Interns in Washington, D.C. tend to have certain attributes in common. Unseasoned yet confident, these individuals are career-driven, politically conscious and generally affluent enough to afford to live in D.C. without getting paid. They’re a pretty well-educated crowd, and they’re often well connected, too. With all that going for them, it’s no wonder why many of them think they’ve got their lives figured out. They think that this step leads to that step which leads to this law school and that job and this whole, wonderful planned-out life.
Barely a week into my internship this summer, I started to get nervous that I hadn’t completely sketched out my life post graduation. Even though I still have two years left in Ann Arbor, I would lay awake in bed some nights considering a host of questions about the next stages of my life. Should I really study abroad? Take another internship or two? Washington? New York? Law school?
I’ll admit I’m rather anxiety-prone in general. I could’ve spent the summer studying Buddhist meditation in Nepal and I still probably would’ve had panic attacks. But from talking to some of the friends I made while I was in D.C., it became clear I wasn’t the only one who was getting nervous about mapping out my future.
I decided I’d start looking for guidance from people who had insight into more than merely which LSAT class to take. I asked the advice of everyone it was socially acceptable to ask. Fortunately, in addition to the myriad ambitious twenty-somethings there, D.C. is also home to scads of professionals eager to give opinions and tell their stories.
First, I spoke with congressional staffers, young lawyers and non-profit types. They were my first glimpse into what a political career is really like. Their stories varied, but a common thread was that none of them went immediately to law school after college — and about half never studied law. This was surely a departure from what my friends and acquaintances were planning on doing.
As the summer progressed, I got to meet an eclectic bunch of Washington insiders — a television producer, a CEO, a journalist and a couple lobbyists, among others. They had vastly different success stories, but they all had similar things to say. For starters, they each suggested that I ignore the nonsense spewing from the interns around me. That might’ve been the best advice of all. Yet more than that, they all reassured me that a career need not follow a linear path. Each of these people had seemingly unrelated professional experiences that didn’t fit neatly together, but all of them were quite successful. Once I realized this, an unfamiliar calm came over me.
Then, on one of my last days in Washington, I went to a Middle East policy seminar in one of the congressional office buildings. I got there early, and when I noticed a table with coffee and pastries, I couldn’t resist. As I spread a modest portion of cream cheese on a bagel, a man asked me where I found the schmeer with chives. I didn’t recognize him at first, but I quickly realized — admittedly from his nametag — that he was a congressman. After I pointed to a tub of Philadelphia, the man made small talk with me and eventually asked if I wanted to pursue a career in politics. I said yes, but that I didn’t know the path I ought to take to get there. I was pretty awkward at this point and I’m not quite sure why he didn’t leave me to play with his Blackberry.
But I was glad to hear the congressman’s advice. He said I ought to use my twenties to grow as a person before really worrying about my career. I mentioned my study abroad anxiety and he told me to go for it. His advice was not to be concerned about what classes or experiences will be professionally “useful,” but which will make me a balanced human being. In other words, he told me to do everything conventional wisdom said not to. And he did so in a tone perhaps more befitting a maharishi than a politician.
In spite of so many invaluable and quirky experiences this summer, I don’t know if I’ll end up in politics. But I figure the lessons I learned all boil down to wisdom that could be relevant to any career path. Experience as much as possible, don’t get nervous and don’t decide upon a career prematurely.
Matthew Green can be reached at email@example.com.