5 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned While Working at the Highest Levels of Government

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9 mins read

The following is adapted from Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town by Jamie Brown Hantman (Federal Hall Publishing).

My career in government service has led me from the Department of Justice to the White House. It’s also taken me from Capitol Hill to K Street. I’m no stranger to the Senate floor, where everything gets hashed out publicly, or to the cloakrooms where some things get hashed out a little more privately. I’ve dined with Presidents, represented our country in the capitals of Europe, and attended Hollywood movie premieres.

My journey to D.C.’s inner chambers had a humble beginning, and I’ve had a lot to learn at every step of the way. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and celebrated many successes, and through it all, I’ve learned some valuable life lessons. I assure you that they will work for you too, even if you aren’t in the professional world of politics. 

1. Face Your Fear

When I was in college, I took a trip to Washington, D.C., and I set my sights on a goal: I was going to find Connie Mack, a newly elected Republican Senator, and make an impression. Through some sleuthing, I found him at a crowded reception, walked up and put out my hand. I managed to eke out the words, “Senator, congratulations. I’m Jamie Brown and I’m putting in an application to intern for you this summer. I hope to be able to work for you.” He replied with some general words of appreciation, though it was hard to hear him with my heart beating so quickly. 

In hindsight, I realized that my exchange with the Senator likely had absolutely nothing to do with me landing an internship with him that summer, but at that moment I felt proud and relieved that I had been able to do what I thought it would take to land it. Facing one scary task gives you the confidence to do that next, even scarier thing. It’s an unavoidable part of the path to fulfilling your full potential.

2. Have a Growth Mindset

When I started my job as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General, there was a steep learning curve. Suddenly, I was dealing with situations and people I had never had to deal with before, and it was all coming at me really fast. 

I most definitely had a lot to learn, but that felt like a challenge, not a problem. Early on, my buddy Eric Fox told me you should never take a job you already know how to do on day one. You should do something that scares you a little bit. It’s the only way to move up the ladder (if that’s your thing) and reach your potential (which should be everybody’s thing). Nowadays it’s called having a growth mindset, but it was smart advice even way back before it had its own hashtag.

3. If Your Lips Are Moving, It Should Matter

Right after I was promoted to Acting Assistant Attorney General, I was whisked away on a big Dash 8 plane with the rest of the Department of Justice leadership for an annual retreat. Sounds like a great low-key way to get used to my new role, right? Nope. I was one of the few selected to give a presentation to some of the top leaders in our country. 

I realized that I needed to come up with a presentation that was uniquely me and hopefully interesting and thoughtful to stay with them afterward. I landed on a framework that would be fun, different, and most importantly, me. In a nutshell, my tone was more Legally Blonde than Zero Dark Thirty.  Recently I ran into someone who was in that room, and he mentioned how entertaining it was. 

Every time you give a speech, strive to be interesting and authentic. Never just go through the motions. Each speech is an opportunity. If your lips are moving, you should be thinking about whether what you’re saying rings true to you and if it’s adding value to the people who can hear you.

4. Sometimes You’ll Lose, but You Should Still Be Ready for Whatever’s Next

When the Secretary of Homeland Security resigned, I was responsible for the Senate confirmation of his replacement. From the minute the nominee, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, was announced, things did not proceed in a normal way.  With each passing day more stories of his tricky personal life and questionable professional entanglements were coming out. At a certain point, enough was enough. The nomination was ultimately withdrawn and Kerik even ended up serving time in prison because he lied during his vetting process.  

Sometimes you just aren’t going to win no matter how good you are at your job.

Still, duty is duty, and you never know when something big will happen to change how you spend your days. So keep going and keep your “go bag” ready for when that call comes. 

5. Keep a Level Head, and Know Who Your Real Friends Are

I loved my time as a White House staffer, but of course, all good things must come to an end. Everyone warns you about the transition out of the White House. One day your Blackberry is buzzing with people wanting things from you. Then you leave the White House and it all goes away.

People whose self-worth is wrapped up in their White House title have a hard time with this. That’s why it’s important not to let it happen. You have to always remember that your power is not yours, it belongs to the institution and the President you serve. And never abandon the real friends you had before you went to work at the White House. 

It sounds so cynical to lay it out this way, but it’s better to be clear about what’s going on from the get-go. Then you can enjoy it for what it’s worth while it’s happening and you won’t end up disappointed when it’s over. 

A Positive Outlook Is Its Own Form of Success

All in all, if you keep your eyes focused, your mind open, and your feet grounded, you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Every speech, project, and relationship is a chance for growth, and it’s an opportunity to have a positive impact on the people around you. There will be highs and lows, but if you follow this advice, you will be proud of every step of your journey—and so will everyone who cheered you on along the way. 

For more life lessons from a career spent in government, you can find Heels in the Arena at your local bookseller.


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JAMIE BROWN HANTMAN has worked at the highest levels of government, including service at the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice. She spearheaded legislative strategy for the confirmations of two U.S. Supreme Court Justices and ran Legislative Affairs for the Department of Justice shortly after 9/11, working with a dream team of legal superstars, including Robert Mueller and Ted Olson. She spent time on Capitol Hill and K Street, including as an early DC hire for Google. In 2008, Politico named her one of “50 Politicos to Watch.” Follow Jamie on Instagram @jamiehantman or her website, www.jamiehantman.com.

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