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 third-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, have 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 if there was 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.