Numlock Sunday: Stacey Vanek Smith on Machiavelli for Women

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Stacey Vanek Smith, the host of The Indicator from Planet Money on NPR and the author of the new book Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace.

I really enjoy Smith’s show — I got to go on it earlier this year to talk about a piece I wrote about robocalls and when I saw she had a book out I grabbed it as quick as I could.

It’s a look at Machiavelli’s iconic — and at times, misunderstood — work The Prince, and more specifically about some of the more timeless advice that the book has to offer for marginalized workers today.

Machiavelli wrote the book not for the inheriting prince but for the conquering prince, the new entrant, and Smith argues that as a result it’s full of really great advice for women and people of color and LGBT folks in the workforce. She blends this angle with some really compelling economic and sociological research about how workplaces operate.

Machiavelli for Women is available wherever books are sold, and Stacey Vanek Smith can be found at The Indicator and on Twitter.

Stacy, you are the author of Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace. You wrote a book all about how Machiavelli has lots of pertinent lessons for women in today's workplace. I guess, to kind of kick us off, you start off with a really good reevaluation of where Machiavelli sits in popular perception compared to why he wrote the book. Do you want to talk maybe a little bit about where he was at the time that he wrote The Prince?

Yeah, it's really interesting because I think we tend to think of The Prince as this sort of treatise on power and the book that like every old school Wall Street trader would have, along with The Art of War, but the truth is at the time Machiavelli wrote The Prince, I mean, it was essentially a cover letter. The Prince was like a Hail Mary pass from someone who had lost everything, honestly.

Machiavelli, at the peak of his career, was essentially the Secretary of State for Florence. This was before Italy united, so there were all these like Italian city-states and Florence was one of them, and Machiavelli was essentially the Secretary of State. He spent all of his time kind of wheeling and dealing with kings and princes and popes. And he loved his work by all accounts. Florence was sort of a functioning republic at that point, but then fortunes changed and the Medici family took control of Florence and Machiavelli was thrown out of his office. He lost his job. They took all of his money, he was thrown in jail, he was tortured and he was run out of town. So he'd lost everything.

And The Prince was addressed to Lorenzo de Medici. Basically, he was writing The Prince to the people who had taken everything from him, and trying to impress this person so much that it would be like, well, he was working for the other side, but he's just so brilliant we have to have him working for us. He was basically begging the person who had taken everything away from him to take him back, to give him his old job back. And that is The Prince. He was hoping the ideas in The Prince would be so powerful and shine so brightly that he would get his old job back, which he did not. He did not get it back.

But we do have this really fascinating document that, as you go through, you point out that there is so much pertinent advice. Particularly because of this kind of duality that he has between a prince who inherits power and a prince who basically conquests it. Do you want to get into that and maybe how that relates to women in the American workforce?

Yes, absolutely. Machiavelli writes The Prince for what he calls "the conquering prince." He says there are two kinds of princes. There are princes who inherit their property, and for them, things are pretty cushy, everybody kind of knows who they are. They're not asking a lot of questions. They are the status quo. But then there are the conquering princes who've just taken over a new land and they need to solidify their power and hopefully grow it. And for them, they're in a really tricky position because everybody's a little suspicious of them. Who is this guy we're supposed to pay taxes to and follow their rules? So there are a lot of challenges to this new power and a lot of questions, and a lot of people who are trying to take that power away.

And I thought that was actually a really amazing parallel with women and other marginalized workers in the workplace right now, where people are in these new fields and getting degrees and getting all the things, but also there are these certain stubborn barriers, which aren't really moving, like the gender pay gap has been basically stuck for 20 years, which is that women make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. For Black women it's about 63 cents, for Latina and native women it's 55 cents. Those numbers have been stuck and they're pretty alarming.

And then also, CEOs, 80 percent of CEOs are male, 90 percent of CEOs are white. Those numbers have not budged in a decade either. So even though women and people of color and other marginalized workers are kind of coming into the workforce, they're not reaching these positions of power or kind of getting the money and the titles that they should be getting considering how much the data's changing on the other end, right? Like rates of getting higher degrees and going to school and breaking into new fields and all of these things, the data on the outgoing end seems kind of stuck; it's sort of like you're feeding new stuff into a machine and the same thing keeps coming out.

One thing that I really enjoyed is that you really rely on both contemporary science as well as this kind of older, more enduring wisdom about ways that people can actually get ahead. And one chapter that I really thought nailed that was the confidence chapter. Do you maybe want to talk a little bit about both the science and the Machiavelli of that?

Confidence, that was one of my favorite chapters because it's like one of those really frustrating things. If you look at these measures of confidence, Dr. Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley has done some great research on this, but confidence, it is so powerful. I mean, it affects salary, happiness, promotion, even what field you go into, what you achieve in your life. It's more correlated to how far you get than competence. Confidence is just this sort of superpower, and it makes people like you, want to promote you, want to support you. Of course the issue with confidence is it's not like we don't know this, it's not like we don't understand that confidence is powerful and it's not like we don't want to be confident, but it can feel really frustrating. It's like trying to be cool. The harder you try, the worse it gets. The further and further from actually being cool you get. It can seem very elusive.

But obviously it's such a powerful force. It can determine what you ask for yourself, what you want for yourself. Confidence is really, I think, it's almost the key to everything: where everything has to start is what you think you deserve and can achieve and can ask for.

There were some really great concrete pieces of advice that researchers have found, including Dr. Anderson. One of them is, and I loved this, just like fake it till you make it. Because apparently fake confidence, while not as effective as actual confidence, it still kind of works. If you just pretend to be confident, it actually is a pretty good effect. So what does that mean? How do you pretend to be confident? Well, action, essentially. In their book The Confidence Code, the authors talk about how basically confident people act. And when you lack confidence, when you're insecure, you tend to waffle and you're weighing options and stuff. So if you want to seem more confident, take action.

Machiavelli was big on action. He would really have thought that waffling was very, very dangerous and not making decisions and hanging back and weighing this and weighing that — he really thought that was the most dangerous thing people could do, even though it seemed safe in the moment to just hang back and weigh your options and keep weighing them. He really thought acting was safer; pick a course of action and go with it, pick a lane. And actually this shows to be true. This is things like asking for a raise or speaking up in a meeting. It can be small things. It can be applying for a job, pushing for a promotion, but just taking action is a really good way to sort of start seeming more confident and then end up being more confident.

A couple of the other sort of smaller things was to ask for maybe more than you feel comfortable asking for. Machiavelli talks about this, too. He talks about, you want to be like an archer shooting above the mark you actually want to hit, which I really loved that image. So you kind of want to aim a little higher than you think you should, that's something that confident people do.

That's also just good archery advice.

It's good archery advice. Well, I don't know actually, I'm not an archer, but it seems like solid archery advice. I feel like the 500 years since Machiavelli wrote his book, I feel like archers would've fact checked it. The archery community would've spoken out if that were bad advice.

I think ask for more than maybe you would initially ask for. Act. And then also things like, surround yourself with people who are also positive and supportive; of course that makes a lot of sense. That was Dr. Cameron Anderson's advice. For confident people, if you fail, it's okay. I mean, confident people are more resilient, so if they try and they fail, they'll just try again. And this is probably a lot of why confident people seem more confident, because eventually, if you try and you learn and you try again, and you're not just crushed by a failure, you eventually are more confident, you're more willing to try things, you're more willing to give something a go and pick a lane and try something and eventually hopefully succeed.

It was just really remarkable reading the book, how often you can pretty much directly tie issues that, whether it's women, people of color, LGBT folks have in the office with the issues that Machiavelli saw in Florence.

Yeah, this is the really funny part. When you think about how much has changed in 500 years, it's everything, electricity, the combustion engine, we have a rover on Mars, deep sea ocean exploration, the internet, everything. But human nature, it has not evolved at all, which was actually kind of funny, but very true. I mean, Machiavelli really was a masterful observer of humans and what motivates them and what moves them — a little cynical, I would say he's a little cynical.

A little tiny bit.

Yes. But he also grew up at a time of incredible violence in Italy, land grabs, power getting overturned, people getting slaughtered in the streets. So I think he came by it honestly, I think he came by his cynicism honestly, but I think he's an amazing observer of humans. I have to say, it was really funny how pertinent everything seemed. I was like, "oh yeah, that's still true." It was amazing. It was amazing how often and I was just like, wow, people really haven't — basically nothing about Machiavelli's life would seem familiar to us, except for people. People would seem familiar.

Do you have a favorite example of that?

I was talking to Katy Milkman, she does a lot really cool sociology work at Wharton. Machiavelli basically says — this is really amazing advice — he says, "Injuries, therefore, should be inflicted all at once, whereas, benefits should be conferred little by little." I mean, as far as managing people, that's a real interesting strategy, right?


Bad news or whatever it is should be given all at once, whereas good things should be doled out little by little. And Katy Milkman was talking about motivating, I was talking with her about the fresh start theory and the keys to human motivation; she said that she actually reads that quote from Machiavelli to her class because it's really true and it's a very human thing, we want to bundle bad news together. She's like, "If you're a manager, you don't want to give out a piece of bad news every day for five days, you just hit all the five pieces of bad news at once." But good news, you want to dole out a little bit slowly. I loved that, but I mean, that's very human. It's just like all the bad stuff, you get it out of the way at once. Like one fell swoop.

Now, I think in Machiavelli's piece he may have been talking about killing people.

But, that is not a modern interpretation for people in the civilized world. So anyway, but I think that's really wise advice. I think it's very wise management advice, honestly.

The book is called Machiavelli For Women. Do you want to tell folks about the book? Maybe where they can buy it, all that?

Yes. Well, the book is available anywhere you get your books. It's available on Amazon, in Bookshop, in indie books and Barnes and Noble and Target and so all of those places. Also the audio book, I read the audio book, which was very fun and really hard actually, but I really loved doing that. That's available from Audible. And it's on Kindle too, electronic versions available. And if people want like a signed book plate, they can just DM me on Twitter or email me and I'm happy to send a signed book plate to anybody's address.

That's great. And then also, may as well plug it, by day you are the host of a very cool podcast from NPR.

Well, I am the host of a podcast that you and I did together that was featured on Jeopardy!

The Jeopardy! Yes.

The TV show Jeopardy! is maybe one of the highlights of my whole life, let's be honest.

It's so good.

It's so good. Yeah. So my podcast is The Indicator from Planet Money. It's every day, it's about business and economics, and we cover all kinds of cool things, including robocalls, which, people still bring that episode up. They loved it.

Hey, thanks for coming on.

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