How to Become a U.S. Congressman (or Woman)

Today, I’m going to cover something different. I’m to going to explain how to be one of the 500 most powerful people in America... to be a U.S. Congressman (or woman).

Actually, I’ll explain a behind-the-scenes look of how one such person came to power — and how the underlying lessons are applicable to any career field.

It all started several decades ago when I was in my third year of high school. It was the first day of school. I was a pimply-faced, socially awkward, aspiring super nerd teenager.

Everyone in this class was a 3rd year, except for one student. He was a year behind the rest of us in school but somehow got into our class. His name was Jared.

Jared was even more pimply-faced, and even more socially awkward than the rest of us. He was also (by a teenager’s standard) kind of weird.

He was extremely introverted. He was not the popular kid by any stretch of the imagination. He largely kept to himself.

The first thing I learned about the 15-year-old Jared was that he had run for student body president of his class every year for each of the last 5 years.

In each of the last 5 elections, he lost by a wide margin.

In class, the first thing I noticed about Jared was how persistent he was. Geez, to fail 5 years in a row and to keep on going was noteworthy — though at the time, it garnered more snickers than admiration.

As I got to know Jared better in class, he turned out to be a far more interesting and quietly impressive person than his reputation had suggested.

It turns out he had a real passion for politics.

When he was around 10 years old, the local city council was planning to bulldoze or somehow alter a canyon near his home. He went to the city council meeting and testified to council members to argue for keeping the canyon intact. I believe his lobbying efforts won.

(Needless to say, when I was 10 years old, I was doing nothing nearly as significant.)

So that was an interesting tidbit I learned about him.

I also learned that the prior summer, he had interned in Washington DC. I think he was a Senate Page — which I understand to be a glorified errand runner of some sort.

To work in the United States Senate as a 14-year-old isn’t too bad — even if it was a very menial job.

As I got to know Jared better in class, a few things became clear.

First, he was a smart guy. No matter what his social standing, the guy had a brain.

Second, he was passionate. He loved politics. I was in class mainly because I had no choice if I wanted to graduate. Unlike me, he wanted to be there — particularly the year we were learning about U.S. History.

As I finished up high school and had spent a total of 2 years with him in class, I realized my initial teenager’s first impression of him was very superficial, highly judgmental and unfair.

I had come to respect him. He was smart and passionate.

If I recall correctly, I think he ran for student body president of his class throughout the rest of high school — and continued his losing streak. By the end, he had run for office 7 times over 7 years, and lost all 7 times.

You would think at some point he would quit and try something else.

But to his credit, he didn’t.

As you may know, high school elections are in large part a popularity contest. It’s not easy running for office as one of the least popular kids in school. But Jared did exactly that.

When I first met him, I thought he was crazy. Couldn't he get the hint? He wasn’t popular. He wasn’t going to win. Why bother trying?

After I got to know him better, I realized he was running for two reasons unrelated to winning:

1) He believed in the political process.

2) He felt he had substance to offer (even though substance is not always what teenagers are looking to elect).

So despite certain defeat, he kept running every year out of principle.

By the end, I really came to respect his passion and values. (Though I still thought he was crazy!)

Anyway, as we all graduated from high school and went our separate ways, I would hear about Jared from my friends every few years. I knew he had gotten into and attended Princeton.

The parents ran a greeting card company in the early days of the Internet called Blue Mountain Arts. I don’t recall if Jared was involved in the business, but I did notice when the company was sold at the peak of the 1999 dot-com bubble for $780 million dollars.

Jared started an online florist company a few years later, and then I largely lost track of him for many years.

Then one day about 4 years ago, I had learned that Jared Schutz Polis had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the state of Colorado.

When I first heard the news, I had two equally strong, but paradoxical, reactions.

My first reaction was “wow, what an accomplishment."

My second reaction was to laugh out loud and say, “I’m not surprised in the slightest.”

After trying to win an election every year from age 11 onwards, and after 25 years of trying, he finally won an election.

(It turns out he had won several elections at the state level prior to Congress that I wasn’t aware of at the time. His first breakthrough win was some kind of state education board where he won by approximately 90 votes out of 1.5 million votes cast.)

In addition, he is one of only 7 openly gay members of Congress, and the only member of Congress that is a gay parent.

It seems his convictions and holding true to his own values, despite any potential consequences, has not changed much over the years.

So what’s the lesson in all of this for you and me?

There are two:

1) Passion counts. When you are passionate about something, you will work harder and persist longer than somebody else who is equally or even more talented than you are.

To be more specific, it is not the most passionate person that wins.

It is the most passionate person that tries the most, makes the most attempts, and often improves the most (because the person has more trial/error learning attempts than everyone else), until such a person has developed the skills needed to be successful.

2) Competitive Advantage is often evident in childhood. In the career context, having a personal competitive advantage over peers enables you to succeed more with less effort than others.

All competitive advantage is based off of some inherent or acquired strength. Very often the early signs of such personal strengths are evident (usually to others, but often not to you) in early periods of your life.

I am often asked how one should go about identifying a personal strength. One method is to approach the people who’ve known you in early periods of your life, and ask them what they think your “gift" or "special talent” was, or anything unusual or different about you versus your peers.

In your life and career, what are you passionate about? What are your strengths or competitive advantages?

The greater your self awareness of the answers to these questions, the sooner you can make more strategic decisions about your life and career.

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6 comments… add one
  • Leo Scherwin Mar 3, 2014, 6:39 pm

    Thank you Victor for an interesting and inspiring post! It is great that you highlight the importance of passion as one of the best motivators since many people nowadays seem to follow trends, others’ ideas or money for that matter to a large extent, instead of their heart. Being happy on Monday morning, and perhaps even more importantly on Sunday evening, should not be underestimated when it comes to delivering sustainable results, i.e. doing a great job in the long term and being happy.

    Best regards,
    Leo

  • Conor Mar 6, 2014, 10:12 am

    Hi Victor,

    I love the post, but feel like your conclusion about what made Jared successful was slightly lacking. I definitely agree that the clear passion that he had for politics enabled him to work hard at it long after others would have quit. But having passion for something isn’t enough by itself, and it sounds to me like Jared was successful because he worked his butt off. It surprises me to hear you subscribe to (or at least appear to) the maxim of “follow your passion.” It’s important to be passionate about what you do, but actually achieving something comes through the hard work and dedication which Jared clearly demonstrated above and beyond just the simple passion for what he does.

    Cheers,
    Conor

    • Victor Cheng Mar 7, 2014, 2:00 am

      Conor,

      You raise a fair point. Hard work, developing ones skills and having a few hundred million in cash to work with probably doesn’t hurt.

      My main point made across multiple articles is that following a passion often helps in persevering through the inevitable obstacles to achieving anything meaningful.

      My other point, which apparently I didn’t convey explicitly enough, is that often what one is passionate about has roots from ones childhood. For myself, my love of teaching was evident when I was 16 years old – though I did not have the perspective to appreciate it at the time.

      I’m not in the follow your passionate and everything will work out camp. Some opportunities have no economic value and may not be worth pursuing as the tradeoff may be too extreme. I am of the thought that passion is a major factor, but by no means the only one. It just happens to be one that many people discount excessively.

      Victor

  • Susan schutz Aug 14, 2016, 7:56 pm

    You are leaving alot out ofb this article. During college, Jared started a company that he later sold for a couple milliin dollars. He wanted a career inbpublic service but did not want to have to be at the beck and call of donations. He then started ProFliwers soon after college and took it public. He then sold that for a huge amount of money. He then was ready to enter politics. He started on the Colorado board of education, soon becoming chair of this. Then he ran for congress defeating an incumbant. He has won all subsequent electios by huge perventages. Yes, he had/has a passion for helping people, however he is quite brilliant ads has put his.mind, work ethic and passion into his career. All three of these qualities have made him a huge success as a business man, congressman and family man. I high school you left out many things. He won debating awards up to state fonals, he started a Democrat club, he was the start in the Shaeksoeare plays, etc etc. He was very active and took leadership roles in extracurricular activities. By the time he was in ninth grade, he was avery respected and was looked up to. He finished all possible AP classes by tenth grade and the took political courses at UCSD when he was a soohomore. In any event, I do not think your story did hom justice l

    • Victor Cheng Sep 13, 2016, 4:40 pm

      Hi Susan,

      Thank you for adding more details about Jared’s academic history. My article wasn’t intended to be in depth article about his life. It was meant to be an article about my life and my impressions of Jared when we were in some of the same classes.

      Also in case it was not clear, I had and still have the utmost respect for Jared. He earned that from me and others by his insights and points of view expressed in class many years ago.

      -Victor

  • Susan schutz Aug 15, 2016, 1:37 am

    And Jared was so respected that after he left for college in his jr year, his class r asked him to come back and give the graduation speech

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