Most years, I spend a good chunk of my December talking to kids getting ready to graduate and young professionals looking to get into politics. It is one of the more enjoyable things I do. Of all the things I’m proud of in my career, the biggest achievement isn’t the wins or mentions, it’s seeing the success of so many of “the kids” I’ve worked with along the way.
This is my 20th year in the business, so for the aspiring young politicos out there, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, and a few things I look for in a young hire.
1. This isn’t rocket science.
If politics was rocket science, trust me I wouldn’t be doing it. Most people who succeed in this do so, as a commercial from my childhood used to say: “the old-fashioned way, by earning it.”
That being said, you don’t learn this business by getting a campaign degree, watching an endless stream of cable TV or reading a bunch of blogs. You learn it by listening, getting your hands dirty and just good old-fashioned experience.
So don’t tell me what skills you have, because you probably don’t have any real ones yet. Tell me you are eager and willing to do anything to learn, and show me you have a decent head on your shoulders. You will learn the rest.
2. Find a campaign where you can actually learn.
Glory is up the ballot, but learning comes down the ballot. In 1996, when I was out of college, I could have probably found my way into a field job for the presidential. Instead I managed a major state legislative race, where I had to figure out and learn every aspect of a campaign – and more importantly how to manage. The former would have gotten me a cool T-shirt or picture, the latter gave me the foundation for a career. My first presidential race came 12 years into my career – and because of all the soil that was tilled leading up to it, and just like my first job, I was hired as a manager.
Find a job where you can really learn. It might not be as cool as some others out there, but in the long game, you will benefit.
3. Just work.
Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity – make your opportunity. Show up at the office and do anything. Kick down doors until someone takes you in. Work for nothing until you become so vital they pay you. Build yard signs, stuff envelopes, make coffee, run errands, anything – just work. The harder you work, the more responsibility you will have and the more your opinion matters. But remember in your first job, your opinion isn’t why you got hired.
Along these same lines, please don’t tell me your salary requirements. Do you want in or not? I was probably making less at 30 than most of my old college friends, but I guarantee I was having more fun. And it’s not worth doing if it’s not fun.
4. Watch your social media.
This goes without saying, but for me it’s really basic. Even if we are just meeting for coffee, I’m gonna check you out, and not only will I look for basic signs of maturity, I’m going to get a sense of your personality. No one wants to work with a know-it-all jerk, so don’t be one on Twitter or Facebook.
5. Learn the Golden Rule. Live the Golden Rule.
If you don’t know what it is, google it.
The corollary to this: Don’t be a jerk and don’t lose your self-awareness.
6. Strap in.
This career isn’t for the faint of heart. Most of the people you see on TV reached the upper levels of politics after living similar lives of sleeping on couches, having to win to be able to pay their rent, driving 40,000 to 60,000 miles a year, and being unemployed for long periods. If you want stability, then this isn’t for you.
Along with this, understand that there are highs and lows. In my time I’ve seen the mountaintop, and I’ve had to dig out of valleys. It’s not a career ladder: It’s a career roller coaster, which is why point No. 5 becomes so vital. And if you don’t believe that now, you will when you lose for the first time. Oh, and losing, it will be the best thing that ever happens to you. Trust me.
One more thing about losing: keep a list of the people who call you the day after you lose. They are your friends - not the ones who start calling a few weeks before the election. I'll walk through fire for those people who had my back when the chips were down.
7. Never stop learning.
Read all the time. Talk to people. Ask questions. Learn to write. Don’t be “just a campaign guy” or “just a policy person.” You are never an expert – there is always someone smarter – find them, listen to them, and keep learning.
Particularly learn from your losses. Every job where I’ve had great success followed an experience where I learned from failure.
8. Build relationships and collect mentors.
I like the vast majority of people in politics. Most people in the game are focused and driven, but because of the nature of the business, are also accessible and interesting to talk with. So meet new people – especially when you don’t need anything and expand your network. It’s part of the advice from the previous bullet, but also, you never know when that relationship might be your next job or contract. And do this regardless of party. I probably have more close friends in this business who aren’t on my side than I do on mine. I learn from them just as much as I do from those in my tribe.
Constantly look for smart people who can help you. I have had several mentors. Some are former bosses, but most are people I’ve met along the way. To this day, I still ask for advice and counsel.
One addendum to this, when you get to the point in your career when you are hiring, surround yourself with people who can do your job. Leadership isn’t about being right or getting the credit, it’s about having a plan and figuring out how to climb a mountain. But remember, all good mountain climbers have Sherpas who keep them from falling into crevasses. If you lack the self confidence to hire people who can tell you when you are wrong, then you are only doing a disservice to yourself and your project.
9. Be yourself.
Life is too short to try to be anyone else. Sure I know plenty of people who have succeeded by conforming to conventional wisdom, though most of them my age are miserable. If you work hard, build a good name, and aren’t a jerk, you will be just fine.
Understand, however, this doesn’t mean you can be an idiot.
10. Never lose sight of why you got in the game.
When I lecture at colleges, one of the first things I say is “if you are getting into politics for any other reason than to change the world, get out.”
I usually get a few odd stares, but I think it’s vital. The world doesn’t need more people looking at politics as a way to make money. It’s easy to get cynical, but don’t. I’m not naive, this is a maddening game and I’m tempered by a sense of reality. However at 41, I might be more idealistic today than I was at 21, because in the end if you get to work in this space, you are participating at the core of the greatest experiment in self government in world history, and that is damn cool.
So as you ride the roller coaster, remember what drove you to couch surf through that first race, living off fast food, coffee and alcohol, and never let it out of your sight. I promise it will both keep you young and keep you driven to move ahead.