For our December episode of My Life’s Work Podcast, we interviewed KK Ottesen, who found power and meaning in storytelling early in life and figured out how to make it into a career. Ottesen taught us that the advice to follow your passions is not purely a cliche and shared her exhilaration with the work that she does.
Ottesen was inspired to make the world a better place from an early age. As a DMV native, she attended Sidwell Friends School (3825 Wisconsin Ave. NW) where the Quaker values taught by the school instilled in her a drive to serve others. Her parents’ careers also shaped Ottesen’s career aspirations. Her mother, a life-long artist and writer, taught Ottesen to “follow your bliss” as she made life choices. Her father’s career as an infectious disease public health expert at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) demonstrated the importance of looking out for those that are often left behind.
Throughout her childhood, Ottesen was fascinated with understanding different worlds. She remembers looking out the window on long car trips, overwhelmed by curiosity about the people who lived behind the walls of the houses that she saw from the road. “[I was] always wondering what it would be like to live there,” she said. “What would my life be like –what would I think about?” A seed of curiosity about the human experience was planted.
Ottesen embarked on a career in service, studying political theory in college and then returned to DC to work in a number of nonprofits. She recognized the need to understand the financial side of her work and decided to apply to business school. “It would give [me] the currency to understand what was going on and to be able to do creative finance and make things happen,” she explained.
Although Ottesen was committed to graduate school, she still yearned to tell the stories of the people she had once passed on her family road trips. Ottesen’s first book, Great Americans, was born of the premise that all of us, no matter how different our experiences are, have commonalities rooted in humanity.
From the very first interview, everything clicked into place and Ottesen felt that she was doing what she was meant to do. She described heading to an interview with a low-grade fever and no energy.
The way she felt when she left the interview convinced her that this was her life’s work. “I caught sight of myself in the side view mirror of the car,” she said, “my face was so alive and happy.” She was struck by the “privilege of getting to meet somebody and to hear their story and to work with it,” she said. “Boom, I was back in, and I just felt so happy and just grateful.”
After earning her MBA from Yale, Ottesen worked in investment banking which, despite not providing her with the meaning she sought, funded her final work on her book. “I was always trying to figure out a way to have some sort of side hustle where I could earn the money I needed so that I could do what I really wanted,” she said.
Ottesen returned to DC, hoping to finally make her life’s work her real job. After helping to establish the financial stability of a non-profit, she strived to return to interviewing. She decided to cold-call the editor of a column in the Washington Post Magazine that featured “as told to” stories she had always admired to see if he would offer her a job.
The editor took a chance on her and after reviewing her recent book, gave Ottesen her dream job. She still has and loves this job today, as a regular contributor to the Washington Post Magazine’s “Just Asking” feature.
It’s hard to name a prominent person who she has not interviewed, from Megan Rapinoe to Madeline Albright to Anthony Fauci. Last year, Ottesen published her second book, Activist: Portraits of Courage, which features the stories and photographs of over forty activists. Her drive to serve continues, and she finds ways to use her skills to bring light to under-told stories. Currently, she is working on a project with Free Minds Book Club in the DC jail to tell the stories of people touched by the criminal justice system.
When we asked Ottesen to reflect on her life’s work, she recounted an interview with Congressman John Lewis about his activism. His description of his motivations as an activist rang true to Ottesen’s own experience of realizing that photography and writing was her way to unveil common ground.
“You cannot be at home with yourself unless you do something, unless you say something,” she recounted Lewis saying. “You are out of kilter –and then when you are doing what you feel you should be doing, you know it, you feel it... You can’t trace the steps always, but you know when you are there.”
To hear KK Ottesen’s story in her own voice, visit mylifesworkpodcast.org/episodes. Next month, we talk with Dr. Jennifer Cartland, known to many as the former principal of the Capitol Hill Cluster School.