Colin Powell Reflects on Success
by sarah schaffer
In Colin Powell’s new book, It Worked for Me, the retired four-star general and former secretary of state describes in vivid detail a 1988 meeting with President Reagan in the Oval Office. Powell, recently appointed to be the president’s national security advisor, went to Reagan’s desk to discuss a complex problem involving Congress and myriad federal departments. As he spoke, the president gazed out a set of French doors to the Rose Garden; when Powell finished his diatribe, the commander-in-chief turned to him and said, “Colin, Colin, the squirrels just came and picked up the nuts I put out there for them this morning.” What could have been a maddening exchange or the start of an epic argument turned into a life lesson, Powell writes. “[Reagan’s message] became clear. The president was teaching me...to [fix] problems that he had hired me and the rest of his team to solve.”
It’s a scene that encapsulates, in a few short paragraphs, the purpose of Powell’s tome: to use real-life experiences and a bit of humor to impart knowledge without an agenda. It’s a do-with-this-what-you-will approach to offering advice, he explains.
“I’m not telling you what you should do; I’m telling you what worked for me,” Powell says, outlining the book from inside his Old Town Alexandria office. Like his new release, the general’s modest workspace near the Pentagon is a tableau to a storied career, filled with cherished encounters and once-in-a-lifetime moments. There’s a “golden” shovel used at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and framed snapshots of him smiling brightly with the likes of Kennedy Center Honorees Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The assemblage of keepsakes is as diverse as the subjects in his book. Powell weaves stories and anecdotes about everything from dancing with Princess Diana to working as a shop hand for a toy store in the Bronx. The common thread is the general’s delivery—straightforward and plain-spoken, which makes for an easily digestible read. Powell says it’s meant to encourage readers from all walks of life to draw their own blueprint for success by examining what works for them, their personalities, and their lifestyles. “I didn’t write it for the Washington political class,” he quips. “I wrote it for real people. I think the average person will find it interesting.”
What anyone who reads It Worked for Me will find amusing is that the accomplished statesman reveals himself as a fan of dramatic, ’80s-style arena wrestling—he stuns a room full of ambassadors and Foreign Service officers by eagerly recounting a Monday Night Raw wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker—and, in another moment of self-deprecating candor, confesses an inability to succeed at sports, school, or much else early in life.
“I wasn’t good at baseball. I wasn’t good at football. I wasn’t good at school. Nada. Zip. Black kid, couldn’t even play basketball,” he jokes. But that inauspicious start didn’t hold back the product of Jamaican immigrants and a nurturing home. “My parents didn’t see anything wrong because they knew I was doing my best. You can’t ask for more. They never focused on the glory of winning.... A loser is someone who doesn’t even try.” For Powell doing his best meant earning a degree at City College of New York and enrolling in the school’s ROTC program. It meant joining the Army, serving in Vietnam, and receiving nearly a dozen decorations of honor, including the Bronze Star.
After completing his master’s degree at George Washington University, Powell accepted a White House fellowship in 1972, which led to a long career inside Washington’s halls of power, including a term as the country’s first African-American secretary of state. He was also the first African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he became chairman in 1989 and remained in that post until 1993.
Despite a résumé peppered with heavyweight titles and a laundry list of accolades—he has received honors ranging from the Purple Heart to an NAACP Image Award—Powell says he makes every effort to stay grounded, his recollections of a working-class upbringing in the South Bronx remaining with him as a kind of reality check.
“You’ve got to somehow stay in touch with the places you came from,” he says. “Unless you stay in touch and walk around and talk to people, you’ll lose that connection, that common sense of purpose. I try to not let my ego get too far out on my sleeve, and I work hard at being as average as I can. It’s not easy, because I have become a personality in this society. But I try not to forget where I came from and who I still am.”
At home in nearby McLean, Virginia, Powell is a tinkerer in his spare time and has been known to wind down under the hood of an old Volvo or two. (“Now on the weekends, I spend Saturdays at my local hardware store,” he says.) His fascination with cars and racing is on display in his office: There’s a framed photo of his spin as the celebrity driver of the pace car at the Indianapolis 500, in 2005.
Besides his weekend hobbies and a book-signing tour, plenty of things keep the 75-year-old Powell busy these days. His schedule includes countless speeches, as well as philanthropic work with America’s Promise (he is the founding chairman; his wife, Alma, currently serves as chairwoman) and continued efforts to expand the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service at CCNY. Beyond those immediate obligations and goals, however, lies the unknown—and that’s just how Powell, ever the pragmatist, likes it.
“I’ve pretty much gone through life not spending a lot of time on what’s next,” he says. “You have a lot of people dreaming about today instead of taking care of business; I just try to do the best I can at whatever I’m doing and the next will take care of itself.” Words for future leaders to live by.
photography by patrick mcdermott
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.