Cultivate Zen-like serenity.
At the end of the day, there's a strong element of randomness and serendipity to the whole process. Did the right job open up at a time when you happen to be available? Did you manage to befriend the right people at the right time? Did you -- whoops -- annoy the wrong people at the wrong time? (If you did, urges a former Senate-confirmed appointee, "Don't apologize: once it starts it never ends.")
So don't overthink it, and don't structure your whole life around the hope of getting a job. All you can do is let people know you're out there...and then get back to doing good work in whatever position you're already in. "Consider what kind of infrastructure...you want the eight Obama years to have created for the country," urges Heather Hurlburt, who worked both at the State Department and the White House during the Clinton administration. "Then get started creating it outside, while you wait to see whether you can work your way inside."
Anyway, maybe you don't even want that administration job. Plenty of political appointees end up doing little but busywork. "There are way way too many people running around in the WH who think they are important because they have a White House badge," comments a former official. Many of them have little real responsibility and less clout.
Even those who obtain senior positions often end up frustrated. When I asked my sources what they know now that they wish they'd know four years ago, the responses were sobering:
- "[I wish I'd known] that Obama was more talk than action. [And] that Congress was totally dysfunctional and uninterested in making public policy."
- "[This is] not a family-friendly administration; [you] must run everything through the White House; departing from White House talking points/message, even if inadvertently, means being yelled at and your institution being viewed as uncooperative."
- No one's going to thank you for your hard work. On the contrary: "People who put signs on lawns in Ohio will intone moralistically about whether you're deserving of ‘serving this president.'"
- Nepotistic hiring leads to "increasingly poor performance, groupthink, lack of knowledge and expertise, and the most pernicious of all government diseases, which is telling the boss what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear. The agencies are becoming demoralized."
- "Given the state of our finances and know-nothing Congress, the next four [years] will probably be less fun than you think."
All that said, I consider the three-and-a-half years I spent in government (first at State during the Clinton administration, then at DOD from 2009 to 2011) among the most rewarding years of my professional career. The pay was poor, the hours were long, and the frustrations were numerous -- but I worked with (mostly) great people, learned an immense amount, and was able to take on meaningful, interesting challenges. When I left, I felt like I'd helped make the world a tiny bit better.
So if you're trying to find an administration job, don't give up. Just remember: Your mileage may vary.
Do you have additional tips or experiences to share? Send them my way; if I get enough responses I will publish a follow-up blog post.