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Career Advice for Millennials: How I Landed a White House Gig at Age 23


That’s me pictured above with my parents and Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. It was a Saturday morning about 20 years ago following a Presidential radio address. The “Blue Pass” I’m wearing allowed me unfettered access to the West Wing, including the White House Briefing Room where I assisted dozens of reporters.

This is the story of how I landed my dream job in the White House at age 23. Moreover, it’s the story of lessons learned along the way that are applicable to today’s Millennials embarking on their first jobs or considering new careers.

Dare to Think Big

An important part of my career advice to young people is don’t be afraid to take big risks. That’s what I did to complete my improbable journey from south campus in College Park, Maryland, to the South Lawn of the White House.

In short, you’ve got to dare yourself to think big. In one of her last TV interviews, the late and great Maya Angelou was asked by ABC News what advice she would give to her younger self. She offered these timeless words of wisdom:

  • “Dare — dare to be more than you think you can be — dare.”

I set the daring goal of helping to elect a Democrat as President of the United States during my sophomore year of college at the University of Maryland. It was 1989 at the time and George H.W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. I wrote scathing op-eds about the Bush Presidency for the campus student newspaper.

Back then, I had never even heard of Bill Clinton, much less had any connections to Arkansas. My family and I were neither Democratic Party activists, nor major campaign donors. Yet somehow the stars magically aligned and my dream became a reality. This just goes to show that long shots do come in, albeit sparingly. But if you never try, you’ll likely never know.

  • Fortunately, I knew early on in college exactly what I wanted to do. Moreover, I was passionate and unyielding in the pursuit of my goal.

After graduating from Maryland’s College of Journalism in May 1992, I immediately started working full time on the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign. Let’s just say that my family wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of my having no job security while working around the clock for very little pay. But I was a risk taker and strongly believed that Bill Clinton was the best candidate to bring positive change and economic prosperity to America, especially to the middle class.

Ambitious Undergrad

So how did I get to that point? For starters, I lucked out by securing a high-level press internship in college with former Congressman Richard Gephardt in the Office of the House Majority Leader. This was a six-month gig for which I received college credit in political science.

There, within the palatial and ornate corridors of the U.S. Capitol, I worked side-by-side with some of the best minds in government, politics, communications and media relations — people who are now household names in those fields, and with whom I later worked in the White House (like George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala, among others).

But that was just one of several internships and other jobs I did as an ambitious undergrad while juggling a full course load. I also worked stints in college for a prominent political pollster who later became a top advisor to the Clinton campaign.

  • One important lesson learned is not only to gain high-level work experience at a young age, but also to forge and nurture key professional relationships.

Other jobs I held in college included working as a daily beat reporter for The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (now “Bloomberg BNA“); as a correspondent for U. Magazine (part of Colleges.com); and as the editorial page editor and an award-winning columnist for the nationally-recognized daily student newspaper, The Diamondback.

Obviously, I didn’t get much sleep in those days — and I didn’t need it. The adrenaline rush and my high motivation to make a real difference helped propel me forward.

The Value of Networking

The VIP relationships I forged and nurtured ended up proving invaluable in planting the seeds early on for my journey to the White House. You’ve probably heard that saying, it’s not what you know but who you know. I would add this caveat:

  • It’s not only who you know but who you get to know well.

Who will go to bat for you when needed and asked? That’s the true test of networking.

Today’s young people are fortunate to have online professional networking tools at their disposal, such as GovLoop, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. While this certainly makes the networking process easier, it should not be used as a safety blanket.

Millennials should not rely on social media networking alone. That’s only the beginning of the process, not the beginning of the end.

  • You must always make meaningful and lasting contacts in person.

Thus try to meet your VIP contacts for lunch, coffee, dinner, drinks, or just to stop by their office and say hello. Whatever works for them. If that’s not possible in the short term then send them periodic emails, cards, letters, etc. Then try to meet in person at a later date — at their convenience, not yours.

Your high-level connections will be super busy, of course, so always be polite in addition to being persistent. Just remember that you don’t want to cross that invisible line of being persistent to becoming a pest. Thus always use your best judgment, ask others for networking advice, or become a student of human relations via research and reading.

Additionally, don’t give up too easily — even if you face some initial failures or setbacks. If necessary, redouble your efforts, revise your strategy, and continue to move forward. Go with your gut feeling if all else fails.

That’s my best advice for today’s teens and 20-somethings embarking on new careers or just trying to find their way in the world.

By working your tail off, strategically networking and taking risks, it’s possible that your dream job may materialize too – just as it did for me when I was of a certain age.

DBG

*** All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector or private sector employer, political organization or related entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo David Dean

Went to Maryland for undergrad. Army had a contract with the school. Best advise I have ever seen for someone entering from the political side. I do not think it would work too well for regular federal employment.

Profile Photo Donna Dyer

The world is very different for Millennials that it was for us. These are great suggestions, necessary but not sufficient. In addition to creating a “Personal Board of Directors” who will go to bat as you suggest, I advise students to get a technical or specialized skill. Are you a great writer? Can you code? Do you understand Medicaid? Have something to offer that sets you apart in the extremely competitive work environment.

Profile Photo Marie Koko

Donna is quite right. It’s so different now than it was 20 years ago. The one thing I am seeing with some consistency is that advanced degrees are becoming more and more the norm for those seeking to work in agencies. I’ve had several 40-something folks tell me that if they were recent grads today with the degrees they hold, their agency would NOT hire them for the job they got 20 years ago!

Profile Photo Ryan Arba

Hey David – what a great story! I love how your courage and persistence paid off into an opportunity of a lifetime. One thing I would encourage millennials to do is to be open to other possibilities while in pursuit of their dream job. They may miss a wonderful career opportunity if they are too focused on doing a specific job that, at the end of the day, may not be available in the time frame they are looking for. I guess I tend to believe in the “shoot for the stars and land on the moon” approach. The very fact that you are pursuing a dream job will open your eyes to other cool opportunities.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

David, Donna, Marie & Ryan:

First, many thanks for sharing your valuable views and important insights, which is greatly appreciated.

Donna & Marie: You both raise an excellent point about the benefits and/or necessity of obtaining an advanced degree and/or speciality/technical skills in today’s competitive labor market. While I did not mention that is this post, I did highlight it in a prior post back in March when I outlined a suggested 10-Point Career Plan for Millennials. Point #2 was this:

  • “Obtain the professional knowledge and expertise to best position yourself in a competitive marketplace. This includes pre- or post-graduate studies, jobs, internships and mentorships early on.”

Perhaps I should have reiterated that point again. Thank you for bringing it up.

Ryan: Thanks for the kind words. You raise a valid point about not “putting all your eggs in one basket”. I actually did pass at the time on a gig with the Dept. of Commerce in order to pursue a political appointment at OMB. Yes, I rolled the dice and may have come up short had my first choice fallen through. Thus keeping your eyes open for non-dream job opportunities makes good sense, especially in a very competitive labor market in which Millennials below age 30 have about double the unemployment rate compared to the national average. Thanks for sharing that wise advice.

David: I appreciate the positive feedback. You are correct about separating out political positions from career civil service — which I later entered after the White House gig. One thing I would point out about political appointees is that it’s possible to jump more than one grade level at a time when moving to different jobs, like from a GS-10 to a GS-12 — or at least that was possible back then. Thus you can obtain a higher grade level prior to applying for civil service jobs. The downside to being political, of course, is no job security and extra long work hours.

Profile Photo Amber Hansen

People will expect you to prove yourself and earn their trust. Sometimes that means getting up early and being present; putting the smartphone away and looking people in the eye kind of present. Everyone forgets the importance of focusing on people without distraction but Millennials face a stereotype around that. Paying attention to one person at a time, lets them know you think they are important and it could be the thing that sets you apart.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Amber:

Thanks for your excellent comments, which make perfect sense. As noted in the blog, young people should not use social media alone as a safety blanket for networking. Millennials need to get out there and press the flesh to build stronger networks.

  • Nothing can replace meeting people in person and forming a human bond — as opposed to just a virtual one.

And, yes, if you have to get up at 5:00 a.m. or whatever time get on a VIP’s schedule, then just do it! In the long run you’ll be happy you did.