The first day of a new Congress is like the first day of high school. Lost freshman wander the halls searching for their offices and committee rooms. New staffers queue up for parking passes and ID cards. And the world is full of the promise and hope that comes with a fresh start, for a little while at least.
Eventually, the late night votes, the working weekends and the 8:00AM meetings will begin to wear on you. You’ll start wondering if six cups of coffee before noon is excessive, and then quickly remember that the caffeine is the only thing keeping you alive, let alone awake. You’ll stack papers on your desk in towers that would make the Chrysler Building blush. And the sound of a ringing phone will become like the distant thump of hoofbeats bringing unknowable torture to your door.
Of course, it won’t be all bad.
You have the opportunity to do monumental things in this place. You can change laws and right wrongs. You can help a single person or a million people. You can watch from the wings while your Boss speaks the words you wrote to 300 million people.
No one else gets to do that, but you do.
But if you want to get from the first day to the 10th year, you better praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Here are some quick tips for how to survive it all (We’ll talk about thriving later. Right now, it’s all about finding terra firma.):
The To Do List is Your Master. On any given day, you’ll be presented with dozens of tasks. Some will need to be done now, some later, and others needed to be finished five minutes ago. The only way to keep this bevy of responsibilities straight (unless you’re Rain Man) is with a list on a piece of paper small enough to fit in your pocket.
Not on your Blackberry, on a piece of paper made from dead trees.
There will be days when nothing gets crossed off. There will be days when everything gets crossed off. But having the list will keep your head from exploding, and there is nothing like the joy of drawing a line through a freshly completed task.
Step Away from the Crackberry. For some of you, the Hill will be your first professional job. Your Boss will hand you your first Blackberry and you’ll be drawn to its siren’s song like a moth to a flame. But don’t become one of those people whose eyes are glued to their Crackberry at all times.
Those people are self-important jackasses who want everyone to think that their reading a classified NIE briefing while negotiating a trade pact and writing a piece of ground breaking legislation, but they’re really just flipping through their junk mail trying to look busy. So while your Blackberry is an important tool for staying informed and on call, learn to wait in line, sit in a hearing and walk down the hall without needing to look at it every second. There is life beyond the 240 pixel screen.
Seriously addicts, seek help.
Make Friends. You remember your first day of college when you walked from dorm room to dorm room introducing yourself to people? You need to do the same thing with the other offices on your floor. So grab whatever “home state product” you have to offer them (peanuts, soda, jelly beans, M&Ms) and start walking the halls. Go visit the other offices from your delegation, on your committee and in your hallway, and make some new friends.
Just make sure you go by on Friday, after the Bosses leave, and not at noon on Wednesday when everyone is swamped. This way, you’ll actually get to meet someone besides the intern at the front desk.
Return Phone Calls. When people leave you a message, return it within two business days. This is non-negotiable. Same thing goes for e-mail.
If you can be relied upon to get back to people in a timely manner, you’ll go far in this business. It doesn’t matter whether the call comes from a little old lady in Pueblo or a big-wig trade lobbyist on K Street. Everyone gets a response, even if the only response you can give is “I’ll check into it and get back to you soon.”
Because if people can’t depend on you, they will stop calling and they’ll find their information somewhere else. And you will have effectively taken yourself out of the game.
Control Your Calendar. I never schedule meetings before 10:30AM unless it’s absolutely critical. Having that time in the morning to respond to e-mail, finish projects, talk to your COS, return phone calls, etc. is invaluable. You’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish in that hour and a half if you really try.
Make time for yourself every day, time to sit at your desk and produce. If you don’t, you’re letting the calendar control you and you’ll never get your feet underneath you.
Be Nice to the Support Staff. When the toilet in the Member’s Office backs up, when the Xerox machine is broken, when your water cooler is dripping and your computer is flashing “Fatal Exception,” you’ll need the support staff to help you in a timely manner. How do you make that happen? Be nice to them, and they will want to help you.
Greet them when they enter the office. Buy the computer guy a Mountain Dew (or Red Bull, they’re all caffeine addicts). Learn their names and sincerely wish them a good day when they leave. This can mean the difference between getting the broken chair replaced now and ten days from now.
Just like everyone else on the Hill, the support staff want to be appreciated and treated with respect. You’ll be surprised how few people can muster the energy for that. Don’t be one of those people, those people never last.
Take a Breath. Every day, even if it’s crazy busy, take ten minutes to get out of the office. Sit in the courtyard while you answer your e-mail. Walk up and down the stairs to get a little exercise. Grab a friend and get some ice cream. But give yourself a minute away from your desk to breathe. If you don’t, you will implode.
Have friends who don’t work on the Hill. Get a hobby. Go to church/temple/worship service. And don’t spend every minute of your day on the Hill living the Hill life. If you do, you’ll lose perspective so fast that you won’t even remember who you were before the Hill. (And yes, there are people who become that consumed.)
This is just the beginning. Over the next few months, CHS is going to feature career advice for how to survive and thrive on the Hill. Some of it will come from me, but most of it will be culled from others with more experience and a different perspective than I. We play the full nine innings at this level, everyone needs a mentor.
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Love it! I might add to your return phone calls and emails, please take time to meet with lobbyists and constituents – even if you can only give us 10 minutes. If you don't want to meet with me, then you will become obsolete and your boss won't get the future support you need.
fantastic list! it applies to any newbie at any job (especially those here on K st.).
Great list Belle. Thanks for sharing.
I agree. These suggestions are not limited to the Hill. They are critical to success at most jobs in DC–including in the legal industry, where quite possibly there are more smart phone addicts.
SO TRUE! Works equally well if you're working for governments on the other side of the globe!
Knowing the difference between “by” and “buy” would be helpful, too. (As in “Just make sure you go buy on Friday…” above.)
Great list! Another idea for any newbies reading this: watch what you say. Once on the hill, the casual comments you made about “crazy tea partiers” “tree huggers' or whatever, can now greatly inhibit your career. Even if you are strong in political conviction, tact always pays off.
Part of being tactful is not pointing out everyone's mistakes. We all make mistakes. Being a prick about it makes people hate you. Being a prick about it anonymously….just makes you a prick.
K. Hill says:
1. High-five Allison! #bow
2. I agree with AL. You DO need to take the time to meet with constituents/lobbyists, etc. As a former Hill staffer now turned non-profit LA, it is important that you take even 5 minutes out to form some kind of “relationship” with those on the outside. Those relationships are two-way streets.
Great list! I worked on the Hill for about 3 years (now in Boston and still read the blog!) and I agree with everything, and also Allison's comment about watch what you say! I'll add one other thing: learn small basics (ie: how to get to the cloakroom, how to write a note to your boss on the floor, the email address of leg counsel) as soon as you can, even if you don't think its necessary. Otherwise, you will inevitably be in a stressful situation and not know to do!
Belle–this is perhaps your best post yet. I've been on the Hill for 5 years and am now in the minority. Reading this reminded me why I am here in the first place, and also caused me to look back at bad habit i've formed over the years. It's a bad time to be a dem, no need to be lazy as well. I will share this with as many staffers as I can, this is a must read! Thanks so much for your fashion sense and insprining words!
Great advice Belle! Wish I had something like this when I started on the Hill eons ago….and Allison, you are a gem! Some people are just TOO SMART for the rest of us….ha!
It was a bad time to be a Republican not that long ago. Such is the swinging pendulum of politics. Don't let it get you down. You'll settle into the minority and learn how to get things done in spite of that before you know it.
Thank you so much Belle! I've been reading your blog since I found out just a month ago that I'd be moving up to DC to work for a freshman Congresswoman. It's a world away from where I'm working now, but this is one post that makes me feel actually ready. You are awesome.
Nice post Belle, especially re: crackberry/iphone addicts. I've seen formerly enjoyable, smart people turn into phone zombies waiting for incredibly pointless email updates. Also, for the ladies on the market, checking your phone doesn't make you seem impressive, it makes you seem rude (same goes for guys, but figured more women would be reading this blog).
Another tip: if you're a leg person, which chances are you are, don't trivialize the work of the press people in your office. Two years goes by in a flash, and no one is going to support your boss if they don't know what she's done for her district.
Excellent article, and thanks for the support staff comments. I retired from the Hill a couple years ago and just returned as a consultant (be nice!) – I worked my entire “other” career as a member of one of the larger support groups up here and one of our jokes when a new Congress arrived was to comment on how nice the “newbies” were to everyone…until they figured out they didn't have to be nice to some folks (support staff) and turned into jerks. Even so, I think it is present in everyone's mind that this is a STRESSFUL place, and even nice folks have a bad day once and a while. Once again, great article!
Amazing post. I would add, for more senior people, be nice to your interns, staff assistants, LCs, etc. Yes, they are beneath you in the pay scale, but they are (for the most part) committed to their job, and a little appreciation goes far.
I just moved to the Hill last week to work for a freshman congressman, and I love reading this post now that the first week is over. Great tips! 🙂