To DC’s Newest Staffer,
Congratulations on your new job and welcome to our nation’s capital! We are thrilled you are here and are confident that you will soon call the district home, discovering your favorite café, breakfast spot, happy hour bar, dog park, and all the rest.
But right now, you’re likely oscillating between a wide range of emotions — excited to finally be in Washington, D.C. and equally anxious about whether you’ll fit into your new city, eager to launch into a new career, while simultaneously questioning whether you truly belong here. You’ve likely given yourself the “I deserve to be here” pep talk a half-dozen times already, perhaps in between a few panic attacks. If you haven’t, you will.
Moving to a new city and taking on a new job — let alone the kind of job you probably have if you’re reading this letter — is equal parts exciting and daunting. Hence, this letter. I pray that the words below both reassure and challenge you as you embark on this new adventure.
A Few Thoughts on Feeling Nervous
First, if your emotions are oscillating between excitement and nervousness — or even between joy and fear — it means you’re human. Excitement and nervousness are two sides of the same coin, so don’t try to divorce one from the other. Nerves come about when things matter and carry meaning. The more important something is to us, the more excited and nervous we become. So those nerves you feel are a good thing — a sign that you care deeply about this opportunity before you.
Second, you’re not alone. Everyone — and I mean everyone — has gone and continues to go through exactly what you’re feeling. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in or how long you’ve been here, with each new adventure the same nervous excitement returns. Following his five gold medal performance in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, American swimmer Caeleb Dressel confessed in an interview that the Olympics are hard for him to enjoy due to the anxiety and stress of competing: “You can’t sleep right, you can’t nap, shaking all the time. I probably lost about ten pounds.”[i] Never mind the countless hours Dressel has poured into perfecting his stroke nor that this wasn’t his first Olympics.
So know that you’re not alone. While each of us walks a unique journey — not many of us are coming off diving blocks in the Olympics — we somehow share the same experiences, albeit played out differently. This anxiety has so permeated our culture that we have a special term for it: imposter syndrome. Simply defined, imposter syndrome is feeling that you are a fraud — not qualified to do the job and not as competent as everyone believes you to be. It is usually accompanied by a deep fear that you will be revealed as an imposter. Thus, imposter syndrome usually displays itself in two ways: as self-deprecating insecurity or as over-correcting arrogance, usually in an attempt to hide any such insecurity.
Neither of these displays is healthy or beneficial and both are painstakingly obvious to the DC veteran. So how should you approach this new adventure and deal with all the feelings you’re experiencing? Embrace this nervous excitement and lean into the adventure it is foreshadowing. Here are few ways to do that.
Who You Are, Not What You Do
Few things are more ingrained in us than the idea that your identity is defined by the people you know and the things you do. This notion has permeated every industry and infiltrated our thinking. Consider the three elements of a proper introduction: your name, your occupation, and your connection (who you know — your boss, mutual friends, etc.). You have been feeding this notion since you entered the world and Washington certainly revels in pushing that narrative. Worries about playmates turn to worries about prom dates and are now worries about references on your resume and, perhaps, finding your special someone. Likewise, working for good grades becomes working for an internship and is now working for the next rung on your career ladder.
The idea, of course, is a lie. The reality is that who you know and what you do will never determine your identity. Rather, it is who you are that determines the significance of every relationship you have and the success of everything you do. So instead of asking yourself what you want to do (DC’s favorite question) or who you need to meet to get there, the question you should be asking yourself is “who am I?” and, subsequently, “who do I want to be?”
Your identity is who you are at your core. When all the references and resumes are stripped away, who is left? This is your identity and all the other things — networks, friendships, relationships, internships, jobs, promotions, and the like — are mere extensions of that identity. So your highest calling is to find your identity, invest in it, and live it out. If you don’t, Washington will do what it does best and find a way to change you to whatever mode it needs most in the present moment.
Learning, Not Advancement
Toward that end, most successful leaders in the world often share this same piece of advice: Never stop being a student. Learning spans well beyond the four walls of any classroom or the university campus. Every experience you encounter on your journey here in Washington is an opportunity to learn and grow.
A past boss of mine and (now former) Member of Congress used to remind us aides that “you grow and you go.” These five simple words have helped focus this student mindset for me throughout my career.
Grow: Learning, not Advancement
Washington is full of ambitious individuals hyper-focused on the “go” while seeming to neglect the “grow.” The tragic reality of this pursuit is that your resume advances, but you do not. The result is imposter syndrome, along with a city full of individuals with fancy titles, but who haven’t matured beyond their early days in the district.
A dean at the college where I teach charges each incoming freshmen class to “focus on learning and not on points.” That same advice will serve you well throughout your time here. Those focused on their own advancement seek information, specifically any information that will aid their climb up the career ladder. Those focused on learning, however, strive to turn information into knowledge and knowledge into understanding and understanding into wisdom. What does your job teach you about yourself? How can you improve in your job (a question you should continually ask) and how do those lessons apply to other areas of your life?
Even the most negative experiences present opportunities for profound growth. I have had interns in the past express to me in their exit interviews that they learned they did not want to pursue a career in that particular field. This does not mean that the internship was a failure or a waste of time, but, rather, that it stirred an internal reflection that brings clarity to the intern’s future. The Chinese philosopher Confucius once remarked that life provides us with two teachers: the good that we follow and the bad that we reform.
Go: Challenge, not Complacency
While many in Washington make the grave mistake of going without growing, there are others who exhaust their growth without ever going. Doing a job well — especially if you’re doing it with people you like — can lull you into a sense of complacency, where not only is career advancement halted, but so is learning and personal growth. While it is human to fear the unknown and stick with the familiar, growth comes amid challenges and challenging yourself requires going when the growing begins to plateau.
Going may take various forms throughout your career. As a new staffer, don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor or colleagues how else you can help (assuming you’ve done your own work, of course). It gives you an opportunity to learn and it demonstrates your willingness to help the team. Outside of work, seek out volunteer opportunities or new experiences to continually expand your horizons. When the time comes — you will know when it does — confidently take that step to leave your current role for the next challenge. Whatever form “going” takes, never allow your growing to stall.
When you focus on learning instead of advancement, you find yourself growing as a person and not merely as a staffer. There is a refreshing sense of peace and contentment in this, when you finally let go of the never-ending quest for career advancement. When the opportunity to advance comes, you will be prepared to go with confidence.
Relationships, Not Networks
In 2018, CV Outreach published a study that analyzed and ranked the loneliest cities in America. Washington, D.C. ranked second, trailing only Las Vegas. This study appears to be backed up by the 2020 Census, where Washington, D.C. found itself ranked first among loneliest cities in America. At first glance, this seems impossible, especially in this city. Washington is always buzzing with visitors and staff members from every state and countless countries around the globe. Receptions, happy hours, and networking events line the calendar each night of the week. It’s not unusual to have multiple events in an evening, multiple days a week. How could Washington possibly be lonely? Yet, everyone here knows it is.
Perhaps we should have foreseen this in a city that sees its people as nothing more than who they know and what they do. If career advancement is the religion of Washington, then networking is its church. Early in my career, I was told, “your network is your net worth” and this has been played on repeat throughout my career, if not in word, than at least in the incessant push to meet people and collect business cards. I wish I realized sooner that this is a lie pushed by those who live the shallowest of lives, all in an attempt to hide their imposter syndrome from the world and, if they’re honest, from themselves.
Don’t misunderstand me — networking is important, but there exists a wide chasm between a network and a community. We have confused relationships and true friendships with networking and have foolishly replaced the former with the latter. Amid this folly, we have turned desperately to companionship to fill the void left from our lack of relationships. Washington’s widespread hook up culture only confirms this reality. So deep is this void, that some pay hundreds of dollars for sessions with “professional cuddlers,” while others have even turned to artificial intelligence to relieve their loneliness.
Continue to network, but also be intentional about forming genuine relationships. There are three relationships you should aim to form:
1) Your community. These are your peers who are journeying through this juncture of life with you. These aren’t contacts for you to send your resume to, but a community that values you and not who you’re connected to or what you do.
2) Your mentor. Find someone a few steps ahead of you in life’s journey who will invest in you. Though unnecessary, it may be helpful to find someone in your career path. Most importantly, find someone who can help you navigate life both in and outside of the office.
3) Your mentee. This is a few years removed from now, but there will come a time where you are no longer the new staffer. Just as your mentor invests in you, it’s time for you to invest in the newest staffer. Capture all that you are feeling now in the early days of your journey here and all that you will learn along the way (hint: journaling is a great way to do this) and invest that wisdom in the next new staffer.
As you look for your community and your mentor, look for people who will celebrate you when you succeed, stand with you when you fail, and stand up to you when you’re wrong. Then go and be this person to others.
Arthur Brooks, past president of the American Enterprise Institute, recounts a story from a flight he was on coming into Washington, D.C. An elderly woman seated behind him was trying to comfort her husband, who was grieving that he is seemingly unneeded in the world and, perhaps, is better off being dead. When the flight lands and the lights come on, Brooks glanced behind him and was shocked to see who it was grieving such a miserable life. Brooks recounts that “He was, and still is, world- famous. Then in his mid-80s, he was beloved as a hero for his courage, patriotism, and accomplishments many decades ago.”[ii]
How tragic to have a remarkably successful career, only to miss out on a life well lived. As you embark on your journey here, seek life before work. Find your identity before all else and your career success will flow from that identity. I’m cheering for you.
[i] Christine Brennan, “Caeleb Dressel knows pressure after winning 5 gold medals: ‘I probably lost 10 pounds,’” USA Today, August 1, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/christinebrennan/2021/08/01/us-swimmer-caeleb-dressel-pressure-5-olympic-gold-medals/5446561001/?gnt-cfr=1.
[ii] Arthur C. Brooks, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” The Atlantic, July 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/
SAMUEL CHEN is an award-winning political scientist, analyst, and strategist. He is the founder and principal director of The Liddell Group and a former aide in both houses of Congress. He additionally directs the political science program at Northampton Community College (PA) and is the host and anchor of the news journal “Face the Issues.”
Chen is the author of two books, including Thirteen Minutes: Winning, Losing, and Living as Taught by the 2016 Election. You can follow him on all social media at @SamuelChenTV.