When I graduated from college, I was determined to change the world. It was 1993 — Bill Clinton's exciting first year as president — and I headed to Washington DC with my newly minted government degree. I didn't know that much about how politics or policy-making worked in the real world, but I felt passionate about being part of the action.
After many informational interviews, I received some sage advice from a beltway-insider and expert on campaign fundraising strategies. “If you get a job on the Hill, you will spend your days making copies, stuffing envelopes and sending faxes,” he counseled. “But, if you join a campaign in the field working directly with volunteers and organizing supporters, you will spend time with the Senator and learn how things really work.” Great, I thought. Sign me up!
I landed a hands-on job as a finance coordinator for Harris Wofford, my Philadelphia hometown Senator who was facing a tough re-election bid. Assigned to the Pittsburgh region, where I knew no-one, I joined a small team responsible for raising $7 million, which was a huge goal back then. I was nervous to start, but confident that “they" — the seasoned experts — would teach me everything I needed to know. Give me the playbook, I thought, and I’ll make it happen.
After a few lonely weeks in Pittsburgh, including renting my first apartment, a gas leak, questionable neighbors, and a steady diet of cereal, a new reality set in. In the fast-paced, high-stakes world of campaigns, there was no "they” to teach me: I was the they.
I needed to learn not to drive a foreign car to pick up a Democratic Senator if you are in a union town (whoops). I needed to learn how to build relationships with political donors on contentious topics such as a woman’s right to choose, economic policy and regulatory reform. I needed to learn how be a gracious temporary staffer squatting in someone else's full-time office.
In retrospect, this was my first and most profound “lean in” moment. Most days I was terrified about messing up something really important, but I willed myself not to quit — the election was too important. Instead, I learned what I needed to learn: Ask good questions. Be scrappy (just not illegal). Be both self-sufficient and collaborative. Be flexible in getting the job done. Apologize if you screw up (like forgetting to put a major donor’s name on a fundraising invitation). Help your teammate even if it’s not your job (stuffing envelopes is a political rite of passage). Most of all, show up.
What I didn’t realize then is that I was building a foundation of new discovery skills – the ability to navigate and achieve progress in ambiguous and unpredictable situations. These were very different from the performance skills I was taught in school . Executing on pre-determined expectations and providing ‘correct’ answers no longer mattered – getting the job done, no matter how much creativity it required, made my work count.
Sadly, we lost that election (to a very ambitious and young Rick Santorum), but this important lesson has stayed with me throughout my career: There really is no They. I am the They. This insight —driven by discovery and fortitude — helped me earn a finance degree at an MBA program despite deep math anxiety. And it guided me as a young mother whose extended family and traveling husband were often thousands of miles away. Now, it’s given me the courage to coauthor my first book.
Each one of us can and must create and make the most of our opportunities. And as more and more of us do so, we can collectively embrace an even greater mindset together —We are the They!