One thing I've learned from government is that everyone loves to talk about what they've learned. What worked, what didn't, what went really well, what NEVER to do again, etc. They love to host little meetings on this subject after something wraps up. Meetings turn into PowerPoints, which manifest into papers and files and memos and notes and emails... Seeing as it's the last week of my internship and the days are quickly winding down, I've decided to borrow from the State Department's model and try my own "Lessons Learned" (but with more gifs). I'm not going to give out any huge knowledge dumps or "life hacks," only a couple pointers that I wish I'd known when I started. Take it or leave it.
For future State interns ("INTERN!"):
1. Go talk to people. People at State love talking about their lives and career experiences, but not in the self-important way that most DC people do (well, sometimes). It’s because there’s this sense of “we’re all the same boat,” especially with the Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). And maybe that’s just the culture of my bureau, but I get the feeling it’s pretty widespread.
(That being said, be mindful of your colleagues' time. They’re solving the world’s problems, so they’re a little busy
2. Find the Foggy Bottom in your first week. There’s a post office, dry cleaner’s, frozen yogurt, and a Starbucks. There’s even a small shop that sells notebooks, postcards, and anything else they can stick the State Department emblem on. It’s your one-stop shop. (Hint: it's below the cafeteria.) While you're at it, get an understanding of how to navigate HST (Main State). That being said, if you have a meeting in HST, give yourself about 15 minutes to get utterly, hopelessly lost.
3. Write down everything from orientation, and keep those notes. Focus on dates and things you'll have to do, because trust me, it adds up fast. A lot of it pertains to your last day (how to deactivate your accounts, etc.) and you'll suddenly be very grateful you made that nonsensical scribble in the margins.
4. Get to the point. To be more blunt, nobody has time for you to "um" and "uhh" and "so-it-started-when" your way through a sentence. Spit it out.
5. Write down acronyms you don’t know, then ask about them later. It’ll make your life so much easier.
6. Expect to have your writing...edited. I had two years of professors and Hinckley staff telling me what a great writer I am, so when someone asked me to summarize a wealth of documents and data into a simple briefing point, I figured it would be a breeze. Needless to say, I was pretty aghast when I received a copy of the final briefing point—sliced, diced, and paired down so much that it was barely recognizable as mine. That’s because I'd had exactly zero experience writing, well, a military-style bullet point for a State Department email briefing. That’s not something they teach you in the Forum Series class, because it’s not something they CAN teach you. Just take notes of the (many, many) corrections, and keep trying. You’ll get it eventually.
7. For god's sake, don’t write down your password. If you have to keep it somewhere (SAFE) for a couple days until you have it memorized, fine, but DO NOT KEEP IT BY YOUR DESK. I know it’s 12 nonsensical characters and numbers and symbols. I know you only had about 5 seconds to come up with it off the top of your head. I know you have about ten different passwords to remember like this one. It doesn’t matter—don’t write it down. Diplomatic security WILL find it, you WILL get a security violation, and that WILL be noted every time you apply for a clearance from here on out. They tell you this CONSTANTLY, yet it happens all the time. I saw it happen last week. Just don’t do it.
8. Volunteer for one big conference, but no more. It’ll be an amazing experience where you’ll have the chance to both see how big events at State are managed, and (probably) peek in on some of the world’s most important discussions. However, they are time consuming, and you don’t want to leave your team hanging.
9. Where to get your morning jitter juice: If you need a place to sit down, go to the Starbucks right inside the GW Hospital building off the Foggy Bottom metro—there's always a seat, and they have huge windows. Second best bet is the one near the American Foreign Service Association, at 20th and E; there's usually a small table. If you need a caffeine fix FAST, Starbucks at H and 21 is usually on their game. If you're from Boston, don't worry, there's a Dunkin' Donuts near the Red Cross building. Too mainstream for you? I highly recommend Casey's Coffee, tucked inside Columbia Plaza, somewhere off Virginia Ave and 23rd NW.
Some Other Stuff...
1. There are a lot of very smart people in DC, and you’re not going to impress them by acting like you know everything. Don’t even try to pretend.
2. Take advantage of being an intern. Knock on random doors. Go to events. Wander around random parts of the building where you would normally have no business being (but don’t break any security procedures). Ask questions, take notes, and take names. Be interested, be alert, pay attention. You’ll only be able to paint on that perky, oblivious smile and use the “I’m just the intern” excuse for so long. And yes, it’s intimidating to walk up to the 30-year veteran FSO who's best friends with ambassadors, but you need to do it anyway. I wish I’d started doing it earlier, and if there’s one piece of advice I could hammer home, it would be this. “Intern” screams “I want to learn!”, and people want to teach you things. It’s as simple as that.
3. Carry around business cards—with your WORK email and phone number written on them. The Hinckley is wonderful enough to provide its interns with business cards (albeit unabashed advertising). While having a card to dole out is imperative, having your personal contact information on it is a little weird. Write down both so you can be reached at work as well as after you leave your internship.
4. Take. Good. Notes. You have access to a wealth of knowledge. You will probably not have access to this wealth of knowledge when you leave, or at least not to the degree you do now. Write down everything you can and save it for later.
5. Invest in a good thermos. One that won’t spill on your Metro commute, is easy to wash and to carry, and keeps your coffee warm for hours. (Don’t drink coffee? Start drinking something else, because you will—more often than not—be asked to go get coffee with a superior, and you’d be a fool to say no.)
6. Never whine about your internship/work, even to other interns. You can discuss your grievances, sure, but keep it professional. If it really bothers you, bring it up your supervisor. Complaining will bleed negativity through into your work, and they will notice. Without fail, I have seen negativity get people fired or demoted with every single job I’ve ever held. Every single one. And I'm pretty sure it goes without saying that people who claim to hate their jobs don't get offered better ones (or get good references).
7. Go with your gut. No one knows you and what you want out of your life as well as you do. Screw the cookie-cutter mold that says you have to do finish your undergrad (at an expensive private college) with a 3.999 GPA and ten million awards, have a super-fantastic-awesome study abroad, go to one of exactly three prestigious DC colleges for your Masters, and take the FSO test or run for Congress the second you toss your cap into the air. Who wants that?! Not the government, that's for sure, and most other places don't either. I mean, if you want to work for a place that only hires out of 3 schools in the country, go for it. Power to you. If not, don't. Go work other jobs. Try other things. Pay off some of your loans. We all know you could barely decide which pants leg to put on first this morning—don't try to decide what you're doing with your life at 20-something, only to be filled with dread and regret at age 45 (or 35). Take the job you KNOW will be good for you, not the one someone who doesn't know a damn thing about you says you should take.
Okay, so that last one got a little ramble-y, but I've seen so many people make this mistake. I can't stress it enough—YOU know what the right decision for you is, not some internship coordinator who has hundreds of applications to manage. At the end of the day, people want to hire someone who did what they knew was best and made it work, rather than let someone else talk them into something. Those people won't last; conviction will. Most people are smarter than they think you are (and the people who think they're really smart, well...)
Wow, this is probably one of my last couple posts. I'm not sure when the Hinckley is finally going to kick me off this thing, but I really enjoyed doing this blog. So much so, in fact, that I may continue it independent of the Hinckley (even though I'm fairly sure only about 3 people read it, 1 of whom is my mother). Maybe I'll try it out for the summer and see how it goes. For those of you who don't know, I'm taking one last big climbing trip as a celebration of what will probably by my last summer of youthful innocence and freedom, Kerouac-style (minus the hitchhiking and bodacious women, probably). I'll be traveling with friends to climb in Kentucky, West Virginia, New Hampshire, North Carolina (surfing), Colorado, and Wyoming.
No matter what happens, though, stay strong, stay passionate, and stay just a little bit idealistic. We might just have a shot at this whole life thing if you do.