How historian Alexis Coe handles being the only woman in the room

"In the Washington realm, I was the only young woman and a bit of an outsider."
Amy Lombard / Amy Lombard

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We are all works in progress. Even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. We're profiling some of the people who inspire us to follow that passion, create something new and keep evolving. This is "Getting There."

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It’s easy to assume Alexis Coe always had a master plan. The author of this year’s bestseller “You Never Forget Your First,” an irreverent biography of George Washington (and the first Washington biography written by a woman in decades), is also a podcast host, producer and on-air contributor. But the award-winning historian says, contrary to having it all figured out from the start, her career “just sort of happened” — thanks to imagination and lots of hard work.

TMRW: Was there anything that intimidated you when you first started down this path?

Alexis Coe: I don’t really exist in a normal way as a historian; there are a few like me but they’re pretty rare, so I didn’t really have a model. But whenever I start something new, I always approach it thinking that I should be very aware of what I don’t know and try to fix that.

It’s not so much whether or not I’m intimidated, it’s more, "How can I do the best job possible?" I never think I can’t do something, I think, "What’s the best way to do this?"

I’m asked for advice all the time and people want to know specifics about my trajectory, and I don’t think that’s very useful because there was no set path for me. While it makes sense in retrospect, I was just making the best choices that I could with the information that I had at the time.

Amy Lombard/TODAY

That’s a great — and inspiring — attitude! Particularly for people who might want to do something but tell themselves, "Oh, I can’t do that."

One of the most important parts of my success is a genuine passion for it and a willingness to work as hard as possible. I do remember early on in my career thinking that a lot of people had great ideas but they either wanted someone to tell them something was OK — to give them permission or a road map — or they just weren’t really willing to go the extra mile. I think it’s because they weren’t truly passionate about it. Because I feel like I've been able to pursue these projects that I really care about, I've also been able to work incredibly hard at them without really realizing it’s work.

Amy Lombard/TODAY

Was there a time when you felt like giving up or quitting?

I never felt like quitting because I’m not equipped for anything else in this life! But I definitely have felt like maybe this was not a good use of my time or my efforts or my talents or my trust. I wish I reflected on these situations more because sometimes I feel like I find myself in them again.

I don't have an attachment to success or failure, in a way that helps me get over things that might be perceived as failures and move on. The flip side is I don't ever really sit for a moment with the thing that feels successful. To me, success or failure is just really an endpoint for one thing — and then it’s on to the next. I look at all of my work as hopefully something that allows me to do the next cool thing.

Amy Lombard/TODAY

What would you say to people who have a strong passion but don’t know if they can turn it into a career?

I think we all have great ideas, and the biggest impediment to us implementing them is talking a lot about them and thinking about what the final outcome could be. That tends to be so distracting to people that they never actually do it.

The best advice that I have is to find something you’re passionate about. It has to feed you in a way that can sustain your effort and you have to work harder at it than anyone else and then see where it takes you.

Have you ever dealt with self-doubt, anxiety or fears in your life or your career?

The most immediate fear is public speaking! I just sort of go blank. And the remedy for that is actually a prescription— which is lovely [laughs]. I mention that because I think it’s good to assess our fears and our anxieties and that’s something that I’ve gotten better at over time; isolating problems and figuring out if there are solutions.

When it comes to bigger issues, like being in quarantine and having my paid speaking engagements canceled left and right, I try to minimize the sources of anxiety, which means I don't need to look at Twitter or the news every 20 minutes, and I don't need to get involved in every issue. I do, however, need to do whatever I can when I can. Right now that simply means reading and writing around the project I believe will be my next book if the world doesn’t collapse.

Amy Lombard/TODAY

I think it’s important to note that I move in spaces that are sometimes entirely women, but often not at all. In the Washington realm, I was the only young woman [biographer] and a bit of an outsider. And while I was conscious of that, I used it to my advantage to keep my eyes open and form relationships with people who could help me and could benefit from my knowledge and my experience. I don't look at a room full of old white men and think “Oh God, they're not going to think I’m a contender here!” I think, “This is going to be weird. Someone is going to say something uncomfortable and dumb, but I’m also going to meet people in this room who are going to be really interesting to me.” I’m the only woman historian in 100 years who’s written a Washington biography. If I’d been scared to go into that room, I wouldn't be able to make that claim.

What does success mean to you and what’s driving you today?

To me, success is the ability to do the next thing that I want to do. It’s not money, although money is very nice and I like it a lot; it’s not fame, although it’s certainly nice because it helps get the project that you want to do off the ground. But it’s really just that — it’s just continuing.

Of all the things that I’ve accomplished, the word success doesn’t seem as tangible as just being able to continue working. My career is so unexpected and the success of it is so unusual that I am aware of that and so grateful that I get to continue being the person who has that story.

This interview has been condensed for clarity & length.

Editor's note: At Coe's request, a quote in this story has been updated to clarify that she was the only woman biographer she encountered in her work on Washington.