what it does to the soul.

Narcissism and Character Transformation, by Nathan Schwartz-Salant. A better guide to the power personality I have never read. When we're in the narcissist's world, we feel larger and more capable of magic than when we're not in their world. They give us a great gift in that. But boy, are they tough. The downside is that they can be destroyed by their own characteristics just as they destroy other people. An eye opener!

What's next for you?

HR: I'm writing a new book on leadership in a changing world. The findings are based on a two year study of leadership I've made, searching for the unobvious sources of power: the approaches that, for example, made Mandela Mandela, or gave Steve Jobs a third chance at success after two major failures, or turned John Chambers of Cisco into the most successful CEO this country has seen. I have found that vision, values, execution—most everything we believe to be the bedrock principles of leadership—can't explain their success as well as other answers can. This book is in a way about the nuclear weapons of power.