Nathan Eckstein was most recently the political and outreach director for a U.S. Congresswoman in Western Illinois who sought reelection to a fifth term. This spring, he’ll be joining the U.S. Department of State as a foreign service officer.
In this Q&A and podcast episode, recorded just after the 2020 election, he discusses life on the campaign trail (in unprecedented times) and what lies ahead for his career. He credits the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) for providing him with support along the way.
Q: What have you been up to since you graduated from Princeton?
Eckstein: After graduating with my MPA in June 2020, I went on to work as a political and outreach director for a rural congresswoman running for reelection in Western Illinois. I hit the ground running, starting in May, and we recently won reelection 52 to 48. It was a tighter race than I think even we expected. So, I spent a lot of last year not quarantined, not anywhere I’m used to being, and working — at least in the last month — 15 hour days, trying my best to help someone win reelection that I care a lot about.
Q. What is/are the most important policy issue(s) facing us today?
Eckstein: The first is that our institutions need to reflect the United States of America. Currently, our institutions — our networks of policymakers — don’t reflect what our country looks like. Many will say, and I’ll agree, this is a national security crisis. If you have an all-white staff thinking about Latin America, or you have an all-white staff thinking about the Middle East, you’re not going to get the best analysis out of the intelligence community. You’re not going to get the best analysis of what policies we need going forward, and you’re certainly not going to have a compassionate or empathetic form of policymaking. And I think that extends past national security and foreign policy to basically wherever we are.
At the other end of things, I think this election has made clear that the quality of life for many people has stagnated in the last 50 years, and also our systems are remaining stacked against Americans on the margins. Health care is more expensive, education is more expensive, and has quality improved? No. Does systemic racism still exist? Yes. Are barriers to equity and access still cemented? Absolutely. Americans notice this, and rightfully get angry about it.
For me, these two issues are related because we need more compassionate, empathetic, and equitable governmental support. And without improving our institutions and what our institutions look like and who they employ, we’re not going to have sufficient institutional advocacy to change those policies and to ultimately improve quality of life for millions of Americans across the U.S.
Q. What are you most passionate about? What current project or initiative are you most excited about?
Eckstein: You’re catching me at a time where I get to sit down and reflect. The project that I’m focusing on right now is working on my Spanish. I’m hoping to get back to better Spanish speaking and maybe even some Portuguese, which I took at Princeton.
The through-line between my work this year and my work at the Pentagon is that I care deeply about public service. I grew up thinking about my grandfathers that served in WWII and my grandmother that worked on the Manhattan Project. And I have spent a long time asking myself where the best place to serve is. For the last few years, I asked myself about why I should sit in the foreign policy space when domestic issues really needed some support. So, I’m really excited that I got to fight in 2020 for what I cared about after sitting 2016 out, and I feel proud of what I accomplished.
Q. Over the course of your career, what are the most important skills/strategies you’ve learned?
Eckstein: First, it’s about knowing when to pick up the phone or go see someone in person. I know that’s a lot harder with Covid-19, but I still think these rules apply. In-person conversations are the clearest way to build rapport and the clearest way to build credibility and hopefully consensus. That’s also true over the phone, and I guess it’s conversely related to the fact that I feel like I will always be learning how to improve my tone over text and email and always be concerned that it’s being interpreted incorrectly.
It’s also important to know when a project is something that only needs really 90 percent. I had an old boss who would call certain tasks “grist for the mill” — that is, more about getting it done and right than getting it perfect. Hitting deadlines becomes easier when you know which projects in your life require the most attention rather than ones that will ultimately be as he said, “more grist for the mill” or just something that needs to be done by that Friday, close of business.
Q: When it comes to decision-making, what are the most effective strategies? How do you make critical decisions and forge a consensus?
Eckstein: It’s tough, and I’ve been only really a junior staffer at this point, which means I’ve seen a lot of decision-making being taken out of my hands and have learned a lot from it.
In dynamic environments and policymaking environments, it’s important to empower those around you and build a clear process for a team. And especially within that process and culture, you really need to have built trust and credibility with your teammates. If you trust subject matter experts, let them lead on decision-making when it is in their lane. And if you’re doing it right, you should already have a process that allows for that. For me, I’m always wary of decision by committee. I don’t think it’s always the most effective, and I think you can create cultures that change things up.
I also think, especially for young people, it’s important to keep in mind that consensus is just about winning buy-in as it is about compromise. I always think it’s important for me to, before I go into a meeting, think about what issues I want to stand my ground on and then how to get folks in the room to as agree on those critical issues versus the ones that I’m willing to compromise on or change.
Q. How do you think the School prepared you for your career?
Eckstein: I am beyond grateful for both SPIA and SINSI for taking a chance on me in my undergraduate years. The work I got to do at the Pentagon and their policy shops at a young age has proved invaluable, and it’s only because of SPIA that I got there. So what has SPIA done? Everything.
While in the MPA, it’s all about what I learned from my peers. When I was in my first year of the MPA, I was straight out of undergrad. SINSIs are much younger than their classmates. Being around students with skillsets and expertise or experience that I aspired to have really opened the aperture for me on what I wanted to do and how I envisioned myself pursuing that career. I am forever grateful for those students in my first year, for their guidance, their support and ultimately, most importantly, their patience. And it’s something I’ve tried to rely on as I’ve progressed in my career. I’ve tried to really rely on networks and build similar versions of support that I experienced while at SPIA. I hope I never feel too old to seek out mentors.
Q: What were the tactical skills you gained while at the School that you still employ today?
Eckstein: The 90% rule I mentioned earlier applies as a skillset learned in SPIA. If a memo is due at 9 a.m. on a Monday, it ultimately is just grist for the mill. Do your best, but don’t obsess over it. And then if there’s an issue that you actually care about or a class that you want to work towards nailing the delivery on, you have more time to be focused on that. It’s about triaging and making sure you balance what’s on your plate to really focus on the projects you care about.
A lot of alums who have answered this question before have talked about the quantitative skills. There’s also the tactical skill of critical thinking, which is so important across any profession. Most of the classes I took at SPIA were an exercise in learning when to call BS on something or be confident enough to say, “This logic doesn’t track.” Or, “I don’t care if you’re using numbers or a graph, your judgment is somewhere faulty.” So building an argument, thinking critically about the logic of the solution, and giving yourself time to do it, that matters a lot. It’s a tactical skill that I started building in undergraduate years at SPIA and that I hopefully have finessed a little bit more along the way when I was doing the MPA.
Q. What do you think people working in today’s culture need to do or have to be successful?
Eckstein: Don’t just take cues from folks in your offices that are more senior than you. Figure out what the right cues are. Figure out who are the senior staffers or the colleagues who are doing things like you want to be doing them. And then, figure out why you like what they’re doing and what qualities you can incorporate in your own work. After you do that, introduce yourself, ask them to a coffee and seek out their teams and try to go and work for them. That’s served me really well over the last five years, and it will in the future, too.
I was very lucky to have an amazing boss when I worked in Bolivia at U.S. Embassy La Paz. I remember we were doing a halfway check in, and she said, “Interns can do so much more than entry-level officers in basically any setting in terms of showing enthusiasm.” This is because an intern or a fellow can be rewarded for being enthusiastic, can be rewarded for asking to sit in a room and see what was happening. But someone who’s new to a career could be seen as maybe too ambitious or having too much enthusiasm and that can backfire. So, I have benefited from the level of access and appreciation and support that interns and fellows can get. Use that to your advantage as you can.
#Changemakers: Alumni Making a Difference is a Q&A series featuring alumni of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.