They help pave the way and push you along; no one does it alone.
Miguel de Cervantes, the 16th century Spanish novelist, poet and playwright, once said: “Believe there are no limits…”
That’s exactly the type of positive mindset one needs to achieve big goals in life which may at first appear insurmountable. However, almost anything is possible by combining fierce conviction and passion with positiveness and perseverance.
I learned this critically important life lesson at an early age when I pursued a political appointment in the White House after graduating from college.
This was a winding road with no assurance of success.
In fact, the odds of accomplishing this colossal goal in my early 20s were not favorable — not even close. I certainly could not have done it alone. In addition to hard work, there were intangible factors which helped my improbable dream become reality, such as good luck and timing. But that’s not all.
To paraphrase lyrics of the iconic band, The Beatles, I got by with a little help from my…mentors.
Thus, here’s some career advice on the importance of mentors: if you want to land a high-level job — especially at a young age — it’s vital to have mentors help pave the way and push you along. No one does it alone.
Getting My Foot in the Door
My story begins when I was a journalism student at the University of Maryland. My minor in political science involved a semester-long internship on Capitol Hill for college credit. The year before, as a sophomore, I had worked as the editorial page editor for the nationally-recognized student newspaper, The Diamondback.
It was there in the newsroom, above South Campus Dining Hall, where I wrote scathing editorials about the domestic and foreign policies of President George H.W. Bush. This earned me a coveted writing award from The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
But how did I get from south campus at the University of Maryland to the south lawn of the White House at age 23?
Little did I know at the time that my work for the student newspaper, buttressed by my budding political acumen, would help me land a significant Congressional internship in the Office of the Majority Leader, House of Representatives.
My intense passion for politics and public affairs led me to aim high in applying for a Capitol Hill internship. I admired then-Congressman Richard A. Gephardt who was the House Majority Leader at the time. So why not shoot for the top, I reasoned. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.
This was a long shot, to say the least. No one thought I stood a chance except me. Thus, with my fierce passion, college newspaper experience and a handful of clips, I aggressively pursued this high-level internship even though it seemed out of reach.
But if you never try, then you will never know what could have been.
Many people who knew me back then asked: Why would they want you? It was a good question for several reasons:
- Congressman Gephardt represented St. Louis, Missouri, whereas I’m a native New Yorker who had no ties to the Show Me State.
- Neither my family nor I were active party members or donors.
- I had no connections on Capitol Hill at that time.
- I did not attend an Ivy League college.
In short, I took a leap of faith. And the important life lessons I learned along the way are still applicable today.
These lessons are particularly relevant for Millennials and their younger demographic cohort, Generation Z — many of whom are new to the workplace or slowly embarking on their careers.
I learned that life can have an unexpected way of unlocking doors when you have a big goal and set your mind on achieving it, despite the odds and naysayers. Sometimes the “stars align” and everything falls into place, as it did for me back then.
In short, I had a dream and found comfort in knowing that long shots do come in, albeit rarely. Furthermore, I maintained a completely positive outlook, believed in myself and visualized the success I sought.
Luck and Timing
As luck would have it, Congressman Gephardt’s senior administrative aide and decision maker for hiring interns (Bobby) was a University of Maryland (UMD) alum. In fact, he had a degree in government and politics. This was my minor as an undergrad and part of the internship program that led me to that point.
Therefore, Bobby was far more familiar than most people with the national reputation of the student newspaper where I had worked, in addition to the highly rated College of Journalism where I honed my writing and editing skills. Although I still have no proof, I’m pretty sure these coincidental factors — luck and timing — carried the extra weight needed to tip the scale in my favor.
In hindsight, this single internship would be the catalyst for my future career path, which ultimately led to working for the Administration of President Bill Clinton in the early years of his first term.
I still vividly recall my alarm clock ringing at 5:00 a.m. My routine was to gulp down several cups of coffee before dressing and heading out to Capitol Hill. I’ll never forget the glorious sunrise illuminating the dome of the U.S. Capitol in a golden aura as I arrived each morning to open the office.
Men Behind the Curtain
It was there, within the cavernous confines of the U.S. Capitol, where I met and bonded with two of my marvelous mentors: George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala. George and Paul were political pros and two of the “movers and shakers” among the House leadership staff.
At the time, George was the top legislative advisor to Congressman Gephardt, accompanying him on the House floor during debates and voting. Paul was the speechwriter and master of messaging. Most people outside of Washington never knew their names back then, as they operated as the proverbial men behind the curtain.
What I learned working side-by-side with George and Paul was more valuable than all of my political science classes.
This is because, as the saying goes, “The best experience for life is life.” In fact, this seminal work experience was a game changer in my fledgling career and catapulted me to obtaining my dream job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a few short years later.
George and Paul not only taught me invaluable lessons about government, politics and the press, but also some of the fundamental life lessons about career success for anyone in any field. These lessons included:
- A strong work ethic and tenacious discipline,
- Professionalism and organizational loyalty,
- Maintaining a sense of humor during challenging times, and
- Displaying “grace under pressure” — which the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway equated with “courage” and used as a common literary theme.
Show Horse vs. Work Horse
George was a bona fide “work horse” — a prerequisite for his many high-profile jobs. These positions ranged from serving as a top advisor to President Clinton, to later hosting “This Week” at ABC News and anchoring “Good Morning America” (GMA).
As a mentor, George’s unparalleled work ethic and leadership made a strong impression on me. I learned many invaluable lessons from him which helped to shape my career path in public service.
In addition to his admirable work ethic, George (pictured above) always set a great example as a mentor by being calm , cool and collected. He was the proverbial “rock in the storm” — no matter the magnitude of the crisis at hand on any given day.
One late afternoon, after a bruising legislative battle and subsequent victory on the House floor, I was surprised by what transpired behind the scenes…
Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, an outspoken political nemesis, had sent George a bottle of wine with a nice note attached. I wondered to myself:
Why would such an infamous political opponent single out George with a personal gift?
After all, George led the charge in crushing key parts of Newt’s Republican legislative and political agenda. But I soon learned that being an influential “work horse” (like George) even won over the sincere respect and admiration of the most partisan political enemies.
George’s success stemmed from his herculean work ethic, fierce discipline, high intelligence and profound professionalism — not to mention political and legislative genius. He also happened to be an all around nice guy.
This first-hand experience with George made a world of difference in my own professional aspirations and career maturation. In fact, our paths would cross again in the West Wing of the White House when George was a prominent advisor to President Clinton and I was a young press assistant.
George was also a pseudo celebrity by then, as part of the public face of the Clinton Administration. I observed that when George walked outside the White House grounds, for instance, he would often be stopped by admiring tourists asking to pose with them for photos.
Being courteous and polite, George would always oblige.
George’s good manners and sense of humility made a lasting impression on me.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
Another important lesson I learned in those days was maintaining a good sense of humor in a highly stressful and demanding work environment.
In addition to assisting George, I was also privileged to work with another rising political star: Paul Begala. He was the speechwriter and a shrewd political strategist for Congressman Gephardt. Paul later became a top political and policy advisor to President Clinton.
Paul also happens to be one of the most gregarious people in Washington. You may have seen him providing political commentary and analysis on CNN or other TV news networks.
Paul taught me the importance of not taking oneself too seriously all the time. He demonstrated the value of having some fun at work, if and when possible. This helped to alleviate my stress and anxiety as a political neophyte.
Paul showed me, among other things, that laughter can indeed be the best medicine in stressful situations. This was helpful if I had a panic attack due to the magnitude of any given moment, like when a big work project was dropped on me with a tight deadline.
Paul’s vibrant personality and cunning wit helped cut through the prevalent pressure of working in Congress and the White House. Moreover, his impeccable timing with jokes and jabs created a better workplace amid the incessant intensity.
Paul made the office environment more enjoyable and stress-free, which led to higher employee engagement, productivity and morale — all of which are essential elements for any successful team effort.
Paul liked to joke, among other things, about how: “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
Even when I saw him in the White House, Paul would tease me in his Texas twang with witty one-liners, such as: “Grinberg, even YOU could be the Vice President…You look good in a suit!”
Paul also taught me the intricate rules of speech writing, political communication and media relations. He was (and still is) a master wordsmith and political communicator.
Had it not been for George, Paul and many others who helped me along the way, it’s doubtful I would have made it to the White House in my early 20s. That’s why I offer the following advice to anyone seeking to get ahead in the workplace or jump start a budding career:
It often takes marvelous mentors to achieve big career goals, especially at a young age. No one does it alone.
Who were some of the marvelous mentors who had a major impact on your career? What lasting lessons did you learn? Please share your valuable feedback below.
Originally published at medium.com