Once again, this year I finished no better than second in the balloting to be the commencement speaker at every single university in the world. Undeterred, however, I offer my annual unsolicited advice to graduates who are looking to wade into the swamp and make their way in Washington. In no particular order, here are 10 rules to remember as you contemplate getting your first job and getting ahead in our nation’s capital.
- Move to Washington as soon as possible. If you want a job here, don’t just sit behind your computer and fire out résumés. Just about everyone in Washington has a story of how they slept on their friend’s couch when they first moved to town. Get here as soon as you can and meet with anyone who will meet with you. Your competition is in Washington pounding the sidewalks even as you read this. Remember: When you get out, things happen.
- Know what you want to do and how much money you want to make. You would be surprised how many people I meet with who can’t answer either question. Doing some courtesy meetings and what I call “survey visits” is all right, but try to get to the point quickly. Figure out where you want to work and why. Do your research and be honest with yourself about whether your education, intellectual interests and/or personal commitments justify your presence in that office. Although you may be desperate to land a job, try your hardest to position yourself in a field that aligns with your interests. The enthusiastic and sincerely interested always beat out the synthetic, contrived résumé-builders.
- Keep your résumé to one page. Over the years, I have noticed résumés are getting longer and less informative. Some are stretching into four pages. Hint: No one is interested in learning about your ninth-grade softball team or your unexceptional performance in the school chorus. Brevity is good. Include a clear and well-stated objective.
- Quickly assess the room where you have an interview. As I’ve said before, when you walk into an office to meet with someone, quickly take note of your surroundings. Does the person you are meeting with have a lot of certificates and pictures of themselves lining the walls? Well, those are there to be noticed. Don’t be shy about mentioning how impressive the displays are. To this day, when I visit someone else’s office, I go straight to their me-wall and photo-spread and exclaim, “Hey, these are great!” I recommend you do the same.
- Always leave the action with you. Take responsibility for what happens next. Commit to following up with the people you meet and make the most of your interactions. Don’t be the poor soul who is always waiting for a return phone call.
- Take almost any job that is close to your interests. If you are any good, responsibility and authority will flow your way. In Washington, if you prove yourself to be capable, other opportunities will present themselves.
- Dress slightly better than your peer group. First impressions matter if for no other reason than because most bosses don’t have time to act on much else. If you look typical, you are harder to remember.
- Be the first one at work every day. You won’t necessarily be the smartest or the most well connected, but it is within your power to arrive at the office before anyone else. Your bosses will notice.
- Commit time every morning to reading a lot of news. In Washington, it still pays to stick with the classics. Read The Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Politico, and don’t overlook the Financial Times. Obviously, there’s no shortage of material, but if all you can do is read from the above list, you’ll never be behind on the news.
- Know that speaking truth to power is overrated, especially early in your career. Speak truth to power selectively and only in private. Power often knows truth better than you think. And among the powerful, there is a saying that goes something like “Look out for cocky, know-it-all, grandstanding kids. They are often more trouble than they are worth.”
- Think of your first two jobs as more school. Take it on faith that you have a lot to learn. Think of these first two jobs as a core part of that learning process. Remember you are never more vulnerable than when you don’t know what you don’t know. And after 18 months in almost any job in Washington, it’s fair game to be looking for your next move up the ladder. Also, remember that this is not your time to make money. Figure out how to live on a very low salary. As you gain more authority and responsibility, money will follow.
- Be hypersensitive to the quality of your work. A lot of people start with research assignments. Be sure your facts are bulletproof that you have no typos and no grammatical errors. A reputation for sloppy work is poison at the office. You don’t often compete with brilliant people; you compete with hard-working, diligent people every day. Doing well is more a function of discipline than IQ.
At this point, you might be thinking about writing a comment along the lines of “Hey Ed, you idiot, you said 10 rules and then you listed 12.” Well, this is just a clever way to remind you that in Washington, all numbers are wrong, or at least they become wrong about two seconds after they are published. Always double-check any numbers you use.
There you have it. These might not be all the rules, but they are enough to get you started. So, good luck. I hope I see you out there.