Security expert champions the value of hard work

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

In a Tuesday talk at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, national security expert Michele Malvesti urged students to be humble enough to take out the trash.

Malvesti — who served on the National Security Council for over five years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and is now a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute — encouraged students to willingly perform the grunt work, to become expert problem solvers and to seize opportunities that arise through luck and timing. Speaking to an audience of 20, Malvesti shared her philosophy of working hard without complaint.

“You’re either going to be a work horse or a show horse. Be the work horse,” she said. “You can’t be above certain work. Be the person who doesn’t complain and who gets the job done.”

As the Senior Director for Combating Terrorism Strategy on the National Security Council, Malvesti often worked 14- to 17-hour weekdays and weekend days, at a time when the White House faced extraordinary pressure to prevent future terrorist attacks. Her supervisors valued her ability to solve problems, Malvesti said.

Malvesti encouraged students to switch positions every few years in order to expand their skill sets, their networks and the number of people who will see their ability to help solve problems.

“[My bosses] know they can hand me a problem and I will help solve it for them,” she said.

Malvesti began studying terrorism and counterterrorism issues nearly 10 years before the Sept. 11 attacks.

She added that because it is difficult to predict “the next big thing” in many different industries, students and professionals should specialize in one or two areas while gaining broad knowledge of many related disciplines.

“Do not try to time the career market,” Malvesti said. “It is challenging for the average person to do this in finance, and you can’t do it in your career. Rather than attempt to engineer your career, focus on what you enjoy doing.”

Still, she warned students against conflating what they enjoy doing with what they are good at. People should discover their passions by gaining a wide range of experiences, she said.

When asked about her work-life balance in a high-powered career, Malvesti denied that this balance must always exist — rather, she said, people face choices about which parts of their lives to emphasize at different times.

“People say you need work-life balance as if work isn’t part of life,” she said. “It depends on where you draw energy. You might draw more energy from work.”

Ariel Travis GRD ’15 said she gained insight from Malvesti’s discussion on career development, particularly the importance of forming connections with mentors in one’s specific career path.

Malvesti’s advice to switch positions throughout a career to avoid stagnation was also compelling, Loren Voss GRD ’15 said.

Voss, who formerly worked as an intelligence officer for the United States Air Force and is now pursuing a master’s degree in global affairs, said she enjoyed hearing about Malvesti’s transition from government work into industry and academia.

“It’s nice to meet other women who went on and did other things after intelligence,” Voss said. “That’s what I want to do.”

Jackson Institute Career Services Director Elizabeth Gill complimented Malvesti’s analogy comparing a workhorse to a show horse. Gill said Malvesti is “definitely one of [the] workhorses.”

In 2009, Malvesti co-chaired a presidential review that reformed the White House organization for homeland security and counterterrorism on behalf of the Obama Administration.

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