Last year, I was one of several consultants who treated staff of a campaign we worked on to a nice dinner after a day-long strategy session. This is one of my favorite things about owning a firm that works on races across the country, as I remember how special these moments were to me as a campaign staffer.
As dessert was served, one of my fellow consultants looked at me across the table and asked, “Where did you come from?”
From his vantage point, my firm and I showed up and commanded a seat at the table seemingly out of nowhere, an overnight success.
Americans love overnight success. We believe this myth like we believe George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. That’s why shows like American Idol and The Voice are so popular year after year. But the truth is much less glamorous than the fantasy.
There are two kinds of overnight success in the political industry. You’re either a “Child Prodigy” or an “Iceberg.”
If you are a true Child Prodigy, you can stop reading this article because you don’t need it. You either hit the jackpot as the winning manager on a targeted race at 22, or you invented the next breakout political technology. Your challenge will be to turn your initial momentum into a lasting career or business.
The vast majority of successful people in our industry are Icebergs. Here’s why: only 2 percent of an iceberg is visible above the water. The years of hard work and struggle that lead to success will be invisible to outsiders. But as we know from the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, it’s what’s below the surface that makes you formidable.
I’m an Iceberg. If you’re willing to do what it takes, you can be too. Here’s how:
Make your big mistakes on a small scale.
At the start of your political career, you’ll make a lot of mistakes. So start small.
While the allure of working on a presidential campaign is strong, you’ll learn a lot more on a smaller race, where you’re a critical part of the team rather than a tiny cog in the bureaucracy.
Working outside the glare of the national media, you’ll have a chance to learn and it’s a lot easier to recover from your mistakes. Trust me, there will be a lot of them.
For example, when I left my safe job at a state party to start my original fundraising business, the only campaigns that would hire me were state reps who couldn’t afford a full-time finance director.
One candidate hired me to organize a fundraiser in all 33 towns of his rural Iowa district. He secured a congressman to attend one of these events in a town where he had no existing donors and a population of just 991 people. When I suggested we go back to one of the larger towns where he had an existing base of donors, he refused.
Unsure of my own instincts, I relented and hit the phones. On the first call, I discovered our event was scheduled during the Iowa vs. Iowa State football game. (Iowa’s Super Bowl.) So I called the candidate to suggest we reschedule. He said it would be fine. Go ahead and send the invitations.
I needed the money that came with this job. So I agreed. The invitations were mailed. No RSVPs came in. I called everyone who received an invitation. Still no one. I urged the candidate to reschedule. He was absolutely certain people would turn out.
Well, I’m sure you can guess what happened! Zero dollars were raised and zero people attended.
Make your mistakes on a small scale, so you’ve learned your lessons while no one is watching. This includes negotiating contracts, making sure your clients pay you, hiring and firing mistakes, and just plain old leadership skills.
Go deep rather than wide.
In the beginning, it’ll be tempting to do a little bit of everything. I’ve seen dozens of business cards for new consultants offering everything from website design to fundraising to speechwriting.
Learn how to do one thing really well. Be the number one expert in your circle, no matter how small that circle may be. When you’re good enough, you’ll start getting referrals. So your mastery will become known to a wider audience, with new clients and opportunities arriving at the right time when you’re ready.
If you don’t have the perseverance to truly master one skill – whether it’s grassroots organizing or comms or writing killer fundraising copy – you likely don’t have what it takes to be successful in this business for the next two to three decades. Be willing to learn, because what you know today may not be what’s needed in the future. (Trust me, I was the office expert on Blast Faxing at one point.)
Let your friends pass you by.
I’ll admit, this one hurts.
My career got off to a fast start. Two stints as finance director on congressional races. Two years as finance director at the state party. When I started my company at age 24, I assumed success would come quickly and without much sacrifice, when the full weight of entrepreneurship hit me like a freight train.
Each election cycle, I’d meet a new group of campaign operatives. At first, they would look up to me as an experienced professional. By our second cycle, they were more like peers. And by the third election cycle, those operatives were my boss as they became campaign managers and hired my firm.
The temptation to drop your long-term vision for short-term gratification is overwhelming, which is why most people quit.
A life in politics is like a pyramid. A lot of people start at the bottom. Few make it to the top.
The ones who make it are like an iceberg. What you see on the surface may appear glamorous. But underneath nearly every one of the “overnight” success stories is years of hard work, sacrifice, and uncommon commitment in the face of adversity.
Nicole Schlinger is the founder and president of CampaignHQ. Since 1999, CampaignHQ has delivered millions of effective P2P text messages, voter ID, persuasion, advocacy, patch through, and GOTV calls for winning campaigns and conservative organizations.