Getting fired from a high-profile job might seem like a humiliating experience, but for news anchor Mika Brzezinski, it proved to be an important career catalyst. The daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mika had spent more than 15 years working in TV news, climbing to a position as a correspondent at CBS. But in 2006, the network unexpectedly let her go. Struggling to find work, she settled for a gig as a freelance MSNBC reporter at a tenth of her previous salary.
It was a humbling development, but Brzezinski embraced the opportunity, and when former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough was looking for a cohost for MSNBC’s new a.m. program, she was eager to give it a try. Eight years later, Brzezinski is still at the Morning Joe table, and despite recent ratings challenges, she’s still thrilled to be there. “Every moment I come to work is so full of joy and unexpected twists and turns,” she says.
Off-camera, Brzezinski is committed to helping women handle change and advocate for themselves. The latest in her series of career-development books, Grow Your Value, came out in May, and on her five-city Know Your Value tour she’s leading workshops to teach women how to ask for raises or promotions. “Women tend to be very self-deprecating,” she says. “Instead of advocating for themselves, they want people to feel comfortable. No. You have to know what you want.” But you also have to stay flexible in order to handle surprises. Here’s how Brzezinski has adjusted to meet career challenges.
What looks like an ending might actually be a beginning. For Brzezinski, getting fired turned out to be “really good for me,” she says. “Not being able to get a job again, it can really strip you down to the basics. I will never forget those really dark moments of being unemployed. Never. They live with me forever and drive everything I do. One reason I was in that position was because I was not defined in terms of my own talents and interests. When they needed to get rid of someone, they got rid of a generalist, because that was the easiest thing to do. That experience forced me to look at who I am.”
Scarborough makes a point of keeping Morning Joe somewhat unstructured, and at first Brzezinski found that terrifying. “Working with Joe, there are no scripts,” she says. “There is no sense of where we’re going to go, what direction we’re going in.” But eventually she realized that having to improvise made her a better communicator. “It woke up part of my brain that had always been asleep because everything is so planned on television. We would also go on book tours, and he’d run up on stage with no preparation. We’d start doing presentations totally going off the cuff. It forced me to think, What am I going to pull out of my head up there?”
In-person appearances are an important part of what she does, but Brzezinski gets nervous in front of a live audience. That’s not a bad thing. “It’s one thing to talk to a camera and another thing to talk to people,” she says. “Still, to this day, I sweat bullets, I get really nervous, my stomach starts to get panicky. It’s an out-of-body experience. Talking in public does not get easier. But you do get better at it. I say to women, ‘You should speak in front of audiences. Learn to stand up and be looked at while you’re talking. Put yourself in situations like that, and you’ll be surprised at what you can do.’ You take risks. Doing Morning Joe was a huge risk, jumping up on stage is a huge risk. But being really safe has not helped me. It left me in the back of the room—or fired.”
Uncomfortable experiences are often more valuable than they seem. In Grow Your Value, Brzezinski describes the most awkward moment of her career. While she was moderating a 2014 panel for the White House Summit on Working Families, Brzezinski asked Gloria Steinem, Nancy Pelosi, and other panelists how their careers had caused strife in their personal lives. “Silence,” Brzezinski recalls in the book. “Replaced momentarily by forced laughter. Nancy Pelosi looked as if she smelled something bad.” But rather than change the subject, Brzezinski took the reaction as a sign that she was onto something. “Awkward moments are often rich with truth,” she says. “Usually in an awkward moment, when you find people incapable of or afraid to go there, that’s exactly where—as a journalist or analyst or lawyer—you should go. Moments that make you sweat and feel completely vulnerable and almost unhinged with fear, those are the moments you can carry with you and be 10 times stronger in the future.”