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.