“How would you spend your Saturday?”
While I had never given this question much thought before, CBS News’ Intelligence and National Security Reporter, Olivia Gazis has built a career off asking the right questions of everyone around her, including herself.
“Is it, for example, learning words in French in your free time?” Gazis asked her virtual audience of young girls. “Or is it solving multivariable equations?”
I consider this for a while, knowing quickly that, for myself, it is not the latter.
As a journalist, Gazis has never stopped asking herself these types of questions, and her refusal to settle for anything less than what excites her has led to a remarkable career: from interviewing refugees in Poland as part of her Fulbright Scholarship, to becoming a multiplatform reporter in Washington, D.C., to conducting interviews with top officials, including the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Gazis has chased after her every curiosity.
Graduating from journalism school amid a recession, Gazis entered the workforce at a time when job opportunities were particularly scarce. However, in what she recalled as being a “weird twist of fate,” she managed to get her foot in the door at CBS News and began to climb from the “very, very, very bottom rung.”
“I started in the research department for the CBS Evening News, where I was essentially a fact checker, or like a ‘fact finder.’ [I researched] how many gallons of melted snow would fill an Olympic sized swimming pool – stuff like that – that would color the language of the Evening News broadcast. And then I moved to working as an associate producer for co-host Norah O’Donnell at CBS’s morning show, which involved my getting up at 3:30 in the morning to get to the office before 5:00 AM to digest the news of the day and be on top of things.”
“That part also involved a lot of travel to cover breaking stories. If there was a tornado or a mass shooting in some part of the country, [I would have] to pack a bag in literally minutes,” Gazis said. “I think 12 minutes is my record for packing a suitcase and getting to the airport.”
“So it was a lot of unpredictability, a lot of excitement, a lot of landing somewhere…and trying to figure out what you need to know,” she said.
Gazis told the group that, in order to improve as a journalist, it was crucial to “build confidence by getting uncomfortable.”
Reflecting on her early days reporting on Capitol Hill, Gazis recognized that she had faced a learning curve. “I made dumb mistakes. I asked silly questions, sometimes in front of a lot of people. But all of those things, I like to think, made me smarter, stronger and taught me that one of your best assets when confronting the unknown is having at least a little residual confidence [in your abilities]. And the best way to do that is to seek out new and challenging situations from time to time.”
Gazis relied heavily on residual confidence when she was first asked to interview the Director of the National Security Agency, a discussion that was scheduled to take place for forty minutes live on stage in front of thousands of people. Normally, such interviews are reserved for journalists with decades of experience in the field. Gazis was surprised when someone from the agency reached out to her at that point in her career.
“My first, internal reaction was, ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’” she recalled. “But I called the person back and asked, ‘Is this really what it sounds like?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And despite being incredulous that this was even happening, I told them, ‘Yes. Absolutely. I’ll do it.’”
“I had no idea how I was going to do it,” Gazis continued. “The night before and even the day of, I was literally shaking, dressed up in my suit, trying to rehearse my questions in front of a mirror, trying to think through all of the various scenarios that could happen on stage— whether that was… running out of time or having too much time or mispronouncing somebody's name or even falling flat on my face.”
“The only thing that I could do, I felt, was to prepare,” she said. “And, somehow, I did it. And I stunned myself that I did it.”
“Were there things that I could have done better? Absolutely. Did I get compliments from some of the veteran journalists who probably were wondering what I was doing there on stage to begin with? Yes. And it was a great learning experience,” she said.
“It was a great boost in my confidence and my credibility as a journalist, that I could sit down and have a substantive conversation with a significant national security leader. And I think the way that I got there was locking myself into that ‘Yes.’ Just saying to myself, 'All right, this sounds terrifying – but I'll find a way to do it.’”
Gazis assured all the young girls in the audience that no one has to know what they would like to do right away.
“I think like most of you, I was five years old, and I said, ‘I really want to be an Intelligence and National Security reporter,’ she joked. “And I sent away for the handbook and it came in the mail, and I just followed it step by step, because that's how it works!”
“Obviously not,” she continued. “I, for a very long time, did not know exactly what I wanted to do.”
Her advice to those still exploring their interests is simple: “Be oriented, but open.” Though she once assumed she would pursue policy or law, Gazis never closed herself off to new ideas and in that way discovered a love for journalism.
“While I was in Poland [researching my Fulbright project], it involved interviewing refugees… getting their stories, and writing them down. And I found that I was really interested in talking to people and crafting those stories in a compelling way.”
Though I personally am still unsure of where my path lies in the future, meeting a journalist as dedicated to her work as Olivia Gazis has inspired me to never stop asking myself: “How would you spend your Saturday?”
About the Author:
Kaitlyn Donato is a student at Princeton University. In her sophomore year, Kaitlyn recognized that there were too few magazines focused on writing for and by young women and created The Alcott Youth Magazine. With the magazine, she hopes to publish inspirational writing for all young people to enjoy.
Kaitlyn would like to thank Erin Brown and all other team members from Inspiring Girls USA for making this interview possible. Inspiring Girls USA, an organization dedicated to fostering the ambitions of young girls by connecting them with successful women role models, aims to show girls that they can break down gender barriers and achieve their highest aspirations. You can learn more about their organization at inspiringgirlsusa.org.
Kaitlyn would also like to show her gratitude for the assistance she received from everyone at Books and Bridges, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that coordinates with elementary school teachers to read stories to younger students about women in leadership roles. Books and Bridges believes that discussing female leaders is important for acknowledging women in history and furthering confidence in young girls. To learn more about the organization, please visit booksandbridges.org.