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Ambition: A Culture of Professional Ladder Climbing

I had been in Washington, DC for a little over a month when I had caught the DC federal bug that everyone warns you not to catch. The opportunities are boundless in this city. I walk down the crowded streets bumping into person after person not realizing that I could be bumping into the chief of staff of a senator or the president of a non-profit. Everyone here knows somebody. It seems that everyone here is somebody.

With this idea in mind—that everyone here is somebody important, a culture that demands one’s constant attention to connections arises. Whether it is looking to receive the next business card, shake someone’s hand, or add another individual on LinkedIn to hit the 500+ connections (a goal that I am currently trying to achieve), the self-promotion culture creates a lack of intentionality. It diminishes the importance of hearing stories and disturbs the process of building genuine and intimate relationships.

There is no one person to blame for the creation of this harmful culture. I am a product of it. I am a beneficiary of it. I am a contributor to it.

During my time here in DC, I was lucky enough to be accepted into the American Studies Program—a semester long program that gives students the opportunity to have a substantive internship experience in the nation’s capital, along with intense conversations in the classroom about the intersection of Christian theology and political vocations. I spend the majority of my time at my internship, but Monday’s and Friday’s consist of class time. Before I started my internship at the American Enterprise Institute, the American Studies Program organized a two-week orientation that included how to ride the metro, how to go up and down escalators, how to handle panhandlers, and of course, how to network.

Our instructors taught us the importance of networking—how these connections will bring you back to DC, or this person might be your next boss. Our instructors also taught us how to set goals at networking events, to get out of our comfort zone, and to receive the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden ticket—a business card.

Looking back on the networking orientation, I don’t think we covered the importance of being intentional and actually listening to people. I am a prime example of this.

In the first week of my internship with the American Enterprise Institute, I had the privilege of attending their Annual Dinner, a black tie event that is hosted every year to award an individual with the Irving Kristol Award for their exceptional contributions to government policy, social welfare, and political understanding. I knew that this was going to be a remarkable networking opportunity, and I was right. I had never networked before and I was struggling to start a conversation with somebody. Everyone already seemed invested in a conversation. Once I warmed up to this high-class event, I was finally able to start a conversation with someone. I remember thinking in my head, “how do I respond to this person to make her think that I am interesting,” and, “how can I get her to give me the card.” I got the card. I actually got another card that evening as well. I accomplished my goal.

Looking back, I feel bad for the lack of attentiveness I had given those people. I didn’t hear their stories. I didn’t even view them as people; I viewed them as opportunities.

Later in the semester, I had the opportunity to attend AEI’s Values & Capitalism Fall Summit—an event that could have easily turned into another self-promotion driven networking frenzy. The day featured a series of conversations about the role of Christians and the church in politics, the economy, and the arts. The summit ended with a final conversation between James K.A. Smith and Kathy Wills Wright, and at one point the conversation turned to networking. Wright, who at the time was the policy adviser for nominations for Senator Mitch McConnell, spoke about her experience with networking. Wright illustrated how people have to be purposeful when networking because building authentic relationships is what will lead to a job, not receiving someone’s business card.

I received another business card that day. Although I still wanted to receive a business card from that person, the difference was I knew who this person was and I was genuinely interested in what he was doing. I wanted to learn from him, and I want to continue to hear his story.

Washington, DC is a remarkable city with powerful people. Networking is inevitable, and wanting to build connections isn’t a sin. But as you climb the professional ladder, you should remember to remain authentically engaged with the people you are having conversations with. Build relationships and listen to what they have to say, because actually learning someone’s story can turn this hyper-attentive, self-promoting culture into a culture of understanding, appreciation, and connection.

Peyton Smetana is an intern with AEI’s Values & Capitalism Program.