About Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer is a professor of political history and an author at Princeton University.
Julian E. Zelizer has been one of the pioneers in the revival of American political history. He is the author and editor of 19 books on American political history. His latest book Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party was published in 2020.
Zelizer is also a frequent commentator in the media. He has published over nine hundred op-eds, including his weekly column on CNN.Com. He is a regular news commentator on radio, television and in print He has received fellowships from the Brookings Institution, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, New America, and the New York Historical Society.
Julian is also the co-host of the podcast Politics & Polls
Lesson 1: Use your momentum 03m 00s.
Lesson 2: Accept imperfection 06m 10s.
Lesson 3: Just start! 09m 00s.
Lesson 4: Don’t be scared to throw things away 12m 40s.
Lesson 5: Both sides don’t always have a good point 17m14s.
Lesson 6: Life is a marathon not a sprint 26m22s.
Lesson 7: Never do early tomorrow what you can do ridiculously early today 29,40s .
Lesson 8: Nothing is free, it’s just included 34m 28s.
Lesson 9: Today is the most important day of your life 37, 53s.
Lesson 10: Prepare for unexpected opportunities 43m 16s.
Julian Zelizer: [00:00:00] When you’re young, you think a challenge is easily solvable. There’s a quick timeframe, basically within which you’re going to do something. And this might range from a big political problem. To your own professional objectives, but you learn as you get older things, take a lot of time. You learn the twists and turns that will take place.
You can’t even imagine when you start. And I think if your approach is the steadiness, rather than it just bursts of speed. In tackling these things, you’re better equipped for these moments as they occur.
Duff Watkins: [00:00:34] Hello and welcome to the podcast, to the lessons. It took me 50 years to learn where we dispense wisdom, not just banalities or cliches, to an international audience, of rising leaders.
My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our guest today is Professor Julian Zelizer. Professor of political history of Princeton university, but more than that, he has edited and authored 21 books, all on political history, his columns appear regularly on cnn.com and the Atlantic magazine. I myself have been reading them for many, many years, and he appears regularly on news shows and the US and he, co-hosts a podcast called.
Politics and Polls, but best of all, he is with us here today. Hi, Julian. Welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Let me point out to our listeners. Two of your books have been awarded the D.B. Hardeman Prize, which is given to books that further the study of the U S Congress. And can I just say there’s nothing needs more explaining and study than the us Congress and your most recent book burning down the house.
The decline of the house of representatives and the rise of the new Republican party was regarded as one of the 100 notable books of 2020. That leads me to ask. No one is born and historian. How or why did you become one?
Julian Zelizer: [00:01:49] That’s a great question? And I really didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do until I’d say late college.
I went to Brandeis university. I had been interested in reading history during high school, just for fun. I started to, there was one book I read. That I remember had a big influence, and I can’t remember if it was high school, early college Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movements. I just, I found it a terrific way to talk, not only about what had happened, but to think about the problems of the day.
And then in late college, I majored in history. I did a two-year research project on a history subject with a professor. And I was either going to be a journalist or a historian both were ways in which I thought I could talk about what was going on in Washington and throughout the world. And I ended up going the academic route.
Duff Watkins: [00:02:40] And doing it well.
Can I just say to listeners Julian’s comments on cnn.com or one of my regular features and I find, I just have to say, I find your commentary to be one of the more astute and accurate, interesting observations of the us political world. Thank you. All right. Well, let’s go into the 10 Lessons it Took You 50 Years to Learn. Lesson number one, when you have momentum use it.
Julian Zelizer: [00:03:02] Yeah. This is a very basic part of life that I’ve learned. I’m a sports fan. And I think over the years I’ve seen sports teams have this amorphous thing called momentum. Things are going well. And what always struck me was when certain teams were able to capitalize on that moment and to accelerate what they’re doing and to focus even more clearly on the task at hand, rather than just, you know, letting things move forward on their own and in life and work.
I really believe that’s quite important. There are these great times when things seem to come together for you. And when. You’re being pushed forward because of what you do or the confluence of events. And I’ve just learned over the years when that lightning strikes take advantage of it and, and use the momentum to finish a project finish something in your personal life, but it’s very important to me.
And I’m always sensitive to when something like that arises.
Duff Watkins: [00:04:02] Can you give me an example of that in your personal life? I mean, sounds good, but I give me a, give me a concrete example.
Julian Zelizer: [00:04:08] Sure. I mean, it happens with work all the time, even this last book you just mentioned it was, it was supposed to come out in March and of 2020.
And the press decided, okay, we’re closing down the world, not a good time to release a book. And this is a non-momentum moment, and it was released in July, and it was kind of an unknown how this would work. Bookstores are generally closed. There were no live book events happening. And all of a sudden, the book was coming out right as the Republican convention was starting to take shape and the presidential election was taking shape.
And all of a sudden, I just started to see there was all this interest in, how did President Trump happen? How did the Republican party get to this point? And I got it from inquiries. People about the book, a few bookstores said, might you be interested? I heard it was going to be featured in a New York times review.
And I just tried to capitalize on this. And I reached out to lots of people might be interested in having discussions and I try to put together events and I wrote op ed so that I could get this point across. And it, it really, it worked very well. Even in the middle of this. Burning down the house, ended up getting a substantial amount of attention.
But part of it was me seeing this was all happening and moving with it rather than not taking advantage of that momentum.
Duff Watkins: [00:05:35] It was called, it was regarded as an editor’s choice as well. I want to point that out to listeners. And by the way, I think you very astutely concluded rightly. You, you drew the trace from Trump back to the rise of Newt Gingrich and the house of representatives, others.
I and my friends had made that association as well. So, We agree. We think you’re in the right track. So, I’m glad to hear the book did well.
Julian Zelizer: [00:05:56] Thank you. Thank you.
Duff Watkins: [00:05:57] Lesson number two. This seems to be my wife’s motto. Except imperfection.
Julian Zelizer: [00:06:02] I taught, I teach my students this all the time, and I’d say that at the beginning of most semesters at Princeton, when I’m teaching a class where students have to write anything in a research paper, a short one, a long one.
Some kind of project. They talked to graduate students who are all studying to be professors and they all have to write a dissertation, which is a first draft of a book. And this is something they will hear from me all the time. And I think it’s very hard. I think it’s hard for young writers and mature writers to understand the limits of what they will ultimately produce, meaning.
If you’re an academic writer and you’re putting together a book, it’s likely the book will have mistakes. It’s likely that the book will be debated and disagreed with over time. And it’s likely that years after you’ve finished the book, if not right when the book comes out, There will be things that you wish you had done differently.
And that could be an accurate assessment. And I think it’s, for me, it’s been important to understand that. And if you get that at the start, it frees you up because then you’re not intellectually hamstrung to do anything, which is how some people end up being there. They’re so worried about the imperfection.
They’re so worried. About the mistakes that will be made, they do nothing or they just kind of, you know, are running in place for too long. And with students when you tell them that, and when you tell them that from a position of authority, they can move forward, and they can start actually putting ideas on paper.
And so, I believe it’s true, certainly with writing and I believe in other parts of. Life. It’s important to remember that as well. And you know, the personal challenges you face as a parent as a spouse, as a friend, the role you play in the community, it will not always be perfect. And I think that’s okay.
I’ve learned over 50 years that that’s fine. What’s more important is the kind of work you put into the effort. And just as important, your determination to persist and to finish whatever objective or task you’re engaged in rather than stopping.
Duff Watkins: [00:08:13] I remember seeing the coach of the duke basketball team, Mike Krzyzewski coaching telling his players don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
This was early in the season mind you, and one of the previous guests on the podcast. He was very senior business executive. He wrote in his book, be satisfied if people deliver you 80% of what you expect. And I got to thinking about that from a psychological perspective. What if you said that to yourself, self be satisfied.
If you get 80% of what you expect at this time, time, and that segues nicely to your third lesson. Be willing to start tackling big challenges without all the answers.
Julian Zelizer: [00:08:51] Yeah. I mean, these, these are related and as you get older, you, you continue to face things are going well, really bigger and bigger challenges which, which are opportunities.
And I I’ve just met a lot of people. When they see a challenge like that, they don’t know where to start. It, it becomes. Overwhelming because they think of the bigness of the challenge rather than what step one is in actually moving forward. So again, for, for my profession, it’s about writing, and I am someone who has now become known, and people will joke.
I write a lot. I’ve read a lot of op-eds. I write a lot of books and if I just sit down and think about, okay, what do I have in the few months that are ahead of me? Often, I’ll have two, three, four projects ahead of me. I’ll have all kinds of stuff with my students. But I understand it. I always operate through this mentality.
What I’m really focused on is what’s the first thing I’m going to do. What’s the first piece of research I’m going to do. What’s the first student I’m going to work on their paper with, even with your children. They all have huge things that you want to help them with. But what I’m most interested in is what are we going to do tomorrow, or what are we going to do today?
And like accepting imperfection. I find that quite liberating. I think it’s, it’s helpful. If you do that because ultimately really big challenges can easily overwhelm you. And then you’re just focused on where to start as opposed to figuring out where to start.
Duff Watkins: [00:10:18] And that’s the best advice I was given by my doctoral promoter was write your conclusion first. I said, what start at the end. I never heard of such a thing. Of course, I ignored that excellent advice by the way. But the point is, and I’ve heard this from other people as well, just bloody start, just do something start and you think of, I think of movies Quintin Tarantino has movies have a beginning and a middle and an end, but not always in that order.
And you can shuffle it up and what you described earlier is that paralyzing fear that people have doctoral students are a good example and it does stop you. And it is fear. It just stops you from progressing, doing anything at all. And what you find is once you start, it’s amazing how things start to flow.
Julian Zelizer: [00:11:05] My, my advisor in graduate school was a guy named Lou Galambos. Who’s a business historian and, and, and I remember I, you know, they, your advisors in life and mentor as they make these comments that stick with you. And once we were talking about writer’s block, not either of us, for people, whoever had it, but I was asking, what do you tell students when they have it?
And his solution was simple. He’s like take a pad of paper and a pencil. Right. And there you go. You’ve started. And it stuck. And I guess it’s related to what I’m trying. I really, I believe there’s something to that and I think it can be a really effective in different realms of life.
Duff Watkins: [00:11:40] Well, there is something to it psychologically.
I know a bit about that and it’s Life rewards action as another way of hearing it or putting it that I’ve heard. It’s a, it’s a lesson. It’s a piece of wisdom that we need to learn and relearn and relearn evidently.
Julian Zelizer: [00:11:54] Yeah, no for sure. And again, it’s different in different parts of your life, but I think it always holds true and I try to tell young people just.
You know, start with step one. And, and you’ll eventually get to solving the big challenge, but the first step is what’s right in front of you. It’s what’s most doable and it’s ultimately the most integral to starting the process. Just writing the THE.
Duff Watkins: [00:12:16] Okay. Lesson number four don’t be scared to throw things away.
Julian Zelizer: [00:12:20] This is something I think I got my parents are a little bit like this. I was thinking after I told you these were different. Ideas come from, but I’m very much someone who is willing to throw older things away when they’re really not useful or necessary. That doesn’t mean not respecting keeping and treasuring an important part of your life or you know, keeping old things, you didn’t work and, and having them around.
But you also have to be willing to move forward. Essentially, sometimes throwing things away. It’s like spring cleaning. It’s the psychological process of moving forward of saying, okay, that’s over, that’s done. And we’re going to clear up our intellectual space, our psychological space, or literally our physical space so that we could do new things in life, and we could find new challenges and.
That’s another area I’ve learned. You just learn over time that some people can’t do that. And I don’t just mean people who have amazing clutter and just keep everything. But people who psychologically are almost trapped by everything that came before. And I’m a big believer that you have to be willing to take that step.
And it’s scary. I mean, there’s, you know, everyone who’s cleaned their house to move or something. There’s a scary part of taking something and saying I’m throwing it. I’m never going to see it again. You’re wondering, will I ever want to see it again? Will I need it at some point, and I think it’s a good exercise to be able to do that.
And it’s again about liberating yourself for future challenges and for growth, frankly, with writing. I also believe it’s important to, I think people get. Caught up in, in just kind of talking about the same thing over time and continuing to come back to where they were five, 10, 20 years ago. And part of throwing all things away, whether it’s literal or symbolic is, is the ability to break from that.
And it’s been, it’s very important in my mind. To a healthy life.
Duff Watkins: [00:14:20] And it is healthy. I, myself was a guest on the podcast. The very first episode and one of my bits of wisdom, straightforward Buddhism is don’t clean. Don’t cling to objects, material things, views, mistakes, mistreatments arguments, real or imaginary people, anything.
And but you know the best articulation of the thing that you’re talking about, I’ve heard is from Marie Kondo of all people, you know, her, the decluttering genius have you come across Marie Kondo who has written extensively about how to declutter your life. And she makes the point quite eloquently about we’ll use the wardrobe as an example, but anything in your home.
You know that pair of shoes that you never wore, you know, that gift from your mother, that sweater, that you never wear, all these things had a purpose and a function at one time in your life. But now do they, and her question is when you hold it, does it spark joy. And if not, you say thank you for your service and then dispense it and let it serve its function elsewhere.
Now that sounds a little over the top, but I do know that. If you’re buying a new wardrobe that you first have to empty the wardrobe that you have in order to put the new clothes in there. Otherwise, there’s just no room. And that’s a metaphor for people’s lives. You have to get rid of some stuff to create some space, as you were saying in your life for new and better upgrades to occur.
Julian Zelizer: [00:15:43] Yeah. And, and it’s equally relevant given what you just said to getting rid of bad things in your life. You know, the older you get, the more challenges you have or more memories you have that are not particularly good, but you keep those as well. And I think this is hard. I mean, this is not easy to do.
It’s easy to throw out a box of old something then to take these moments that occur to you and, and somehow throw them out whether they’re attached to something physical or not. But I think it can be important. Otherwise, again, it’s, it’s almost like writing the same idea. You’re reliving the same tensions or problems and, and the throwing away of that.
It can feel great. And I think be important psychologically.
Duff Watkins: [00:16:27] It is. And speaking from my past days as a psychotherapist, you nailed a reason is fear. It’s, it’s a fear of letting go. But as you also describe the sense of liberation and a freedom that comes with it as well worth that. Dealing with wrestling, the interfere lesson number five. I’m a little surprised to this one. Both sides don’t always have a good point. I thought you’re supposed to be this objective historian and columnist and everything’s equal and enlighten me.
Julian Zelizer: [00:16:56] Yeah. I mean, I, I, this I’ve learned from my work and. I think when I started my career, I believe that more. And I was perpetually trying to understand every side of a debate and to in politics, explain how both sides were saying something and almost leave it at that.
And there are important moments to do that. So certainly, when I’m teaching, that is a guiding philosophy, still the reverse of what I just said, but the more I matured and the more I studied politics and the kinds of arguments you hear and, and sometimes in the classroom, when I’ve heard students saying things that they’re just either wrong, they’re factually wrong or not sure they’re
done in a way that doesn’t even benefit the person making the claim. They’re not doing it in the best way possible. It’s important to understand there’s bad arguments that are made. Certainly, if you study American politics now you, you can’t have a perspective that all the debates are equal, and all the arguments are equally strong because.
Then you almost give a skewed perspective of what’s happening. This played out obviously in the last election and this whole campaign against voter fraud, that didn’t happen. And it was a manufactured argument. It was almost a disservice to just say, well, you know, Democrats say it was a fair election and the president says it’s an unfair election.
You have to add, there’s no validity to what the president is saying. That’s one example where I’m talking about. Your ability to see this when you’re writing about things or talking about what’s happening in the public realm. But the other way in which I alluded to a few minutes ago is sometimes it’s important to say that to someone who’s making a weak argument, we’re making an argument.
That’s not as good as they could make. And if you’re scared to do that, and you’re not willing to acknowledge well, they just said something that isn’t so strong. I think it ultimately weakens the whole discourse that we have. And so, this is one of those lessons. I probably wouldn’t have told you that you know, 25 years ago, but now I really firmly believe it.
And it’s even effected my writing. I think I can, in some ways be more hard-hitting about what I hear, because I understand that, you know, not all arguments are equally good. Not all are valid. And part of our role is to state that and to highlight that and to respond to it.
Duff Watkins: [00:19:23] Okay. Well, what is the role of fact in current US society?
Julian Zelizer: [00:19:28] It’s weakened. I mean, fact should be central. I do believe our public comments depends on our agreement. On fact. And our willingness to pursue what’s fact over fiction in, in debating issues. But we are at a point because of social media, because of certain political actors who are just willing to talk about untruth all the time.
Where it’s hard for people to know what the facts are. I sometimes say in discussions it’s as if in the sixties there wasn’t a debate over whether the U S role in Vietnam was good or bad, but as if you had some people just saying, well, there wasn’t even a war going on. You know, we weren’t sending troops there versus we were, and that’s where we are today.
I mean, we’ve seen this in the COVID. Debates. We’ve seen this in the voting debates, and I find it very unsettling. And I think it’s heightened the pressure for journalists, for sure. To be cognizant and discuss this and step out of a pure I’m going to look objective all the time and you see this all the time.
They’re more forceful in calling these things out. And I think this is one of the more disturbing parts of our public culture, the way in which false hood. Has gained a pretty legitimate seat at the table.
Duff Watkins: [00:20:46] And you’re in the business of discussing dissecting facts, things that occurred in the past. That’s what a historian does.
Although Andrew Bacevich says a historian’s task is to reinterpret history. So, I’m supposed to do that too. So how do you counter this were fact simply doesn’t seem to matter. That’s quite astonishing to me, by the way. I see it mostly in the U S. See it here in Brazil. Occasionally I’ll see it in Australia, but not, not so often, but it seems to emanate from the U S how do you, who deals in facts, recorded facts. How do you counter that?
Julian Zelizer: [00:21:22] It’s very, it’s very difficult. I think Andrew Bacevich’s comment is astute. Meaning part of what you do as a historian is interpretation. And I think people sometimes have a different view that it’s simply a collection of fact, but what really good historians do is you take the facts, and you make an argument about them, and you put them together and try to.
Persuade analytically about what it all adds up to, but the basis of what a historian does, which is part of why I do this is you start by collecting data. So, for his story, and I go to write a book, I have to go to the archives, and I have to see what was written at the time. And what did people say at the time and have actual documentation to support that rather than speculation.
I’ll look in the media and find. Quotes and see interviews. And that collection process of the historian is itself in my mind when it’s done well, an example of how you can have fact-based argument as opposed to argument without facts. I try to do that in the public arena as well. And it’s hard because you know, things move at a fast and furious pace.
But one of the things I love about writing an op-ed. Is not only the ability to put forth an argument every week about what’s going on, but through the editorial process, I’m forced to check what I’m saying. And my editors at CNN pushed me. Where did you get that? Are you sure? That’s true things. I almost sometimes take as a given.
And then when they ask, I have to find it. Those processes. I do all the time. And I hope as a professor, as a teacher, really, that I do the same with my students, that I don’t really teach them a particular perspective they should have on American history. That’s their job. But for example, I’ll give you one example.
I teach a class on the United States since 1974. I teach it every year. It’s one of my favorite classes at Princeton. And one of the assignments that each student has is very simple. I give each discussion section some event that’s happened since the seventies that they probably never heard of or might’ve heard of a little, but it’s not a.
Big marquee event that we talk about. So maybe a baseball strike or maybe a speech by a political activist who was not well known. And what do they have to do? They have to write a five-page paper saying, why does this matter? What was the meaning of this? You take an event and. Write about it historically, but they can’t just write about it.
And they can’t just Google a few things. They have to go to a database of newspapers that we have all newspapers and find real stories real evidence to support their claim. And so that’s a really important assignment for me, not so much for what they produce, but for remembering that’s how you put things together in an argument.
So, I try my best, but it’s, I would say it’s extraordinarily hard in this. Era to keep people focused on that.
Duff Watkins: [00:24:16] It’s increasingly common imperviousness to fact, which is what disturbs me. So that’s why I’m asking how you handle that. Do you see that in your students or in the, when you, maybe not your students so much, but in your normal workaday life, people simply resisting the bleeding obvious?
Julian Zelizer: [00:24:33] I see that a lot. I mean, certainly in my In my media life, I see that all the time I’ll be on air with someone and, you know, I’ll, I’ll hear them, whether you’re on the radio or TV saying something it’s just not true and saying it with a sort of confidence as if they had something to back it up. And I find that disturbing I don’t mind when people argue with different perspectives.
That’s great. But what I hate is hearing someone say something that I suspect they know isn’t true as well. But feeling totally comfortable doing that. Students are still better there. I mean, I think the younger generation on the one hand people in their late teens and early twenties are more familiar with this world than we were.
I mean, this is the world they’re growing up with, but because they’re college students and they’re very intelligent and smart, I think they are still committed to finding a different path and they have that young optimism that you can do that. And that’s why they’re at a university. So, you know, I, I hope that there’s some kind of generational change over time.
Duff Watkins: [00:25:34] Okay. Lesson number six. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s good news. Cause I don’t feel like sprinting anytime soon.
Julian Zelizer: [00:25:43] Yeah. I mean, this is obviously related to some of my other points. This was something said to me by another advisor in graduate school, she probably doesn’t even remember saying it to me.
It was kind of a fleeting remark, and she was saying it in a really nice way about the way I work. And she said that I. Approach things in that fashion and that I don’t just run out and kind of move at full speed, but I am kind of slow deliberate and conserve my energy, so to speak even while doing a lot, even while running a huge race to get to that point.
And, and I think it’s important. I mean, it’s, it’s like the thing on imperfection, the lesson on imperfection or starting with step one of challenges as you get older. Yeah. When you’re young, you think a challenge is easily solvable. There’s a quick timeframe, basically within which you’re going to do something.
And this might range from a big political problem to your own professional objectives, but you learn as you get older things, take a lot of time. You learn the twists and turns. That will take place. You can’t even imagine when you start, you’ll learn as we all did this year. Like no one predicted, well, some people did, but no one really predicted COVID as it would affect our lives.
And I think if your approach is the steadiness, rather than it just bursts of speed. In tackling these things, you’re better equipped for these moments as they occur and you have more energy, you have more determination and you’re not frustrated so quickly when the plan you have kind of falls apart.
And so, when she said that to me, that was another moment, like the pencil of another advisor, pencil and ‘writing the’ comment that just. It always stuck in my head. And I think it’s something I certainly live by.
Duff Watkins: [00:27:31] That suggests that one’s career is a marathon. That is to say what really is kind of an adventure.
You start out, it’s not over quickly. It’s over a long time. It’s an adventure there. Things occurred that. That you never expected. For example, I’m just thinking last year, at this time, if you had said to me, Duff you’ll be sitting in the mountains of Brazil talking to Julian Zelizer on zoom. I would have said, first of all, what Zoom?
I never even heard of it. And now, now it’s an integral part of my life. And yet here we are.
Julian Zelizer: [00:28:03] Yeah, no, I, I think that’s true. And if, if you’re understanding the process, this long-term process long distance process that you’re engaged in at every feature of your life. I think you’re just better equipped for this and.
As unsettling a moment. Like the one we’re all living in has been, I think you’re better positioned to just keep moving forward, even in those moments of crisis. I mean, I did it with my work. I’ve continued to do what I was doing before. I’m doing it now with zoom and I’m doing it more in isolation, like all of us, but I didn’t let it distract me from what I was working.
I have another book coming out in the fall and it was that steadiness. I think that was quite important.
Duff Watkins: [00:28:47] Sound advice. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Lesson number seven. Never do early tomorrow, which you can do ridiculously early today.
Julian Zelizer: [00:28:58] Yeah, this is, I mean, this is a comment, some somewhat humorous obviously.
And I think a lot of people would say this about me. Some have I do everything ahead of time. I’m never late for anything. And I’m at the point, it’s a little ridiculous how early I will be. And I think that way I literally, I can’t. Think in a way where I postpone what I have to do until the last minute or even the moment where I still have a cushion, I go the step further and I’ll do it three days in advance.
I’ve never turned a book in late ever usually turn it in pretty early. My articles are always on time. My grading, my students always say like they get it back almost as they send it. When someone emails me, they’ll get a response pretty quickly. And I, so I, it, I understand it’s, it’s humorous. It says a lot about me and, and some of my kind of ongoing pace, but I think there’s something to it.
I mean, it’s a little like the marathon point that we just discussed and that you can’t anticipate everything that’s going to happen. I mean, and, and the, the extreme version is a pandemic, but. The last extreme version is someone calls you and asks you to do a favor during the day that you didn’t plan on.
And some new opportunity emerges the day you were going to do something else. And I think it’s often helpful if you have a robust work-life for sure. When you have time to do something, do it. And if, if it’s very early, ridiculously early, that will free you up, it will free you up either to have a day of rest when you can do it, but it will also free you up for these unexpected parts of life.
You’ll be in a good position to still finish what you have to do. So, I am someone who thinks that way at a very deep, deep level. And I just, I’m not a believer in. Postponing things when you don’t have to certainly on work and it served me Well. I mean, I think it served me well, it has been the reason I haven’t been knocked off course on most of my projects because I have such a cushion.
That when you need that cushion it feels, you know, terrific to have it, and you could complete what you have to do in good fashion.
Duff Watkins: [00:31:14] First of all, can I say you and me brother, you and me, I lived the same way. I think it is so, and I find it so stress relieving to be able to do that. I’m always early everything’s on time or early and it just, it just frees you up.
And I want to point out to. To listeners. We’re not talking about rigidity here. We’re talking about actually maximizing flexibility so you can adapt so you can deviate because you’re free to do so because you have things under control in your own work or personal life.
Julian Zelizer: [00:31:48] I think that’s no, that’s exactly right.
And I think you hear a lesson like that. Certainly. I understand how you can hear it as a kind of idea of rigidity, but it really isn’t. I mean, and if you meet people who leave things where they don’t do that, they’re more or less, they’re usually much more stressed and feeling tense about. What they have to do, then the person who feels that early on, but then is relieved of a lot of that stress.
It, it takes off this incredible burden, certainly in the world of work, but also in personal relations. That is great. It’s liberating now. People, I love to have fun and people are always surprised cause I do work a lot, but that’s part of why. I mean, I have these cushions where I can go out and do something fun or spend a few hours on something silly.
But I think it’s how you structure your time. And I think doing it on the front end can be incredibly constructive and it can actually make the work process feel much better than waiting and leaving it towards a later time.
Duff Watkins: [00:32:53] Yeah. Well, what I’d like to point out to listeners and to viewers, is that it takes maybe this much more effort than you think it doesn’t take this much.
And the other thing is if you, if you want to call it a discipline, the discipline is for the benefit of, of you, you alone. No one else really, really, you’re the prime beneficiary of this habit that we’re talking about. So, I would just like to say, to point out to people, if you haven’t tried it. Try it see, see how you feel, right?
You might like it now, for sure. For sure. This is my personal favorite. Lesson number eight. Nothing is free. It’s just included.
Julian Zelizer: [00:33:28] Yeah. This is something I say to my I say this to my kids. And when I was putting this together, I actually asked them for advice on things that I say. And that was one that they came.
And I often say that when, you know, I don’t know we send them somewhere and they get something like, look what we got for free. And I’ll often point out it was included and. You know, it’s a, it’s a good way to think of the connections of, it’s not necessarily a negative way to think about items you obtain or opportunities do you obtain, they are connected to some larger infrastructure some larger payment, whether it’s financial or another kind of payment that you make, or an obligation it makes you think of the obligations that are required so that you can get things which are terrific.
And seem to be a free, and it’s something I remind myself of all the time. Things don’t just come out of nowhere. And it’s not just a free lunch kind of argument that you hear from economists. I just believe that you get the great things in life because you have either paid for something that gives you that, but you might pay for it in a different way about how you live or what you’re doing for a.
Institution or a civic. Cause that’s when those things come. And that’s why I like to say that often. And I think people really should think about where great things that seem free which is the ultimate pleasure where they come from and not disconnected from the infrastructure that was required to get that.
Duff Watkins: [00:35:00] I think you illustrate it very well. Thinking things are free as a very childlike mode of thinking. It’s what you, the way you are when you’re believing in the Easter bunny or Santa Claus or, okay. I’m still open about Santa Claus, but the, the thinking of that, there it’s an immature level of thinking.
Whereas as you get older, I would like to think that we all realized there are certain circumstances, conditions causes that produce whatever it is that you’re getting. Quote free unquote. And you certainly learn that in business.
Julian Zelizer: [00:35:34] Yeah. And, and I’ll just add, I mean, I started by saying that’s something I say to my kids and every parent knows that feeling where you want the kids to kind of see what you did, so that could happen.
But I think at a broader level that that’s also an important part of it. It’s not simply not being able to understand. Why something happened, but to feel appreciative for everything that made that free moment actually happened. And we don’t do that. I think we lose our connection, our civic connection often to the people and to the institutions and organizations that allow us to have these great experiences.
So, I think it’s actually quite important way to think about our daily lives.
Duff Watkins: [00:36:17] And it’s understanding that things produced have causes and that we’re the prime beneficiary of that as well. So that is a pretty good attitude to cultivate, but it ain’t, but it ain’t free.
Julian Zelizer: [00:36:29] Right. And it’s important in the world of business as well.
I mean, whatever your business or work is there’s a lot of people who often you don’t really appreciate but who are. Really quite important for the great things that happen. And if you’re a person who appreciates that and thinks about it, I think ultimately, you’ll have a better life.
Duff Watkins: [00:36:47] Lesson number nine today is the most important day of your life. Have you been reading Oprah again?
Julian Zelizer: [00:36:55] Yeah. Right. I’m a believer in that, you know, and that’s the dumb thing. I think as we age, we appreciate, you know, there is an ease of not taking the day seriously. There is an ease of not appreciating what’s right in front of you.
When you wake up. I just wrote a book. I finished a biography of a rabbi. His name was Abraham Heschel. He was a theologian, but he was also a civil rights activist and an antiwar activist in the sixties. And the subtitle of the book is something he says it’s. I mean, I, the subtitles, a life of radical amazement, and this is something he spoke about a lot, the tendency of human beings.
Just not to be cognizant of the amazing things that are around you let alone the day. And when he’d walk in New York and your Riverside park, he’d always say, look at the trees, look at the trees cause we, you know, forget the magnificence of, of what surrounds us. But that’s true with the day. And I think it’s a, it’s a disposition of how you think when you wake up about what’s ahead and the day is full of opportunity.
It’s full of great possibilities. It’s full of great surroundings. And I’m when I wake up very early, I’m an early riser. And I go to sleep early, but when I wake up full of energy and I’m excited about what’s going to come, and I tell other people to try to think of the day that way. And it might be the most important day.
It’s don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think if you’re in the right framework, you’re better prepared for the greatness that could happen at any given moment.
Duff Watkins: [00:38:33] What you’re describing is that. And I hope we never lose that childlike sense of wonder at the world, the ability to be amazed, not talking about childishness, I’m talking about that childlike ability to appreciate wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whomever you’re with.
That’s a wonderful attribute in a person.
Julian Zelizer: [00:38:53] Yeah. And I’ll say in terms of influences my father. Was a rabbi. So, I grew up as a clergy’s kid and one of the things that clergy do, which I think a lot of people, unless you’re a child of one don’t realize is, is dealing with death. It’s about funerals.
It’s about counseling people who have lost loved ones, whether they’re older or younger. And I think. Watching that I just appreciated how fleeting life can be because you would hear, I would hear at the dinner table about someone who I went to synagogue with every week and saw that was it. They, they were gone and it’s a terrible mistake at some level.
And it shouldn’t be a source of fear, but not to be aware of that. And, and that should make your day different. That should lead to a sensibility where you don’t waste a single day. It is the most important day is the one ahead of you. And I think you just use your time in a much better way. And growing up in my father’s.
Home that’s I think in part how I learned about this.
Duff Watkins: [00:40:00] That reminds me, I tell you how I learned about it. My first career, I was a clergyman. I was 25 years old working in a parish. And one of the leading citizens of the town was the funeral director. And I was having dinner over south. He said, would you like to see the facilities?
Sure. So, he takes me, shows me the embalming table. This is pre dinner conversation, by the way. And then we go into the vault where they store the bodies, and I wasn’t. Squeamish. We walk in there and there are two bodies on display. Both of whom were young men. I was 25 at the time they happened to be in their twenties as well.
I kind of staggered out backwards. He said to him, they’re young. He laughed and said, You don’t have to be old to die. And I have never forgotten that moment and not to be Google is sure negative about it, but just to put things into perspective that death is part of life and, and it can occur at any time of life.
And it does help one appreciate the day. This isn’t nothing new Buddhists have been saying this for thousands of years.
Julian Zelizer: [00:41:00] So. Yeah. And I think this year for all of us is as a way we’re thinking about it even more because everyone can remember the day before they went into lockdown or the world around them shut down.
And you think about us. You know, all of the things I miss doing. I mean, I, I never really thought before this, about going out to a restaurant and how exciting that was, but you know, now the idea not only of going to a restaurant, but sitting inside a restaurant, I was thinking this the other day is tremendous.
And I think when you live through what we’ve all just lived through in addition to. An awareness of the limits of life. And the end point of life is, is now an awareness of these things. We just take for granted, which in an ordinary day are available to us or something we not only should appreciate, but at some point, do cause you just don’t know when those opportunities go away.
Duff Watkins: [00:41:57] Ah, and that takes us to Lesson number 10, prepare for unexpected opportunities. Wait a minute, wait a minute, Julian. How am I going to prepare for something that’s unexpected?
Julian Zelizer: [00:42:06] Yeah. Yeah. This is probably from studying politics so much. And I teach a class on leadership. Some of the discussion is always from students who say, how do you teach leadership?
It’s like, you’re either a, a leader. You’re not, but B things happen that are just work out for you. It’s like every presidential victor, things just come together. In a way that when you look back, it makes sense and like, how are you going to replicate that? But there’s ways I really believe you can position yourself so that when they happen whenever they happen, whether it’s in a day, a month or five years, if you’re prepared for that, if you have all the skills that you need and the insights that you need and the drive that you need, you will take advantage of the opportunity.
Where other people will just let it go. I mean, my life has been full of these moments where someone says, Hey do you want to write a book? Or, Hey, are you interested in this, in this job? And obviously I couldn’t predict those were going to happen. But when they happen, I was in good shape. Intellectually to take advantage of them.
And I tell students all the time, I, I can’t tell them where jobs are going to happen and can’t tell them what things in a good way will happen in their career. But I can have them prepared. I can have them know their material really well. Like you can have them prepared to be articulate in front of a group or a job interview.
And if you are that person, they are the ones. Usually who are the ones who succeed when those opportunities emerge. And you see this, if you study life all the time, it’s not an accident. The people who do well we’re able to capitalize on these windows when they open.
Duff Watkins: [00:43:46] Didn’t Abraham Lincoln say something like I will prepare so that should the opportunity arise. I will meet it, something like that.
Julian Zelizer: [00:43:55] I don’t know. That’s a great quote, but I think that is the philosophy that I live by. And it’s a good one. And in all realms, All realms of life. It’s why preparation is so important. And it’s a response to people who are more pessimistic and say, well, why should I do anything?
Like, again, after a year like this, you know, why should I work so hard? Or, or why should I focus on, you know, physical strength or intellectual strength. It’s for that reason when, when those great moments happen and they’re put in front of you, then you’ll be able to. Take advantage of them. And, and if you don’t, you know, I just don’t think that success actually comes.
I mean, I’ll throw in a personal story on that is, is people always ask, how did you end up doing all this media stuff? How do you end up, you know, being on CNN and Ray NPR at blah, blah, blah? And it’s a great question. And some of the answer is I was in the right place when people needed someone. But really an important part of the answer I always give is my first job was at the state university of New York in Albany.
And in 1998 President Clinton was being impeached and the local CBS. Network in that region. It’s upstate New York asked me to come on and talk. I’d never been on television. I did it and I enjoyed it and they seemed to enjoy it. So, then they started to ask me to come on about once a month, about six in the morning and to speak about whatever was going on.
And I did it for many years, several years, and it was tiring, and it was not necessarily my top preference to want to go into the studio. And yeah. Like once all the news anchors were dressed in the television show, survivor gear, cause it was on CBS and it was the end of the season, but I did it and my idea was, I’ll just keep doing this and I’ll learn how to be on camera, and I’ll learn how to be totally comfortable on air and a related story.
That same time I was once in the bar having dinner. And on Monday night, they were doing a live radio show for the local ESPN and the host. It was, he was in the bar, and he said, any New York jets fans here, they were playing that. And I, and I raised my hand, and I went on air, and I spoke with him, and he thought it was hilarious.
There was a professor who knew so much about. Football. And he asked me to keep coming on and almost every week I would go on for 15 minutes as the professor take calls. And, you know, it was kind of silly thing to do, but it was, I actually said, I’ll learn how to do radio. And then down the line when networks approached me and when NPR approached me, I was really prepared not only to go in and just do what they wanted.
But to do it pretty well and to do it with a comfort level. And then that’s my version of preparing for opportunity.
Duff Watkins: [00:46:44] And I want to point out to listeners too, Julian, you had ample opportunity to screw it up royally. And for some reason you didn’t. And if you had, if you had they’d say, get that guy out of here and never again.
One thing led to the next is what it sounds like. And because you took advantage of this opportunity, I like to use the phrase it’s not original incremental success. You build upon each, each success of experience of success and turned it into, well, my, you know, I guess, I guess you’re media guy now, right?
Julian Zelizer: [00:47:13] No, that’s how it happened. But the, the practice really was. Important.
Duff Watkins: [00:47:17] Well, let me finish up here by asking you something that’s. So, we’ve had 10 lessons, the wisdom, what is one thing that you have unlearned? Because unlearning is a vital part of wisdom. Something you absolutely knew to be true then, but now realize is not the case.
Julian Zelizer: [00:47:34] Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I think I’d say in the last year when I turned 50, a few months before the pandemic happened and as you could, probably, as listeners can probably tell I’m someone who at a basic level who believes in structure? I mean, I am not someone who lives.
Moment by moment. I think of structure. I think of what I do. I live through patterns. I exercise every day. That’s just my mentality, but I have learned this year that some improvisation and some willingness to accept unknowns in your life. Is something I have to be more cognizant and comfortable with.
And I’ve learned how to do that. I mean, this was such a dramatic year to be through where the bottom just fell out on everything. It was impossible to live the way I was in February. Right. Pretty much could almost map out the year. Can’t do that anymore. And I think this year I’ve learned to be more comfortable with that within the lessons I’m talking about as a regular feature of life.
And it’s actually been good. It’s a little like the doing everything early. There is a certain liberating element to accepting that big unknowns can happen, and big uncertainties can happen. And that’s okay. And, and you, you will figure out what to do when, when that time comes. I am married to someone who’s great at that.
And she’s someone who no, she’s just really. I admire the way she can do that. And I think in terms of problem solving in, in work in life, it’s really important. So, I’ve undone the lesson of total structure in some ways that I lived by. And I think this has helped not end that at all, as you can hear from my lessons, but certainly adjust it and to kind of find new ways within my mindset and my philosophy of life.
To work with, you know, the days where you just literally don’t know what’s about to come.
Duff Watkins: [00:49:24] I take solace in the words of Marcus Aurelius really is who wrote and I’m paraphrasing, he said, ‘Why are you worried about facing that obstacle that you think is going to happen? You’ll meet at the same way. You met every other obstacle, and you’ll do that when you meet it’.
And I’ve reflected upon that. And. Isn’t that the truth. Isn’t that exactly what we do.
Julian Zelizer: [00:49:44] Yeah, no, that’s exactly. That’s a very apt description of, of what we end up doing. And now we’ve learned this year that it’s, it’s what you have to do. I mean, this is how we end up meeting those moments.
Duff Watkins: [00:49:57] And we will end on that note. Listeners you’ve been listening to the podcast. 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Princeton professor Julian Zelizer. This episode is produced by Robert Hossary and is sponsored by the professional development forum PDF. They offer webinars, social media discussions, podcasts, parties, anything you want, everything you need, you can find it all online and free. https://www.professionaldevelopmentforum.org/ Thank you for joining us today Julian. Very much appreciate also. Thanks to our listeners. This was, this is the only podcast that I know that’s making the world a little wiser lesson by lesson. Thank you for joining us and we’ll see you in the next episode.
For more information about our podcast series, please visits https://10lessonslearned.com/ . Thank you for listening.