Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping it Practical: Volunteer for a Campaign

A little while back, I wrote about how graduation speeches and other means by which young people are subject to advice-giving can often be terribly platitudinous and useless.

"Follow your dreams" rings about as hollow for me as does giving a copy of "Oh, The Places You'll Go" to an enterprising young adult. "It all works out in the end" seems downright obnoxious when it comes FROM a Silicon Valley gazillionaire TO a bunch generally smart and talented people, the vast middle of which are headed towards middle-management mediocrity.

For real advice, I talked about learning a critical language (remember, not to be perfect at it, but just to be better than most anyone else, which you might be able to do with a couple weeks' practice). I've also talked on this blog about how I've come to understand that 'networking' should not be confused with 'making pen pals.' (Will write more on the subject in the future).

In the meantime, here's one more piece of practical, potentially very-useful advice for ANY person, but particularly for a young person trying to get his or her feet on the ground professionally --volunteer for a political campaign.

I had never done this until I started working for Sam Meas (technically, I couldn't have, since it's against UCMJ for active duty folks to involve themselves in campaigns in any way, shape, or form). Anyway, it's been shaping up as one of the most enriching, eye-opening, and generally interesting experiences in my life. I'll write about it more between now and next fall, but for now here are a couple bullet points to consider about volunteering for a campaign

* You'll meet tons of people. And simply put, the more people you know, the more potential professional opportunities you'll come across. Involving yourself in a campaign is a great way to shorten the paths between you (or your degrees of separation) to anyone else who lives in your area, or whatever geographical spread the campaign covers.

* You'll visit tons of places that you otherwise wouldn't. Same principles generally apply from the previous point. Again, you're gaining a ton of familiarity with, and exposure to, doors that might open for you down the road.

* You'll see a process from the inside out as opposed to the outside in. Remember that old joke about the weather -- how everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it? Politics is sort of the same way. You can never learn something from a book as well as you can by doing. Seeing the inside of a campaign staff, and appreciating just how hard it is to run for public office, offers you a new perspective. Whether it turns you off to electoral politics completely, gets you hooked for life, or leaves you somewhere in the middle, you'll get something that you couldn't have by reading "All Politics is Local" and watching Bullworth.

* Neat life experience / resume bullet. Probably doesn't rank up there with having run 26.2 miles in one shot, or climbing some major mountain, but it's still related to these in principle -- things people can do so they can say (whether just to themselves, or to others, but I'm not a psychologist so I don't care which) that they've been there and done that. Could be a cool thing to talk about during an interview, especially if you're in your early 20s and haven't really *done* anything else.

I know that overview completely glossed over other issues of policy and ideology as reasons why someone might want to get involved or why they might find it to be a good moral or ethical decision. Those are all valid, but my major point here was to include a specific, pointed piece of guidance that could be given to someone wearing a cap and gown -- no pablum about "exploring your passions" but something concrete that would be theirs to either accept or reject.

So, right after you get done learning "Where is the bathroom" in Punjabi, and you understand why e-mailing or calling people 'just to say hi' isn't really networking, your next step, young Padawan, is to volunteer for a political campaign.

When you do, great things might happen. And even if you hate it, well, now that's just one more thing you know that you didn't before.

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