How to get ahead in suck-up city
Brown-nosing is for losers, and other career advice from a Washington curmudgeon

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  • Title:

    The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life
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Article Highlights

  • How do you with a straight face give career advice like "don't suck up" to someone working on the Hill? #cantdoit

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  • Some people will tell you that sucking up and networking are not merely the best ways to get ahead in DC, but the only ways

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  • Political Washington is of a flock of ducks, visibly consisting of glistening feathers and preening heads, while beneath the surface a lot of furious paddling is going on

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I just published a book called “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead” for people making the transition from college to the real world. It consists of tips that I originally wrote for the interns and research assistants at the American Enterprise Institute, where I work. But let’s face it: Some of my advice doesn’t seem to apply if you’re in the political part of Washington.

I’m thinking especially of tip No. 1, “Don’t suck up.” How can I say that with a straight face to someone working on the Hill? There’s a reason Mark Leibovich called Washington “Suck-Up City” in This Town. Sucking up is part of a politician’s job description. Some people will tell you that sucking up and networking are not just the best ways to get ahead in This Town, but the only ways.

But if you’re a newcomer to Capitol Hill, be careful. I realize that everybody is telling you it’s not what you know but who you know. Your coworkers are trading stories about deals struck and principles compromised in pursuit of reelection; about character assassination and back-stabbing. You’re in an environment that would make a cynic out of Pollyanna. But, given where you are in the food chain (at the bottom), your job performance is probably judged pretty much as it is in normal America.

Here’s the reality: Political Washington is of a flock of ducks, visibly consisting of glistening feathers and preening heads, while beneath the surface there’s a lot of furious paddling going on. The older people supervising the paddling are as likely to be closeted curmudgeons as bosses anywhere. So be aware some of the things that might make them write you off.

Bosses in political Washington, like curmudgeons elsewhere, tend to think that people who use “like” every fourth word sound as if they have double-digit IQs and an emotional age of 16.

They probably are not going to be charmed if you call them by their first name when you’re introduced. They may quickly tell you to do so (often without any inner enthusiasm), but let them issue the invitation.

Many (not all, but many) haven’t gotten used to the idea that the F-word is just a mild interjection. They hear it a lot and don’t complain (like closeted curmudgeons everywhere, they’re scared to death of being seen as geezers), but deep down they think it casts a coat of grime over a conversation.

Many of them inwardly sigh when you prattle on about “reaching out” when all you are really doing is getting in touch with somebody, or about are “sharing” when you are actually just telling someone something. A few of them, upon hearing you use “disinterested” to mean “uninterested,” want to fire you on the spot.

If you have visible tattoos or piercings, let’s put it this way: If a curmudgeon hired you, it was probably because your parents have enormous pull with whatever senator or representative your boss works for. Curmudgeons don’t hire the tattooed or pierced unless they absolutely must. And don’t even think about trying to educate a curmudgeon. You can’t make them believe that tattoos are now an art form. All they can think about is how the tattoo is going to look when the bearer turns 60. While I’m at it: Green or red hair isn’t a good idea either.

If there’s no dress code at your office, don’t model yourself on the way your age contemporaries dress. Until you are sure you understand what the expectations are, follow the lead of senior people of your gender regarding dress, and supplement those choices with good grooming: hair not still straggly damp from the shower, shirt-tail tucked in, underwear hidden—that sort of thing.

If you really want to stand out from the crowd and make a curmudgeon fall in love with you, sucking up and networking won’t do it. What will? You’ll probably think I’m a starry-eyed idealist, but listen up: Contrary to the way it may look to you from the bottom, bosses don’t have a wide selection of wonderful potential employees. Good help is hard to find. Really hard to find. Sure, there are lots of people with the right degrees and résumés, but the kind of employee curmudgeons yearn for sticks out almost immediately.

If you are that person, the sure-fire way to identify yourself is by working long hours. I don’t mean that you cheerfully say “yes” when your boss asks you to work late. You don’t lose points by doing so (whereas saying “no” amounts to self-immolation), but what we curmudgeons treasure are employees who figure out for themselves that the task of the moment requires extra effort to complete, stay as long as necessary without having to be asked, and don’t complain about not having a life. If you’re young, single and ambitious, what’s the point of “a life” anyway?

Working hard will get you noticed, assuming you are also competent. Here’s the secret you should remember whenever you hear someone lamenting how tough it is to get ahead: Hardly anyone works nearly as hard as he or she could. The few who do have it made.

Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author most recently of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

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