Did I ever tell you how I got to DC?
I really, REALLY wanted to be in DC after law school. I knew in my heart, the way I always seem to know things in my heart, that DC was the place for me. It was young, vibrant, intellectual, driven, and home to the newly elected President upon whom so many hopes and dreams of my generation rested. Part of it was that the West Wing literally got me through law school, on heavy rotation in the background of three years of back-breaking study. Part of it was a the calling to civil service, a product of an inborn patriotism and a desire to make a real difference in the country. And part of it was that I needed to live in a city, a truly big city with traffic and noise and difficulty, to prove that I could.
So despite having a clerkship lined up, I sat for the Presidental Management Fellowship exam, without fully understanding what it was. My career services counselor told me it would get me to DC, so I took the test. And suddenly, a first for my school, I was a Presidential Management Fellow, or PMF as an acronym, which the government would prefer you use at all times. PMFs, I would learn, are part of an “elite” cadre of graduate students who are recruited, via standardized testing, to join the ranks of the federal government straight out of school. For two years, in exchange for your aptitude, your energy, your new ideas, you are promised an opportunity to rapidly climb the later at your chosen agency, go on exciting details and extended rotations to other agencies, and basically write your own ticket in the federal government upon finishing the program. PMFs, I was told by those in the know, really stood for Prestigious Mother-Fucker. It seemed that after months of praying to somehow get to DC, I had won the life lottery, and my prize was a job-unicorn.
As I’d done twice before, I packed up all my things (well, to be fair, my friend Amber packed up all my things) and moved across country, ready to start my new life, my new job, my new everything. I was a PMF, dammit, and shit was going to start happening. I had ideas, and youth, and vitality, and the government, that monolith, wanted it all.
I won’t bore you with the details of how it all started to unravel. How I didn’t realize for a month that the reason I didn’t understand anything was that no one understood the jargon, they just repeated it. How I was told that my promised, exciting rotations would be internal to the agency. How the only use I got out of my law degree was trying to help my coworkers defend our right to an external rotation based on the PMF guidelines. How once we had convinced them that the law had an actual meaning, I had to claw tooth and nail to get a rotation that almost ended up derailing my entire tenure with the government because the agency HR rep responsible for affirming my PMF completion didn’t understand the difference between the branches of government. I won’t tell you about the casual sexism, the busy work, or the way I was constantly told to pay my dues and follow the status quo, despite being hired to do exactly the opposite. I could tell you many things, but they would sound better over drinks.
In hindsight, I should have known better. The PMF Orientation that year was held at the sight of the Battle of Gettysburg, in a hotel that had no internet for the 300 government employees that needed to check their Blackberries constantly throughout the 4-day training just to justify leaving the office. We were sent to Gettysburg, in December, to reinact Pickett’s Charge, as an exercise in transformational leadership. To do this, they made us run a mile, up hill, in sleet. When it was suggested that maybe, as professionals, we not run outside in sideways freezing rain, we were informed that we were being called to rise above the weather, just as Pickett’s men had done. Nevermind that Pickett’s charge happened in the scorching hot sun of July. Nevermind that they were fighting for slavery. Nevermind that Pickett’s charge was one of the most spectacular military failures of all time.
I suppose it did the trick; if I ever find myself in the position of a Confederate General, I’ll have the leadership skills required to lose a war.
During the farewell dinner, the guest speaker, who, being smarter than us, had simply taped an address, said that she hoped we could all feel the President deep inside us. The only redeeming thing about this hotel were the $2 Yuenglings, so we all found this deeply, deeply funny, in the midst of our drunken, wet, despair. Because what this introductory experience had told us was that we were sold a bill of goods. These people didn’t know what they were doing, and they certainly didn’t know how to motivate or support us. They didn’t want our ideas, they didn’t want our energy, they didn’t want our aptitude. Perhaps the lesson was that we, like Pickett, needed to rise above the external challenges put before us. But we, like Pickett, were doomed to failure.
Today was my PMF graduation, and at it the keynote speaker spoke of patience. That we could change the government, but we couldn’t do it over night. We couldn’t do it in 2 years. Maybe we couldn’t even do it in 20, like he’d been able to do. He spoke with great skill of how the government needs our energy, our youth, our enthusiasm. All the things we had heard years before. He didn’t speak of how that same bureaucracy worked from day one of our fellowships to beat that out of us. It is a cruel thing to siphon people away from other things, from non-profits and NGOs and even the private sector, where maybe their talents and tenacity would be appreciated and used, with the promise that this would be just as good or better. Patience is a virtue, but I have been patient. I have paid my dues. I have fought for myself and for my fellows. All I want to do is to do good work, and it is the thing that has been the least wanted from me.
So what’s the point of this story, other than me just kvetching that my dream job wasn’t so dreamy? It’s this: I was sitting in a room today with 100 of this country’s best and brightest, and every one of us was pissed off about how things had gone down. That sort of discontentment does not bode well. And I know this isn’t just the government. I’ve heard my friends from all sectors complain of the same things. There’s too much disillusionment and disappointment out there in this generation, and even more in the one after it. There has to be a better way. I would like to find a better way, and I would like to find it together. What do you say? Will you join me beyond the jargon, beyond the business cases, beyond the motivational speakers and trust falls? What could work be, if work were better?