On Not Being a Shark

This post was originally published on July 25, 2015 on my now-defunct Wordpress.

About six weeks ago, I went to Yale to complete an intensive, nonpartisan campaign training program. It was equally fun and grueling. I came home the following Saturday and slept for nearly eighteen hours with very little interruption–crawling out of bed only to eat tacos with my roommates.

So when I say “grueling,” I mean “grueling.” Our schedules spanned from 8 am – 8 pm most nights, with few breaks in between, and we were expected to completed homework in the evenings. Our class of 75 or so women was divided into six groups for a campaign case study–a chance to apply everything we had learned during the day to a real life campaign (Feingold v. Johnson, for those who are interested). Each night after finishing the day’s lectures, receptions, etc., our team met in a conference room in our hotel and worked on that day’s “homework” for a few hours before climbing into bed around midnight.

Despite the jam-packed schedule, it really did feel like adult summer camp. At one point, one of my teammates and I were sitting in a hallway at 11 pm, working on some fake attack ads for our campaign case study. The ads we made were as cheesy as they were scathing, and we were basically laughing our asses off between takes. It reminded me of staying up late with my bunk mates at summer camp in Indiana and rehearsing skits for the talent show. It was fun, goofy, sweet… I had my own professional and political reasons for coming to the school, but I hadn’t really considered all the potential for fun.

In talking with other participants who were assigned to different teams, it seems as though my experience was rare. On other teams, competition ruled the day. On the last day of the campaign school, each group was expected to present their campaign plan. There was some talk of “winning” presentation day–like the group with the most in depth, professional campaign plan would get some kind of extra accolade for their achievement. Our group pretty quickly put that notion out of our minds. I’ll speak for myself, but it seemed that most of us knew that any “win” would be of symbolic nature only, and we were all too tired and punchy to be at the top of our games anyway.

I think in politics, there’s this idea that you have to be a shark to get anywhere–that to succeed, you have to have this “take no prisoners” attitude. I saw it at the campaign school. I’ve seen with the interns I work with, with some of the younger people I rub shoulders with at events. And yes, it’s true that you have to be direct and sharp and confident and thick-skinned at times. But do you really have to be a shark? No. Not at all. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that the people who try to be power players always end up looking like morons.

How do you get ahead in politics, then? Make it about the people you’re supporting–your candidate, your boss, your constituents, etc. Be as helpful as possible. Be mindful about the ways in which you present new ideas, problems, solutions. Be funny, charming, likable, energetic. And don’t get so caught up in sniffing out the blood in the water that you forget how fun it can be to be part of a team, working to shape the world and make history.

So at the end of the week, no one even “won” the case study assignment. I think any mention of competition was a ruse to get us to take it seriously. But when I think about the warm, funny, congratulatory emails exchanged between my teammates after our presentation, I can’t help but feel that our team–our sharkless team–was the real winner that week.