The city blocks of Washington, DC are chock-full of young professionals from all over the world: people in their early 20's to early 30's, often living alone in claustrophobic studio-apartments, working long hours and part-time jobs, fueled by an inner determination that perhaps some day, they will make the right connections or impress their bosses just enough to rise up the ladder. This is especially the case with people like myself who dream of eventually being enmeshed in the large but cutthroat world of foreign policy -- a tough business to break into if you don't have just the right qualifications on your resume, or find yourself in an environment where only a few jobs are up for the taking.
As a 26-year old who has lived off and on in Washington for the past two years, doing freelance consulting to pay the rent, I know the game well. Many of my friends and colleagues are dealing with precisely this same situation: fresh out of graduate school, weighed down by college debt, but unable to find a consistent, good-paying, or highly rewarding job in the industry that was a prime focus of your education. Times can get hard, and truth be told, there are some days where I indeed question whether all the investment and schooling was worth it.
Eventually, I come to the same answer: yes, it was worth it. But sometimes, it takes longer to get to that answer.
With that preface, I pose this question: is there anyone currently in government or formerly a member of the government clan that young professionals can look for inspiration when a sense of doom creeps into the sub-conscience? Someone who has demonstrated that they too, have gone through what many in our age bracket are going through right now? Someone who, at one point in their life, found him or herself at a crossroads, but managed to choose the right path and succeed in doing it?
The answer, naturally, depends on a number of factors, like which field or industry one would like to become a part of (and increasingly in Washington, what one's politics are). For me, the individual that best fits these criteria is Ben Rhodes, formerly President Barack Obama's chief foreign policy speechwriter before being promoted to Deputy National Security Adviser in Obama's second term.
In his early 20's, Rhodes wanted to become a part of the publishing world in his native New York City -- a bastion of the literary industry and a place where aspiring writers and novelists like to call home. On the side, he dabbled in politics by working on Rudy Giuliani's 1997 re-election campaign, where he quickly earned the respect of his superiors (Giuliani's spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel, called Rhodes "brilliant" in a 2010 Washington Post profile). Yet at this time in his life, and later when he was pursuing an MFA in creative writing at New York University, he still wanted to be a fiction writer, not a politico working in the underbellies of New York City (let alone Washington) politics.
All of this, of course, changed over the next few years. Long story short: Rhodes ventured deeper into politics and grew comfortable in writing and talking about foreign policy. Before winning a spot on Obama's 2007-2008 presidential campaign, he worked for longtime Congressman Lee Hamilton, a foreign policy "wise-man" in Democratic circles who would later co-chair the 9/11 Commission Report and the Iraq Study Group (two commissions that Rhodes was also a part of as a staff member). Hamilton passed Rhodes along to Obama, where after working tenaciously for his election in 2007-2008, the soon-to-be-president gave Rhodes the coveted spot of chief foreign policy speechwriter.
The point here is not to focus on Rhodes' accomplishments too much, but rather to highlight his career track from someone who, just a decade earlier, was in his 20's still trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life, to the present day -- where he is now an influential voice in the Obama presidency.
Rhodes is not the only person in Washington who has experienced this transition: George W. Bush, before becoming America's 43rd President in January 2001, spent decades in Texas caught between his flaring independent streak and a desire to keep up with his father's many accomplishments. Washington is full of people who, at a younger age, questioned whether they could make a dent in the world. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and First Lady-turned Senator-turned-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fit the bill as well (both started out on the bottom of the totem poll as a young CIA Soviet analyst and Jimmy Carter campaign worker, respectively). If Rhodes, Bush, Gates, and Hillary Clinton were all able to move up the ladder through hard work and persistence -- in the cases of Rhodes, Gates, and Clinton, at a young age in the world of government and politics -- it is not inconceivable that it will happen again sometime soon.
Stories like these can truly help early professionals in Washington keep their confidence level up when the doomsday clouds start appearing. They have certainly helped me.