Severine Autesserre is an Associate Professor of Political Science, specializing in international relations and African studies, at Barnard College, Columbia University (USA). Severine traces civil war and endemic violence to its roots, and its resolution, in local and interpersonal conflicts.
I Am Driven By | I am driven by a visceral hatred of violence and suffering, an inability to say no to a dare, and a loathing of boredom. Plus, like many people, I want to help make the world a better place – which, to me, means to help decrease some of the ongoing violence and suffering.
My Highlights | When it comes to my career, I am very proud of the two books that I have published. Not only because they have received prizes (I think I was the youngest person to receive the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order) but even more importantly because my research seems to have had an impact on the ground.
Various policy-makers and practitioners, have read my book on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or one of my articles – or have seen my TED talk – and have subsequently told me or my colleagues that they were convinced by my argument. As a result, my work has contributed to the incorporation of local conflict resolution into the agenda of international interveners in Congo. When I started my doctoral research in 2001, the very idea of international action in support of bottom-up peacebuilding in Congo elicited laughter and incomprehension. Now, even top-level officials, such as the United Nations Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region and the United States Under Secretary of State for African Affairs, reference this approach. Both critics and advocates of these measures point to my research as one of the elements that prompted this evolution. Local peacebuilding in Congo (and elsewhere) has yet to be given the importance that it deserves, but enormous progress has been made in the past ten years, and I am very proud and humbled to have contributed to that.
As for the highlights of my life, I get to visit amazingly beautiful places all around the world and meet incredible people who are helping to make the world a better place.
The Difference Between Good And Great | To me, the difference is passion. People who are great at what they do dream about it, they think about it day and night – even when they should be focused on other tasks. They devote everything they have to it.
A Key Talent | I am very stubborn. Some may consider it a big character flaw, but at the same time it means that I never give up once I’ve decided that I would do something. And this is very helpful, because in most cases success needs a lot of perseverance even in the face of self-doubt, hassles, insults, and failures.
So that’s one piece of advice I can offer to your readers: persevere. Use failures, insults, challenges, and setbacks, to motivate yourself and try harder and be better. Don’t listen to people who say that what you plan to do is too hard, too challenging, too dangerous, too inappropriate for a woman (or a man, or a foreigner, or a young person, or a racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious minority, or whatever personal characteristics the naysayers object to). Instead, think that you will prove that they are wrong. And if you do fail, pick yourself up and try again.
The Characteristics Of Success | Knowing myself, so that I can use my mind and body to be as effective as possible in what I do. Being very organized and very self-disciplined. And, above all, loving what I do.
Principles I Live By | I think it is always important to be kind and respect others, especially those who are below you in the pecking order.
Also, be honest, always.
How I Use My Mind | I use carrots and sticks with myself. For instance, writing is sometimes exhilarating, but most often it’s a painful, slow, agonizing process. So every evening I give myself a writing task for the following day – for instance, draft a specific section of the book or article I’m working on – and then I start on it as soon as I wake up and forbid myself from doing anything fun until I’m done. (When I was writing my doctoral dissertation I even forbade myself to eat lunch before I was done with my daily writing, but I quickly realized that it was a very unhealthy idea). And I always make sure that I have something fun planned to “reward” myself when the task is done – going for a run or a fun sport class, seeing friends, reading a good novel, listening to music, or things like that.
Lessons I Have Learnt | Four things. First, persevere, as I mentioned before.
Second, be humble. Realize that no matter how wealthy, educated, or powerful you are, you don’t know everything. People who are poor, illiterate, and powerless, may actually know more than you do about the things that you are working on. That’s actually one of the big messages of my latest book, Peaceland.
Third, never believe anything at face value. Always question received wisdom, social norms, and orders from authority figures.
And finally, don’t be afraid to be an exception. Try to understand the system, the organization, the world you’re in, but don’t get too cozy in it. Keep a healthy dose of skepticism, and when you see everyone doing something that doesn’t make sense, don’t hesitate to challenge the system and do things differently. Because in my book, that’s how people make a difference. Among all of the smart, hard-working, creative, interesting, and dedicated people that I have met in my career, those who dare to be exceptions to the rules are the ones who help make the world a better place.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | Believe in yourself. If you don’t, nobody else will.
Useful Links |
Watch Severine’s TED Talk Here: